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Space Cowboys . . . in Space!

Fans of science fiction movies are avidly familiar with the standard elements of the genre: aging space ships held together with spit and chewing gum, a crew of misfits whose only common trait is a propensity for finding trouble, a combination of advanced technology and primitive “Old West” themes (to name just a few). All of these are certainly present in Serenity, the big-screen continuation of Joss Whedon’s television series, “Firefly,” but Serenity manages to rise above the usual clichés.

The movie opens with the rescue of River Tam (Summer Glau), an extraordinarily talented psychic, by her brother Simon (Sean Maher), an equally talented doctor. River has been psychologically programmed to be a human weapon by scientists at a top-secret military institute run by The Alliance, the dominant centralized governing body over human-inhabited planets. River and Simon, now fugitives, take refuge aboard Serenity, a rustbucket of a craft commanded by Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a veteran from the losing side of an interplanetary civil war against The Alliance.

The crew’s standard routine of small-time jobs (both honest and dishonest) is disrupted when they discover that they are being chased by an Operative of The Alliance (Chiwetel Ejiofor). It seems that River has been in the presence of men from the highest level of government, and her psychic abilities may have enabled her to unconsciously glean information which could seriously harm The Alliance.

The “Old West” themes we mentioned earlier should be a bit more apparent now. Mal, the strongest character in the movie, is an embittered ex-Confederate (okay, fine, “Independent”) whose pragmatism is continually at odds with his conscience. Most of the crew speaks with a slightly archaic Western drawl, and their dialogue is punctuated by colorful figures of speech with a frontier flavor. Interestingly, this particular vision of humanity’s future seems to have a heavy Asian influence as well. This is most noticeable when the occasional incomprehensible phrase (in Mandarin Chinese, we are told) slides into the dialogue. The film’s weaponry and landscapes all have an Old West feel, too. Mal is a very skillful gunfighter, adept at the “quick draw” and at shooting from the hip, and his piece is a futuristic six-shooter, not a laser blaster. When our heroes are on the ground, they seem most comfortable on primitive, dusty planets, occupied only by small, frontier towns.

Religion, too, plays an interesting, if somewhat ambiguous role in Serenity. One group that the crew takes refuge with during their flight from The Alliance is led by a man named Meria Book (Ron Glass), a Christian minister of sorts whose title is “Shepherd” and who is also something of a mentor to Mal. Inara (Morena Baccarin), an old acquaintance who rejoins the crew about halfway through the movie, prays to Buddha and lives in a place that looks like a Tibetan monastery. The Operative, by far the most fanatical character in the movie, is (ironically) a secular humanist. He is willing to go to any length and commit any evil to bring about a world without sin. Serenity comes down most strongly on the side of individual freedoms and the right to believe whatever you want. “I don’t care what you believe,” Shepherd says, “just believe.”

Speaking technically, Serenity is good, but not perfect. The cinematography is unique in its use (almost overuse) of zoom and focus effects, but there are also many truly memorable shots. Of course, an important element of any science fiction film is its special effects, and Serenity does not entirely disappoint. The effects are impressive when it counts (such as during the final, climactic battle sequence), but often have a very “made-for-TV” feel. The music of Serenity truly stands out, although we have heard fans of the series express disappointment at the exclusion of the television theme.

The dialogue is fantastic in a charmingly corny way, full of jibing banter and unexpected laughs. For instance, during the opening sequence, Mal announces, “This is the captain. We have a little problem with our entry sequence, so we may experience some slight turbulence and then . . . explode.” To which a member of his crew peevishly responds, “I don’t wanna explode!” The last twenty minutes of the movie is particularly well-done. Going into the movie’s climax, Whedon makes it unequivocally clear that none of his characters are sacred and he is willing to kill them off. This adds immeasureably to the sense of realism and tension at the end.

As a continuation of a 14-episode TV show, one might think familiarity with the previous material is a necessity for enjoyment of the film. Not so, small sage! The movie summarizes its own backstory effectively within the first few minutes, leaving only a few things (such as the more complex character relationships) to be guessed at by the uninformed viewer. Despite the fact that neither of these reviewers have seen the series, we had no trouble following the plot or enjoying the action.

Ultimately, any appreciation of this movie will probably be dependent on a viewer’s appreciation of the genre. What it does, it does well, and what it doesn’t do doesn’t harm it significantly. If the knavish main characters, dynamic action, and glib philosophizing of standard sci-fi fare appeals to you, then by all means, go see Serenity.

  • Co-reviewed with Randy
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~ by Jared on October 5, 2005.

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