By rights, Serenity is a film that should never been made. Based on the short-lived Fox television series Firefly, excellent DVD box-set sales allegedly prompted Universal to snatch up the property for a big-screen outing. However, success on the small screen is by no means an indicator of movie box office success, and most such transitions fare poorly. So, does Serenity live up to expectations—both for existing Firefly fans and for newcomers to Joss Whedon’s latest creation?

The answer, in both cases, is a resounding yes: Serenity is a success in almost every way. Full of smart, intelligent writing, the plot is coherent, largely devoid of the babble associated with many sci-fi movies. It also avoids being po-faced and overly serious, peppering the script with genuinely laugh-out-loud moments that steer clear of in-joke territory. The acting—mostly relying on the talents of a cast of relative unknowns—is of a very high standard, and you often feel a genuine camaraderie amongst the team. The fact that there’s not a Cruise or Hanks among them adds to the faux-realism (this is a “grubby” version of a sci-fi, a million miles away from the overly polished and over-produced latter-day Star Trek films), meaning you get sucked into the plot, rather than sit watching Hollywood’s latest darling, wondering if they’re really worth their $10 million paycheque.

One of the biggest worries for potential viewers must be the movie’s backstory, especially as Serenity is set approximately six months after the close of the Firefly TV series. However, while Firefly fans will undoubtedly get a little more out of this movie, due to already being familiar with the characters, watching the TV series first is definitely not a requirement. This is largely down to the first few minutes of the film, effectively a cleverly written prologue that brings newcomers up to date and fills in a few gaps for long-time fans.

A potted history of the Serenity universe reveals that man has long since left Earth (mysteriously referred to as “Earth that was”) and colonised nearby star systems, terraforming planets and moons. The central planets formed The Alliance and press-ganged others into joining. Outer planets rebelled, became The Independents, and a war was fought. The Alliance won. But like every big, bad government, The Alliance has its naughty little secrets, and one involves experimenting on one River Tam (played by foxy ex-ballerina Summer Glau), a psychic teenager who they try to turn into a living weapon, traumatising her in the process. With the help of sympathisers, her brother, Simon (Sean Maher), manages to free her, and the pair go on the run, ending up on Serenity, the ship of Captain Malcolm Reynolds (ably played by Nathan Fillion), a former soldier of The Independents who now ekes out a living as a dubious trader-cum-thief, with the help of his motley crew. However, The Alliance wants River back, and dispatches a deadly Operative (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in an utterly convincing fashion) to bring her in. The Operative is without mercy—he’ll stop at nothing to achieve a goal in which he believes in, and is oblivious to what’s “right” or “wrong”. Reynolds is his polar opposite—a man who believes in doing the right thing, and he’s willing to risk himself, his ship and his crew to protect what needs protecting.

Right from the off, the film rattles along, and the scene shifts from location to location as The Operative and Reynolds’ crew discover more secrets buried within River’s mind (and the implications thereof). Along with the aforementioned excellent plot and acting, the journey looks great, too: the superb special effects belie the film’s reputed $40 million budget, and the action set-pieces are top-notch. With the film retaining something of its “Western in space” roots, there are inevitable comparisons to be drawn with the Star Wars movies, but this film is in an entirely different league to Lucas’ three recent efforts, and every bit as good as any of the original trilogy. So, if you’re a fan of sci-fi, or just good, old-fashioned (but intelligent) action movies, do yourself a favour and check out Serenity.

Serenity (2005)
Dir. Joss Whedon
Stars: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Summer Glau, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Genre: Sci-fi, Action

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