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Reviewed by Matthew Pook, © 2005

Format: Movie
By:   Joss Whedon (writer, director)
Genre:   Science Fiction
Released:   September 30, 2005
Review Date:   September 29, 2005
Audience Rating:   Rated PG-13
RevSF Rating:   9/10 (What Is This?)

Remember a time when you went to the movies and cared about the characters up there on the silver screen? When all the hype and hoopla turned out to be worth it? Back then, when the characters were in peril your hand was in your mouth, you were sure that they just might not make it, and you left the cinema afterwards with the buzz of excitement. For me that time was seeing Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and the Indiana Jones trilogy; but since then movies seem to have got dumber and I have got older and far more cynical. These days, it seems, movies rarely make you care about the characters or deliver much real excitement.

Joss Whedon, in his first movie as both director and writer, delivers on both counts. Serenity puts the thrill back onto the silver screen.

Serenity is the movie that fans of Firefly — the television series that Whedon made after he finished Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel — have been clamouring for since 20th Century Fox cancelled the show after airing just 11 episodes. Having found a home at Universal Pictures, Whedon wrote and directed Serenity as a sequel to the television series, set in the same milieu, with the same characters and cast, and the same ship — Serenity of the title.

In the months leading up to the film’s release, the buzz for Serenity has been high and the word good.

If you managed to miss the whole Firefly brouhaha — not a difficult thing to do, since not every cult show surfaces in the mainstream — it's a western in space, with the feel of America’s frontier following the Civil War. Here the conflict was the Unification War, fought between the Independents of the outer worlds and the central planets of the Alliance Government, as the latter tried to bring the rim colonies under control. In the years since the war, many of the former Independent forces, known as Browncoats, try to make their living by avoiding the Alliance’s reach.

One such is Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), the captain and owner of Serenity, a Firefly-class transport ship. He and his crew move from one job to the next, carrying cargo and passengers and even taking on the occasional piece of criminal work to make ends meet. Amongst Serenity’s passengers are Doctor Simon Tam and his sister, River (Sean Maher and Summer Glau), fugitives from the Alliance after he rescued her from the clutches of a secret government project that was experimenting upon her brain. Naturally, the Alliance wants her back — very badly. Their efforts to recapture River and the reasons why they want her lie at the heart of the film.

For fans of the television series, Serenity is everything they have come to expect and more, all on a bigger budget. From the opening tracking shot that takes the audience on a tour of the ship and introduces the main cast, Firefly fans will be back on familiar territory. But after that the film takes an increasingly dark path, a terrific roller coaster ride to the film’s climax.

Along the way, the dialogue fair sparkles with Whedon’s witty touch, often leavening tense moments with laugh-out-loud humour. The writing also serves the cast well, in particular the assassin pursuing River. The Operative, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is more than sympathetic despite the nature of his job, because he understands both his task’s necessity and its evil nature. His presence emphasises the fact that the 'Verse as depicted in both Firefly and Serenity is anything other than Roddenberry-esque utopia.

For the uninitiated, Serenity may come across at first as just another sci-fi action movie, but this it is not. It is better written, for one thing, and the story has obvious depth. And non-fans won't miss the show's hours of back-story; certainly neither of the Firefly neophytes with me at a preview did.

Non-fans might be confounded by the absence of some elements common to sci-fi — there are no bug-eyed aliens, no blasters. But stunning sequences such as a giant space battle, which is all the more amazing when you realise that the heroes' ship is completely unarmed, leave no time to miss them. In one or two places sci-fi action movie clichés do raise their heads, but even these are well handled, and by the time you reach them you are too enthralled to really worry.

On the down side, in places the film does feel a little rushed, packing a great deal of action into two hours, which weakens the roles of some of the characters. And whilst the opening prologue will answer a question or two for the fans, it is perhaps over too quickly for anyone else.

Still, Serenity is a fine example of that rare breed, the sci-fi action flick that's intelligent and mature, emphasising rounded characterisation and good storytelling. It will wow you with a story that runs the emotional gamut, in turns exciting, gripping, sad, shocking, and funny.

If this is Firefly's swansong, Joss Whedon, I thank you.

But I really hope it is not.

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