Hippo Manchester
October 6, 2005

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Serenity (PG-13)
by Amy Diaz

Joss Whedon’s merry band of scruffy space cowboys fight off two evil empires (the Alliance and Fox television’s programming department) in the fun romp Serenity.

Like its characters, the TV show Firefly was scrappy and half-developed-but-promising when it aired and then was quickly cancelled from Fox’s 2002 fall lineup. I saw a few of the episodes, out of order, of course, because Fox decided randomness would make episodic television more exciting. But whether you’re a diehard Firefly fan or new to this universe of dusty space outposts and characters who mix sarcasm with Deadwood-esque phraseology, Serenity shows just how good Whedon is at telling a corker of an adventure story.

Capt. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is the leader of the band of close-knit misfits who call Serenity (a ship constructed from the Millennium Falcon school of patchwork) home. They travel the galaxy doing odd jobs — some more legal than others — and trying to keep clear of the giant, all-seeing government which rules the galaxy. This last part is getting harder in part because the crew has taken on two passengers, a doctor and his sister River (Summer Glau), who are being hunted by government agents. River has psychic abilities, some tortured past as a government lab rat and a surprising ability to kick some serious ass when triggered.

Like all good fringe heroes, Mal and his crew join the fight against the government after exhausting all other options. Whedon enjoys building characters and putting them into circumstances that require them to act against their stated desires. It’s not a revolutionary bit of storytelling but he executes it well, giving us fallible characters who have greatness within them but also dirt under their nails. In a way not often seen in space adventures, Serenity features a dirty, scary, unknown “final frontier” that gives our characters an “oh, crap, what now?” edginess. And unlike other space-adventure creators (ah-hem, Mr. George Lucas), these fully fleshed out characters interact with each other in believable human ways using normal, life-like dialogue. (Actually, it goes beyond that — Whedon’s never so charming as when he’s putting words in the mouths of people who are unsure, afraid and over-taxed but fighting the good fight anyway.)

Serenity isn’t just a reward for Whedon geeks who wanted to see a good premise get its due but a rare space action movie that speaks to the latent adventurer and closet cowboy in everyone.