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Review: “Serenity” (2005)

“You’d best make peace with your dear and fluffy lord.” ~~Cap’n Mal Reynolds

Never underestimate the power of pissed-off sci-fi nerds in large groups. If a franchise needs re-inventing, or unjust cancellation needs righting, they’re the ones who care enough to put their feet to pavement and their mouths behind megaphones. “Serenity” owes its existence to the intensely devoted fans (“Browncoats,” in point of fact) who wouldn’t swallow the abrupt cancellation of Joss Whedon’s witty, gonzo space western “Firefly.” Fans lobbied like all hell for the sendoff “Firefly” deserved, and three years after the show’s unceremonious cancellation they got “Serenity.” 

Does the film justify all the blood, sweat and tears? Some fans of the gone-too-soon TV series may be ambivalent on this point; I am not*. Faced with a tremendous and unenviable task, Whedon does not play it safe and produce what feels like a very long, no-end-left-untied series finale peppered with fanboy jokes no one else will understand. (There are enough “in” jokes to keep fans chuckling appreciatively but not enough to alienate the newbies.) He creates a feature-length film that feels like a feature-length film. “Serenity” has its share of familiar faces — hello, Cap’n Tight Pants — plus a few new ones like Chiwetel Ejiofor’s mysterious Operative, an intelligent and marvelously complex villain. Though not everyone receives equal screen time (Alan Tudyk’s flippant Wash suffers most in this area), none of them seem shallow or flat or ill-conceived. The actors are good enough to make their trimmed-down time in front of the camera count. This is as much a testament to their ease with and devotion to the characters as it is to Whedon’s extraordinary gift for giving all his characters, even ones minor to “Serenity,” memorable, even endearing, quirks. The special effects, as they were with the show, are serviceable, but they aren’t the main attraction (not for me). No undue fussin’ needed about that.

But let’s get back to Whedon and his risk-taking Little Movie That Could. “Serenity,” though it is a gift to the fans, is not gift-wrapped for their satisfaction only. Whedon writes enough — in the beginning, maybe a shade too much — backstory to draw in viewers who never saw “Firefly,” and he takes pains to make sure nobody gets left behind. Set 500 years in the future, “Serenity” finds humankind spread out  in another star system onto new planets, all terraformed to support human life. Inner planets are controlled by totalitarian regime The Alliance, which allots for no rebellion in its ranks. The Alliance also conducts psychological experiments on humans to transform them into psychic weapons, and 17-year-old River Tam (Summer Glau) is the best of these subjects. Broken out by her brother Simon (Sean Maher), the two find a home on Serenity, a transport ship captained by the hard-nosed Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, Master of Humorous Awkward Pauses). He’s assembled a motley but reliable crew that includes gangland enforcer Jayne (Adam Baldwin); second-in-command Zoe (Gina Torres) and her husband Wash (Tudyk), an ace pilot; and Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the ship’s mechanic who carries a not-so-dim torch for Simon. Also within Serenity’s orbit are high-society courtesan Inara (Morena Baccarin); Shepherd Derrial Book (Ron Glass), a preacher and former crewman who serves as Mal’s adviser; and Mr. Universe (David Krumholtz), a techno whiz and self-appointed gatekeeper of all communications that run through the universe.

As mentioned before, “Serenity” diverts noticeably from “Firefly” in a number of ways, some of which may disappoint the real zealots. In an effort to make a film and not, say, a miniseries, Whedon shifts the show’s focus on the many to Mal Reynolds — Fillion can sink those choppers into 19th-century one-liners, by gum — and River, both wrestling with the toughest demons and eluding the same villain. They make a fitting pair because both are damaged people with good reason not to trust many, and they also hate people who meddle when they haven’t the right. Other parts, though, smaller, become iconic because of some whoa-didn’t-see-that-coming violence. Everyone gets an ending; it’s merely that they aren’t all happy. Some are happy, some are bittersweet, some are tragic. Accept that early and “Serenity” starts to find its footing as a film and as a sequel. That’s quite shiny, innit?

Grade: A-

*I’m such a nerd that when I started watching “Firefly,” I immediately recognized Jewel Staite from her tenure on Nickelodeon’s “Space Cases.” Because I loved that show and it got cancelled too, gorramnit.