For Captain Mal (Nathan Fillion) and his crew of the clunky spaceship Serenity (including Alan Tudyk, Gina Torres, Adam Baldwin, and Jewel Staite), trouble has just arrived with the boarding of Simon (Sean Maher) and his diminutive sister, River (Summer Glau), an unstable telepathic time bomb of aggression. When assassins from the Alliance (led by Chiwetel Ejiofor) are sent to retrieve River, Mal gets in their way, hoping to protect the mysterious girl and find out why she’s so important to the enemy.
That’s a question audience members new to the world of “Serenity” will be asking themselves with alarming regularity while watching this sci-fi extravaganza.
While the silver screen has been littered with television adaptations great and small, “Serenity” takes special notice since the series it was based on, “Firefly,” only lasted half a season back in 2002. Not a whole lot of people cared about the show when it was free and made available on a weekly basis, which makes the decision to make a feature film version of the cult show a curious one by Universal Pictures. However, that would be underestimating the fanboy power of writer/director Joss Whedon.
Whedon, the mastermind behind the “Buffy” and “Angel” television franchises, understands he has a rabid fanbase awaiting his every move, and I deeply respect his notion resurrecting this failed TV series to give it its proper end, and, this being Hollywood, its possible rebirth. However, Whedon has made an interesting choice and geared “Serenity” only towards the fans of “Firefly.” This should undoubtedly please some, but the vast majority of moviegoers out there who couldn’t pick a Reaver out of a line-up are the ones Whedon should be gunning for with this ambitious relaunch, instead he lets them fall by the wayside in pursuit of pleasing the minority.
Right from the start, “Serenity” drops the viewer at breakneck speed into the “Firefly” world, tossing nameless characters left and right at the screen, and starting what will soon be an endless stream of inside jokes and references. For fans, this is paydirt. For the average filmgoer, the material is a maze of ideas that are only partially explained, perplexingly invented vernacular that is erratically used, and a gaggle of characters with substantial backstories and motivations that are never ever cleanly laid out (sample: who the heck is Inarar). “Serenity” is headache-inducing the way it nervously jumps from scene to scene without a care in the world about whether anyone is able to keep up. For a film with appeal this fragile and specific, it makes more sense for Whedon to take better care including everyone in on the fun who wanted to go for a ride. Other sci-fi adaptations, such as “X-Files” and “Star Trek,” did masterful work making both fan and non-fan happy with their big screen counterparts. “Serenity” isn’t interested in that level of respect for its potential audience, looking to please the “Browncoats” only, which leads to a frustrating sit.
Whedon’s inexperience with feature films (this is his debut) also keeps “Serenity” stalled for much of its duration. The picture routinely jumps back and forth between breathless exposition and standard sci-fi action, most of which is staged in claustrophobic, clumsily edited snippets (and many of the scenes are trimmed awkwardly to meet a PG-13 rating). Parts of “Serenity” are undeniably fun, such as Mal’s attempt to navigate the space between the Reaver and the Alliance armies, and those moments are gold because the film is let out to breathe and play with the much larger budget Whedon has at his disposal this time around. The universal language of action is what carries “Serenity” for the uninitiated, not the labyrinthine tale and character relationships or Whedon’s hoary, self-conscious jokes (material that would be booed out of any other film).
If it hasn’t been said enough already, obsessive fans of “Firefly” should find this film to be their pot of gold. However, for the rest of the audience, if you weren’t into “Firefly” before, “Serenity” gives no decent excuse to start now.Rating: C-