Pre-release hype, gripes and, um, snipes about Serenity have focused on one issue: can Joss Whedon, creator of cult TV shows Buffy, Angel and the short-lived Firefly, translate his particular smarts (knowing dialogue, layered characters, plot curveballs) into a film with broad, mainstream appeal? Or, to break it down: is this film any good? Do you need to have seen the TV series Firefly? And will it lead to a franchise?
Well, yes, no and hopefully. Because with Serenity, Whedon has delivered a universe as quasi-philosophical as The Matrix, a crew dynamic as soap operatic as Star Trek and a sense of fun and wonder last seen in a galaxy far, far away. But with better dialogue.
The artfully edited and paced opening minutes should offer enough exposition to get newcomers up to speed while still finding time for a few sly shocks. In rapid succession we learn that there’s been a civil war which the good guys lost; our heroes – the crew of the Serenity – are far from perfect; their human cargo, the mysterious River, is probably very bad news indeed, and in the future mankind resides in a combination of the Wild West and, bizarrely, China.
What follows is a suitably epic journey where practically everyone is pushed to their limits and forced to take a good, hard look at themselves. Whedon’s original concept of a Western in space is adhered to, giving the film a nice touch of spirituality. In fact, if you’re so inclined, you could probably find a subtext comparing the merits of Christianity and Buddhism. But, fear not, there are also plenty of fights, explosions and chases to look at, too.
The characters are well-drawn and benefit from performances already honed over 15 small-screen episodes. The relationship between pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk) and his wife Zoe (Gina Torres) is warm and comfortably underplayed, a myriad of unrequited love and unspoken emotion between the rest of the crew is similarly communicated with a pleasingly light touch, while the excellent Summer Glau is twitchily unsettling as the mysterious River. The most difficult job falls to Nathan Fillion as Mal, who’s required to deliver the best space rogue since Han Solo... and then get deadly serious. He’s no Harrison Ford (but then, who is?) though he delivers what’s required competently, if not with quite the wattage to scorch celluloid.
Most pleasingly, when the film needs to get dark in the second act, it gets really dark, setting up a proper sense of fear that things are not going to end well.
On the downside, budgetary issues seem to have hampered a couple of the CGI moments and there’s a touch of portentously solemn acting (yes, you, Chiwetel Ejiofor). But, really, anyone who doesn’t enjoy genre filmmaking this smart is taking themselves, or their science-fiction far too seriously.