‘Serenity’ picks up where Fox’s ‘Firefly’ left off

In 2001, a television show called “Firefly” debuted on Fox. Even though it was an amazing piece of science fiction storytelling, the show only lasted 11 of 15 episodes before being canceled. Those 11 episodes were enough to garner a small but loyal following, and the browncoats, as they called themselves, swelled in number with the release of the series on DVD. Now, thanks to the fanaticism of its fan base, impressive DVD sales and the dedication of its creator, Firefly has returned. The film “Serenity” concludes the story began in the TV series.

“Serenity” follows the story of space bandit Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his ragtag crew as they fly around on their ship, Serenity. The ship’s crew includes doctor Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his sister, River (Summer Glau). River spent most of her teenage years being experimented on by government scientists and is now a mysterious, disturbed and psychic young woman. The safety of Mal and his crew is compromised when River is activated by a government signal and temporarily becomes a mindless killing machine.

“Serenity” is good for all the reasons the television show “Firefly” was good. The characters are unique and imminently lovable. Creator Joss Whedon does an admirable job of introducing and detailing his enormous cast of characters and wisely relies on them to carry the film, rather than a lot of effects-laden action sequences. But, of course, the movie has those, too.

In addition to his characters, Whedon also must introduce his bizarre post-Civil War sci-fi world, which includes a mishmash of Chinese and Western cultural elements. Plus, a bunch of expositions from the TV series must be presented in order for the story to make sense. That’s a tall order, but it’s a tribute to Whedon’s skill at storytelling that the characters are well defined, the universe is understandable and all necessary information is presented.

Whedon opens the film with an audacious triple play; a dream sequence embedded in a flashback embedded in the villain’s introduction. Viewers already familiar with the series won’t be bored by an hour of rehashing, and viewers new to the universe won’t be left behind as the plot unfolds.

Fans of the series will notice one key difference; the movie is a darker and more intense than the series. Rather than fall into the trap of creating an extended episode, Whedon ratchets up the intensity appropriately. The plot is epic and sweeping, and the stakes are painfully high near the end. Also, the lighthearted swashbuckling of the series is toned down. Captain Reynolds is especially less happy, and more tension exists among Serenity’s crew.

The only real problem with this movie is it shoots by at the speed of light. There’s so much information, character development and background facts sandwiched between the wall-to-wall action sequences that I left the film in a daze. There are dramatic moments that deserve to be lingered on, but the film doesn’t have time.

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Despite its breakneck pace, however, it all works. Nothing is lacking and everything is sufficiently developed. Whedon manages to cram more storytelling into two hours than most are capable of. It calls to mind the scene in “Amadeus” where the characters tell Mozart he uses too many notes.

“Serenity” is the best sci-fi film to come out in a long time. The ideal way to view it is after having watched all 15 “Firefly” episodes on DVD, but the uninitiated should find it easily accessible.