Film Reviews: Wednesday, September 28, 2005
Alan Tudyk, Gina Torres, Jewel Staite, Nathan Fillion, Morena Baccarin, and Sean Maher take in the view from the bridge of ‘Serenity.’
Starring Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin, Morena Baccarin, Sean Maher, Jewel Staite, Summer Glau, and Ron Glass. Written and directed by Joss Whedon, based on his own tv series. Rated PG-13.

The guy behind Buffy turns his second tv project into a winner, Serenity.


Despite a successful Hollywood writing career that included Toy Story, Joss Whedon didn’t really become famous until the late ’90s, after his dissatisfaction with the 1992 film of his script for Buffy the Vampire Slayer inspired him to transfer the story to the small screen five years later, resulting in one of the greatest tv dramas ever. That uncategorizable show ran for seven seasons, but a similar fate wasn’t in the cards for his similarly hard-to-pigeonhole Firefly, which aired for all of 11 episodes in 2002 before being cancelled. So here we have the man who made his name with a failed movie-turned-successful tv show trying to turn his failed tv show into a successful movie, buoyed by the support of Firefly’s die-hard community of fans. Those fans will be glad to find the film version, entitled Serenity, with the entire cast in place, exactly the same as the show: brilliantly funny, well-characterized, poorly paced, terribly uneven, confusing as hell, and quite enjoyable.

For newcomers, the movie takes place in the 26th century on a run-down spaceship called Serenity, which is captained by Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a hard-shelled but soft-centered former soldier from the losing side of a recently concluded interplanetary war for independence. He and his crew of six scrape out a living on outer space’s frontier through smuggling and petty theft, plus the occasional honest job ferrying passengers. Ironically, the trouble for Malcolm’s crew stems from one of the latter: a bright young doctor named Simon (Sean Maher), whom we see in a prologue busting his 17-year-old sister River (Summer Glau) out of a secret government facility that uses torture and enforced brain surgery to turn gifted kids like her into trained assassins with psychic abilities. (That sentence was fun to write.) As Simon hides out on Malcolm’s ship in exchange for offering the crew his medical services, they’re pursued by a nameless operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who’s willing to commit genocide to deliver the semilucid River back into government hands. As if that isn’t enough, the crew also has to fend off attacks from “reavers,” men who’ve gone crazy from too much space travel and turned into rampaging cannibalistic rapist-murderers. (Now, that was fun to write.)

This film’s vision of the future, with its mix of western and science-fiction elements, is appealingly strange — most of the characters wear chaps, speak with a twang, and carry Winchester rifles, but they also work with lasers and warp drives, and they tend to curse in untranslated Chinese. Though the cultural context of this universe isn’t as well-defined as it could be, it gives Serenity a unique texture that points up just how inept most sci-fi movies are at imagining worlds that are wildly different from our own. The dialogue’s smart-ass tone is also welcome, and the supporting characters are extraordinarily well-developed, though the actors don’t have as much to do here as they did on the show: Gina Torres as Malcolm’s poker-faced, ass-kicking second-in-command; Alan Tudyk as her laid-back, sardonic husband who serves as the ship’s pilot; Adam Baldwin as the surly, stupid-smart muscle man; and Jewel Staite as the vessel’s unusually girly mechanic. (Firefly fans be warned: Not all of these characters live to see the end of this adventure.)

The movie inherits the show’s strengths but also its flaws, like gaping holes in the plot. (This is even less excusable in a film — tv programs are often written on the fly.) The transitions between scenes that would work on television are too obvious here. The characters of a geisha who used to work out of Malcolm’s ship (Morena Baccarin) and a preacher who used to ride with him (Ron Glass) are shoehorned into the film when there’s no real reason for them to be here. And, as happened on the show, the attempts to create sexual tension between two sets of partners are perfunctory and rather annoying. The married couple on the ship, conversely, comes off much more realistically.

Seriously overstuffed as this movie is, it offers much to savor. The martial-arts sequences are edited fluidly and seamlessly enough that you can’t tell when you’re watching the actors or their stunt doubles. (Here’s where directing all those episodes of Buffy pays off for Whedon, a first-time movie director.) Ejiofor, the British actor who played a gentle African cabdriver in Dirty Pretty Things and a vicious African-American gangsta in Four Brothers, lands a nice villainous turn as a morbidly smiling ideologue. While the show’s supporting actors get stiffed, the granite-featured Fillion is magnificent as the captain, unafraid of the character’s unheroic side. Malcolm is pissy at times, has no qualms about running away from a fight when he’s overmatched, and his determination to live another day sometimes drives him to unpleasant exigencies, like when he orders his crew at gunpoint to decorate the ship with human corpses to pass undetected through a reaver-controlled area. With his steadfast loyalty to his crew and coolness under fire, he’s a singularly complex action hero. So many Hollywood science-fiction franchises are played out. With its layered characters and distinctive touches, Serenity is good enough to make us welcome a sequel or maybe more.

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