Tuesday, November 18, 2008


"Serenity" (Joss Whedon, 2005) Enjoyable, if violent, genre-bendin' space-farin' Western spinning off from the one season wonder "Firefly." But "Serenity" (that's the name of the ship) passes the crucial test of movies that make the leap from small to big screen--you don't need to have seen the series to "get" the concept and enjoy the film (probably because the concepts are so familiar). Sharply written and directed by series creator Whedon, and played by the regular cast, it boasts an intensely underplaying Chiwetel Ejiofor as a government operative who ritualistically silences outliers.

And outliers are exactly what the crew of the "Firefly"-class "Serenity" is comprised of; pirates, soldiers of fortune, outlaws, the scrappy veterans of the Galaxy's last civil war, who bounce from system to system dodging government entanglements and making a living by lying, cheating and stealing. Plus, they do good while doing bad.

The conceit of staging a Western in the infinitely wide-open spaces isn't new. "Star Trek" was sold to NBC as being "Wagon Train to the Stars"--not exactly true, but the suits got the point, "Star Wars" used Han Solo as a space cowboy ala Hondo (which Chewbacca as his faithful dog...or horse), and the "Wars" rip-off "Battle Beyond the Stars" was "The Magnificent 7 in Space." There isn't that much of a light-speed leap from horse-opera to space-opera. After all, the umbrella-genres of westerns and sci-fi can encompass all sorts of story-themes from Shakespeare to cleverly disguised issues of the day.

The plot for "Serenity" back-tracks a bit* to catch movie-goers up with the story of fugitives River Tam and her doctor-brother Simon and then resolves the conflicts their paid passage aboard Captain Mal Reynolds' ship of fools has created, and turns River from loose cannon on deck to a reliable asset. Along the way the crew stumbles on a gone-wrong planet-wide government experiment being kept under wraps. And since they're being pursued by "the op," anyway, they "aim to misbehave."

The characters are broadly drawn, easily discerned, and everyone is given significan plot-time (with the exception of Morena Boccarin's space-zen-hooker Inara, whose role was edited for time). Though not a success at the box office, it did spur interest in the series and kicked its box-set collection into hyper-drive. Though Whedon constantly discounts it, the crew of "Serenity" may fly again.

* In a film-starting series of illusions that nest together like Matryoshka dolls.

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