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Serenity (Joss Whedon, 2005, 119 min.)

Joss Whedon’s short-lived Firefly was one of the best science fiction shows ever made. It lasted 14 episodes, three of which never aired. Fox did everything it could to destroy it, airing the episodes out of order before finally pulling the plug. Out of Whedon’s canon—the other shows being Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff AngelFirefly showed the most potential for long-term story arcs and character developments. There were ample signs that Whedon hadn’t even gotten started on all of the themes he wanted to explore, which is a bad idea if you’re making a cult television show. The very things that made it a slowly building masterpiece likely doomed it: trigger-happy TV execs didn’t see it going anywhere, so they offed it. The show had a cult following, though, and perhaps their efforts had something to do with Whedon getting the green light to go ahead on a culmination of sorts. The film has most of the qualities that made the show so wonderful, including the most important one: the feeling that it’s not enough.

The film is not perfect: the necessary scenes that clue newcomers in to the story, and the rather abrupt ending, leave a little to be desired. But the film contains sustained, masterful sequences, a surprise plot development that’s like a kick in the teeth, and a memorable bad guy in Chiwetel Ejiofor. Also, and most importantly, it contains the things that make Joss Whedon’s creations memorable: the interaction between characters who feel like they’re real, who have histories that don’t come across as plot points, who we can imagine existing before and after the film’s events. There’s comedy, there’s tragedy, there’s emotion, and Whedon is a master at balancing it all.

Some backstory: it’s around 500 years in the future, and around six years since the galactic Alliance has put down a rebellion by independent planets. The captain of the spaceship Serenity, Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), and his first mate Zoe (Gina Torres), fought on the side of the rebels. Since the war, they’ve existed on the periphery, taking legal shipping jobs and illegal smuggling jobs. Slowly, they pieced together a crew: the snarky pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk), who is now Zoe’s husband; the meatheaded, trigger-happy Jayne (Adam Baldwin); and the genius mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite). A little less than a year ago, they picked up Simon (Sean Maher), a doctor, and River (Summer Glau), his psychic/psychotic sister. The Alliance had been performing experiments on River, Simon rescued her, and now they’re on the run. Although Mal pretends to be a hardened criminal, he has a heroic streak a mile wide, so he and the rest of the crew hide and protect Simon and River, as the Alliance comes closer and closer to finding them. That gets us to the beginning of the film.

The plot involves a journey to the edge of the galaxy through the territory inhabited by Reavers, horrific men who murder and rape their way through the galaxy, to a mysterious planet where they discover a horrible secret that I wouldn’t dream of divulging here. In the series, the Alliance sent various bounty hunters and operatives to attempt to kidnap River. Now there’s someone new coming after her: an unnamed operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who has the serenity and sureness of a mad priest. It’s his job to get River back, and he’s capable of doing anything it takes to do so, including killing everyone in his path with a scary calm. He’s doing it all in the name of a future without strife. He’s scary because he’s not angry or upset, or happy or eager. He’s not doing it for reward; he doesn’t think there’s any place like him in the future he’s working toward. I saw strong parallels between him and suicide bombers, except that he’s sure that he can do more damage for the cause alive than dead.

The film is Whedon’s patented genre mash-up: science fiction, westerns, horror, martial arts—there’s a place for everything in his universe. Sometimes there are gaps in the logic, though: the second language of space is Chinese, which is usually used to curse, but there’s nary an Asian person to be seen. It’s a matter of convenience that most of the planets in this galaxy, although “terraformed,” look like the dusty sets of a thousand oaters, because what Whedon most wanted to make here is an old-fashioned Western, complete with chases on horses, revolvers (which are space-age because they make electronic sounds before firing), funky 19th-century dress, and a sometimes amusingly anachronistic dialect that favors double negatives. Don’t think for a minute that Whedon isn’t chuckling along with us at some of it, though: he’s one of the best writers of understated comedy and surprise laughs in the business.

As I said, the ending feels false: it involves a seismic shift in a certain character’s worldview, one that seems highly unlikely given the way that character was developed up to that point. It’s a nice thought, a sort of shiny “the truth will set you free” twist, but it doesn’t fit. However, it’s the only real miscue in the film. Fans of the series will find everything they were hoping for, and people unfamiliar with it will likely find a rousing two hours of old-fashioned entertainment.