Five hundred years in the future the galaxy will look a lot like the wild, wild post-Civil War-era American West, after the “civilized” inner planetary Alliance wins out over the fringe, Old West frontier-like outer planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds (“Mal”) (Nathan Fillion), who survived on the losing side of the war, has turned mercenary, hauling any cargo (literal and metaphorical) and pulling a bank heist here and there to make ends meet. Compassionate and witty, and refusing to be broken, Reynolds leads a dysfunctional band of warrior misfits down a rather long, visually captivating, and darkly mirthful Robert Heinlein-esque episodic trail of picaresque delights.
Reynolds’ motley crew includes his second in command, the tomboyish alpha-girl Zoe (Gina Torres), the leaf-on-the-wind Zen-willowy pilot (and Zoe’s husband) Wash (Alan Tudyk), a decidedly non-Scotty and all-muscly-woman mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite), and the designated rifleman for the clan, working-class macho Jayne (Adam Baldwin). Instantly recognizable to hard-core sci-fi fans everywhere, the film Serenity in fact reprises writer/director Joss Whedon’s highly successful television series Firefly, taking cast, crew, and fans on one last epic adventure. (The highly popular Whedon also created Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The film is written to be accessible to diehard Firefly fans (who are legion and passionate) and Firefly virgins alike. Whedon’s love of his work and for his fans shines through every scene. Reprising the original television cast, the crew of the hawk-shaped space ship Serenity (named after the Battle of Serenity, a great personal Waterloo-like loss which haunts Captain Mal) fight and bluff and wisecrack their way through one tight fix after another. Some of the self-referential jokes may be lost on Firefly neophytes, and for them the plot may bog down in unbridled soap operatic complications and drawn-out exposition of excessively colorful personalities. Not to fret, all comers will be rewarded by this revisionist-western-in-a-space-opera.
There is an abundance of plot backstory. In Firefly Mal has taken in a young doctor, Simon Tam (Sean Maher), and his unstable, telepathic younger sister River (Summer Glau). In Serenity Simon is even more of a prig, and highly protective of his sister, River, She, in turn, tends to have frighteningly easy access to other people’s deepest inner pain and is herself, as a consequence of this and other mysterious killing-fields-of-Cambodia personal history (or government-ordered psychic implants?), too traumatized to be left alone for very long.
Into this gray hat versus gray hat melodrama come Mal’s old love interest Inara (Morena Baccarin), the white hat metaphysician Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) (also reprised from the television series), and a brand-new black hat super villain The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor). River’s deepest secrets are revealed. The voyage to Miranda leads directly to the ultimate, epic battle of Serenity and to shedding light on the exact nature and source of the Reavers, those wrathful, cannibalistic, bogeyman warrior-demons. The epic warrior quest into the heart of darkness proves a large and sumptuous cinematic banquet, and Serenity promises to become the major sci-fi media event of the season.
Alluding to or embellishing upon other highlights in the history of science fiction, including Blade Runner, The Matrix, On the Beach, and The Day the Earth Stood Still — and offering rather weighty commentary on the corporatized evil empire of twenty-first century America-led imperialism — Whedon has hitched his philosophical wagon to a shooting star. As Shepherd insists, “it doesn’t matter what you believe, only that you believe.”