It's pretty much a given that everyone dying to see Serenity saw it this past weekend. As it stands, the film only racked up $10 million -- not a dazzling number, but not bad for a movie based on a cancelled TV series that barely ran a full season. And not bad, moreover, for a movie that's been completed since spring and has had an almost weekly parade of invitational preview screenings to generate ''buzz'' among fans. Still, the box office take will bring no joy to the suits at Universal, who are no doubt vexed over the fact that their much ballyhooed sci-fi film was bested by Flightplan, which held on to the top spot for a second week.
Having never watched Firefly, the show from which Serenity is derived, I had no preconceived notions of what to expect, no pre-formed emotional connection to the characters, no clue as to the basic back story. I went in blind, and I emerged, two hours later, feeling extremely entertained. Turns out Serenity is a smart, crackling two hours, written by Joss ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer'' Whedon with characteristic wit, and directed (also by Whedon) with a master's skill. The movie's space battles may seem like exercises in economy due to the lack of a mega-budget, but they have a swiftness, an electricity and, most importantly, a clarity lacking in the works of other so-called sci-fi masters. (Yes, George, I'm referring to you.)
Ship of smartasses: the crew of 'Serenity'
The story is set five hundred years in the future. A group of Earth-like planets is controlled by a powerful governing body known as The Alliance. Opposing factions, known as Independents, are scattered throughout the galaxy, but they don't seem to cause much trouble, though The Alliance would prefer they not exist. Everyone lives in fear of ambushes from Reavers, men transformed into ghoulish, flesh-eating marauders, who pop into cities and outposts unannounced and engage in savage bloodfeasting.
Enter Mal (Nathan Fillion), the glib and unflappable captain of the Serenity. From what I could tell, Mal was once part of a resistance in a war against the Alliance (a war now long over) and has since embarked on a life of (heroic) Robin Hood-inspired piracy. He steals from the rich to keep his crew and his ship aloft and to satisfy his need for food.
The ship harbors a powerful psychic -- River (Summer Glau), who turns out to be a dangerous weapon, embedded with all sorts of subliminal Alliance-implanted triggers to set her off on a martial arts bone-crunching spree (she's the movie's Buffy). Mal and crew -- a rough and tumble, yet loveable bunch including pilot Wash (refreshing Alan Tudyk), first officer Zoe (steely Gina Torres) and security chief Jayne (Adam Baldwin, who gets the best lines and delivers them with sweet and spicy sarcasm) -- wisecrack their way through one tough spot after another, all the while evading the pursuit of a soft-spoken, British-accented man known only as The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whose job it is to retrieve River no matter what the cost.
''I don't kill children,'' scowls Mal to The Operative, after witnessing the after-effects of one particularly gruesome slaughter.
''I do,'' the Operative replies with a smile.
If it all sounds a little over complicated, well it is. And if you, like me, aren't familiar with the series, the movie's nuances will be lost in space. Still, as the movie converges on a climactic half hour that is among the best action-packed finales in recent memory, Serenity belies its title. This is no easy glide through space -- it's a loud, clattery, super-mechanized, explosive big bang. Whedon combines elements of classic Westerns (six-shooters) and ancient Chinese mythology, creating out of things familiar something unique and proprietary to his world. His characters frequently converse in a cordial, rarified pattern of speech. What could have sounded stiff and artificial seems natural in the hands of this cast. And it raises the level of the film's literary quotient a notch. It's like watching Shakespeare in space.
Whedon is surprisingly fearless when it comes to hurting members of his main ensemble, ensuring that we understand that the stakes for the Serenity crew are extremely dangerous. This is no Star Trek where a quick trip back in time can fix anything wrong, the dead stay dead.
Serenity probably won't revive the series that was so unjustly cancelled by Fox -- unless the SciFi Channel is looking for something to replace the ailing, ready-to-be-put-to-pasture Stargate SG-1. But it at least proves that Whelon, who has been hired to helm Wonder Woman, knows how to make a movie with narrative precision, visual flair and emotional depth. He's one to keep an eye on.