Reckon I’d better own up here at the trailhead: I’m a fan of Firefly, the short-lived 2002 Fox TV series on which Serenity is based. If you’re not familiar with the crisp wit and ornery imagination of writer-creator Joss Whedon’s rusty-nail space Western — no aliens, no lightsabers, just human society, barely cohering on the retro-astro fringe — your chances of appreciating this film are markedly lower, though certainly not nil. Likely you’ll feel a pleasant bemusement, akin to watching an excellent foreign film with a deliberately incomplete translation. I’m hardly exaggerating: The characters often lapse into a crisp, quasi-frontiersy patois, peppered with Chinese slang. (Let that settle in your head — it works, honest.)
The first vision of the future to incorporate starships and suspenders, Serenity (helmed by first-time feature director Whedon) embraces its space-Westernness with rich, oaty literalism. The planet-hopping rust bucket of the title is home to a wagon train of untidy, un?Star Trek misfits prowling the ”raggedy edge” of a newly colonized solar system in search of extralegal employment. Their leader, Capt. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), is a chipperly bitter veteran of a vast, interplanetary civil war. (Consider him a 26th-century version of the romantically unreconstructed Reb.) He’s hiding a fugitive psychic, River (Summer Glau), on the run from her Union, er, Alliance handlers. (Fans of Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer will recognize the damaged supergirl with childlike tics and godlike abilities.) River is pursued by a nameless government operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a self-described monster driven by a placid, unshakable belief in the ”better world” he’s helping to nurture. The rest of the crew — a true ensemble on the show — are, sadly, pencil sketches here, casualties of the two-hour running time. But each gets a ”moment” that fans are free to unzip and decompress into a real character arc.
The same goes for the story beats. Serenity, despite its simple chase plot and elegant narrative ductwork, is unmistakably a TV season’s worth of roller-coastering drama, most of it balanced on the capable shoulders of Fillion, a natural leading man. Jaw set but never stiff, he gets both the Whedon wit and the Whedon grandiloquence between cheek and gum, and gives the whole enterprise the heft of a real saga. Which it most certainly is — especially for those who were already saddled up for the ride.