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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.

My thought on today

Review: “3:10 to Yuma” (2007)

Russell Crowe waxes philosophic -- and handles a mean shotgun -- in "3:10 to Yuma."

Russell Crowe waxes philosophic -- and wields a mean double-barrel -- in "3:10 to Yuma."

There’s a brief scene early in “3:10 to Yuma”* that cuts straight to film’s conflicted conscience: Outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) sizes up one of his holier-than-thou captors and remarks, “Even bad men love their mamas.” And with that one seemingly junkheap-bound line of dialogue “Yuma” reveals itself to be a different kind of Western – one where the villains are intelligent and adaptable and the righteous are greedy and downright foolhardy in their moral inflexibility. One thing is for sure: a run-of-the-mill Saturday morning cowboys-and-Indians picture “Yuma” is certainly not.

At the heart of this Western is Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a down-on-his-luck Arizona rancher who serves as proof that the good don’t always triumph. (Sometimes they even fail miserably.) Broke, weary and nearly crippled by a Civil War injury, he’s all but run off his land by moneygrubbers who want to cash in on the ever-expanding railroad industry. His oldest son William (Logan Lerman) and wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) don’t believe they’ll survive the season. Then Evans stumbles upon Wade robbing a stagecoach, and his luck begins to change. Soon, he volunteers as part of the caravan scheduled to transport Wade to Contention, where the robber will board a train headed to Yuma prison and end up with his neck getting intimate with a hangman’s noose.

The trip, of course, is far from simple: There’s a misguided attempt to pass through Apache-controlled lands, and Wade’s gang — led by the vicious Charlie Prince (an impressively menacing Ben Foster) — tries to free the infamous robber at every stop. It’s a nonstop ride of violent action and quietly devastating character interaction that trails into an unexpected (and some might say unfulfilling) end.

Ah, the end. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth has taken place over the film’s final minutes, with most everyone railing and wringing their hands in frustration. Of course, the conclusion will not be revealed here, but it must be said that the film’s finale is the key to understanding what makes “Yuma” tick. The end offers no panacea — its ambiguity serves a purpose, a big one, and it’s up to viewers to do the mental heavy lifting.

But the end is only a small part of why “Yuma” is such a worthwhile venture. As an action film, “Yuma” is surprisingly bloody and brutal. Set against the unforgiving dustbowl of the searing Arizona desert, the shootouts and mine collapses and top-speed horse chases seem larger than life. (Then again, that’s what Westerns are, in some small part, about — showing the truths of life in unflinchingly hard ways.) But with a small cast studded with high-profile powerhouse actors, the acting in “Yuma” is hardly shabby, either. Legendary Peter Fonda has some fun with his character, Byron McElroy, a mean-as-a-snake bounty hunter who’d just as soon but a bullet in Wade’s eye than deliver him to the station. Alan Tudyk, a wildly underappreciated comic actor, draws a few laughs as Doc Potter, a large animal vet who unwitting gets roped into Wade’s caravan. And a note here about that Ben Foster, who tears into Charlie Prince like a man in throes of demonic possession: What an actor this guy’s turning out to be. 

For the most part, Bale and Crowe run this show, and with good reason. Bale, known for taking darker roles, transforms Dan from a one-note do-gooder into a conflicted character, a man who chooses to do right not because he’s a saint but because it’s all he’s got left. Ben Wade is the kind of role Crowe, who excells at creating laconic, morally amibuous characters, was born to play. With his crooked smile and mirthful eyes, he’s near perfect as Wade, a crook who lives as much by his wits as his pistol. He’s equal parts venom and compassion, and he sees what so few other characters do: Morality is entirely subjective.

Though Crowe alone is almost worth the admission price, there’s another reason to give “Yuma” a chance: Any Western where there is nary a tumbleweed to be seen, well, isn’t afraid to take chances.

Grade: B+

*Readers who have seen the original 1957 film: How does this one stack up?