Having never watched an episode of Joss Whedon’s long-since-canceled cult TV series "Firefly," I realize that mine is hardly the definitive opinion on "Serenity," Whedon’s big-screen spinoff of the show.
Not that I’m opposed to the whole "Firefly" scene. Do I not, after all, find myself occasionally engrossed by the cliquish mythology of Whedon’s "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"? Did I not once attend a "Star Trek" fan club meeting in college? Have I not — like many of the salivating "Firefly" faithful who packed a recent promotional screening of "Serenity" — endured long, lonely spells without the company of the opposite sex, thereby fostering a certain wonkish/ religious fascination with obscure sci-fi entertainments?
Of course I have, so maybe it makes sense that "Serenity" — in the opinion of this non- devotee, anyway — proves to be double-barrel space-cowboy fun all the way. Not since "Star Trek" have sci-fi fans been treated to such a package: Keen, confidently crafted dialogue, topical inventiveness and slick special effects, all pulled tight and tied together with characters we care about and a plot that hums.
Set 500 years in the future, in the aftermath of a bloody civil war between a meddling galactic "alliance" and a righteous coalition of freedom-loving frontier planets, the movie reunites us with the Serenity, a rickety spaceship manned by a lovable crew of outlaws and smugglers. Led by Capt. Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) — sort of a Chinese -speaking cross between Han Solo and Charles Ingalls — the members of the Serenity crew all have two things in common: 1) They like to crack wise in the face of death and danger (it’s in the job description or something), and 2) They all talk like 19th-century American prairie hicks. (Says the captain: "We got a job, and we gotta make good.")
Also aboard the Serenity are a pair of fares: River (Summer Glau), a semisuicidal teen waif with psychic abilities, and her protective older brother, Simon (Sean Maher), who busted her out of an Alliance testing lab where she was being molded into a one-girl killing machine. Unbeknownst to Mal and his crew, the Alliance will stop at nothing to get River back, and has dispatched a cheerfully ruthless super-assassin (Chiwetel Ejiofor from "Dirty Pretty Things") to do the job.
Written and directed by Whedon — long one of Hollywood’s top genre darlings ("Toy Story," "Alien: Resurrection") — "Serenity" starts off in grand fashion, with the cleanest, most riveting 20 minutes of exposition this year. After that, it does settle into a small-screen-style tempo, which is hardly a bad thing: Whedon has consciously created a frontierserial-in-space, complete with corrupt federal marshals and berserk cannibal savages (known as "Reavers," the Hells Angels of the "Serenity" universe).
What’s more, "Serenity" doesn’t conspicuously set itself up for a sequel (though that is a distinct possibility); conflicts are fully resolved, key characters meet their end and it all builds up to a satisfying, if sometimes hokey, climax. It goes without saying that "Firefly" fans will love it, but even for the uninitiated, it could be the start of something good.
‘Serenity’ Starring: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Summer Glau, Chiwetel Ejiofor Rating: PG-13 (sequences of intense violence and action, and some sexual references) Running time: 119 minutes Playing: Opens today at theaters Valleywide Grade: B+