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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.

Review: “Trucker” (2009)

With her rough edges, foul mouth and short temper, trucker Diane (Michaelle Monaghan) isn’t much for motherhood. That’s not so strange to her 11-year-old son Peter (Jimmy Bennet), since he’d have no idea what to do with a mother even if he got stuck with one. In James Mottern’s spare, unidealistic “Trucker,” that’s just where Peter and Diane find themselves: stuck together like a mad-as-hell cop and a bitter, put-upon prisoner, forced to live out the mother/son relationship they never had.

If you think this translates to a happily-ever-after film about a mother and son reunited at long last, a pairing that will result in cutesy shared moments, think again. Up until the closing scenes, “Trucker” contains no drops of sweetness. Diane calls Peter a “goddamn little shit” or “dude”; to the young boy, Diane is simply “bitch” or “you.” This reunion is anything but happy because both mother and son have grown accustomed to living life on their own terms: Diane as a long-haul trucker who values and forcefully protects her independence and Peter as the loner only child of Len (Benjamin Bratt), his doting father. That stubbornness and aversion to change turns out to be the only thing they have in common, though neither mother nor son cares to dig that deep. While Mottern pushes the characters toward an inevitable reconciliation-of-sorts, it’s refreshing to see Monaghan and Bennett fight like wildcats the whole way, resisting every opportunity to bond.

Not surprisingly, the reason for Diane and Peter’s reunion has nothing to do with sentiment and everything to do with circumstance. Hospitalized with colon cancer, Len isn’t very long for this world, and his fiancee Jenny (Joey Lauren Adams, exquisitely low-key) can’t juggle caring for Len and Peter and dealing with her own mother’s recent death. So Peter gets dumped on Diane, who doesn’t accept the situation gracefully. She’s accustomed to her routine of making hauls, having hotel quickies and coming home to her best friend Runner (Nathan Fillion), who loves her but won’t leave his wife. Although it’s not a terribly enriching existence, it’s what Diane knows and she understands that a kid will change everything. That’s why she ditched Len and Peter 11 years ago. She sees herself as an on-the-move person, but it’s more like she’s always on the run. For all her bravado, Diane is, as Peter angrily points out, a very scared person. Like most only children (this reviewer included), Peter’s gotten very good at reading between the lines of adult behavior. He’s a sidelines-sitter, an observer, a sharp judge of character. Unlike most child actors, Bennett has no trouble finding the woundedness and the smarts in this character.

With its ending and reliance on a script that feels like a not-so-careful rewrite (albeit an observant, more emotionally rich rewrite) of Sylvester Stallone’s 1987 movie “Over the Top,” Mottern’s film does lose some valuable points for predictability. In all fairness, unless Peter ran away or Diane ditched him or they both attempted to murder each other, “Trucker” is a movie that has to end a certain way. Sure, Mottern takes a familiar road; where he surprises us is the way he gets to his destination. He could have made “Trucker” into an orgy of familial reconnection, could have treated us to insufferable montages of bonding. Mottern presents his viewers with emotionally honest portrait of two people struggling to adapt to an unwanted new life. “Trucker” is all the better for it.

Casting elevates “Trucker” to an even higher level. Jimmy Bennett has a knack for playing it straight, bypassing histrionics for simplicity. That’s a choice not many actors his age — he’s barely a teen-ager — would think to make, and it shows he’s got instincts that might take him far. Monaghan provides us with another surprise. Normally stuck into parts that require a pretty face/body, in “Trucker” she has room to let her natural talents emerge. Diane is a difficult woman, yet Monaghan doesn’t back away from her hardness; she embraces it, gives it nuance. This may be the birth of Monaghan the real actress … and if this is her warming up, I for one can’t wait to see what she can do.

Grade: B+