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Serenity (2005)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/30/05 23:51:55

"Could be the start of something big."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Universal Studios wants the "Star Wars" money. Or at least the "Star Trek" money. And who can blame them? Those franchises have been making their owners money for decades, spread across multiple media and company divisions, even when longtime fans were loudly complaining that the last good entry came twenty years earlier. Highly disappointed that "Van Helsing" and "Chronicles of Riddick" did not become juggernauts, their next move was to acquire a property that already had a rabid fanbase that could be mobilized, and thus "Serenity" was (re)born.

That franchise was Firefly, a high-quality but under-watched television series from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that sold a truly impressive number of DVDs for a show cancelled for lack of viewers. The movie picks up some months after the end of the series, quickly recapitulating its setting (500 years in the future, in a solar system with dozens of terraformed planets and moons), backstory (brilliant young doctor Simon Tam broke his sister River out of a top-secret government facility and they join up with cargo ship Serenity's crew of former rebels and thieves), and relationships (young ship's engineer Kaylee is sweet on Simon; captain Malcolm Reynolds and former passenger Inara couldn't get past their disdain for each other's work to act on their attraction). Even before that's out of the way, the story kicks off, with the Alliance sending a new top-secret operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to bring River (Summer Glau) in. Meanwhile, River is growing ever more unstable, predicting an attack by Reavers (think cannibal pirates) and suddenly snapping and wiping the floor with an entire bar full of people before uttering the name "Miranda". From that point forward, the chase is on - both to evade capture, and to learn who or what Miranda is..

There's more than a bit of Han Solo to Nathan Fillion's "Mal" - both are smugglers with no love for the present regime (but no immediate intent to fight it) and penchants for sarcasm who carry torches for women above their station. A one-time soldier on the losing side of a civil war, he's full of bitterness and mistrust; there's plenty of shattered ideals hiding behind his simple, homespun speech. Fillion's task is to make Mal easy to underestimate, even after we've seen him take the hero's role. His accent is somewhere between Irish and Southern, he stumbles in his speech, and isn't physically imposing, so even as the audience learns more about him, we're not certain he'll step up until he is.

Ejiofor, on the other hand, plays a relatively simple man of action, but he's still one of the more convincing examples of his character type - the intelligent man willing to commit atrocities for his cause. He's good in his action scenes, looking trained and focused compared to his opponents, and he radiates a calm professionalism compared to Mal's excitability. Even more impressive is Summer Glau as as River. Her dance training likely helps during the fight scenes, and her face is tremendously expressive, especially when called upon to be frightened or haunted. This is a girl whose brain has been severely traumatized to give her her abilities, and Ms. Glau shows us both her damage and some hints of who and what she used to be

The rest of the cast is... plentiful. Serenity suffers a bit from a syndrome that has plagued the last couple Star Trek series, where a ship requires certain jobs be filled, but filling them all leads to a crowded cast, many of whom wind up underused. The pilot (Alan Tudyk), first officer (Gina Torres), doctor (Sean Maher), engineer (Jewel Staite) and weapons guy (Adam Baldwin) are very much support staff, only intermittently important because of how they relate to Mal and River as opposed to what work they can do. Certainly, they get some fun lines - especially Baldwin and Staite, who play iterations of the blunt-but-not-bright type and sweet/cute/nerdy girl that writer/director Joss Whedon includes in every project (so he'd better get them right by now) - but one can't help but think the ship's crew could be streamlined a little. Also present are Morena Baccarin and Ron Glass as former passengers/crewmates to be used as hostages or sanctuary (as the need arises) and David Krumholtz as eccentric information broker "Mr. Universe".

Having all these characters and backstory makes the film a bit sluggish in the early going, as we're filled, though more amid plentiful action than obvious exposition dumps. Ironically, his compositions for a 'scope movie are much more cramped than what he's shot for television, and the color palette is relatively muted, as well. Whedon he proves to be no George Lucas in terms of setting up a space battle (though Lucas is no Whedon in terms of putting amusing words in his characters' mouths). But the story picks up a good head of steam as it goes along, and by the end, there's no doubt it has the audience hooked. The final act has a great "last stand" feel to it, with Mal having earned the ire of two fleets and the crew incredibly outnumbered and outgunned, and it looking very much like they could all perish, Universal's hopes for a franchise be damned.

If it sounds like I'm down on the movie, it's because I was a fan of Firefly and occasionally found myself noticing what was missing. A friend who had never seen that series and isn't necessarily a one for sci-fi had an absolute blast with it, and I'll be all over the DVD when it comes out. It looks pretty darn good for a limited budget, too.

It's good stuff, and I hope it connects with an audience enough for us to get another movie in a couple year's time.

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