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The Globe and Mail's "Serenity" review

Minor spoilers (very minor, if you've seen the series), so enter at your own risk (I'm planning on catching the 7:10 p.m. show tonight):

Space pleasure cruise
Serenity (2005)
The Globe and Mail Review E-mail this Article
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Space pleasure cruise
By By Stephen Cole
Friday, September 30, 2005
Genre: action, adventure, drama, sci-fi


Serenity

***

Directed and written

by Joss Whedon

Starring Nathan Fillion, Jewel Staite

Classification: 14A

News that Firefly recently edged past Desperate Housewives on Amazon's top 10 selling DVDs would no doubt be greeted with surprise by the show's fans and astonishment by everyone else. Devotees might ponder what could outsell their series, while the rest of the world wonders, "What's Firefly?"

Ah, therein hangs a tale. In 2001, Fox TV asked Joss Whedon for a follow-up to his hits Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Impressed with a Civil War novel he'd been reading (Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels), but incapable of playing any genre straight, Whedon conjured a post-apocalyptic yarn about banished rebels who steer clear of a totalitarian regime by tooling around frontier planets in a spaceship-for-hire.

As it turned out, Whedon's series was done in by the killer Angels of Anaheim, Calif. Right after Firefly's 2002 debut, Fox devoted itself to the major-league baseball World Series, won by the aforementioned Angels. Firefly was delayed, displaced and cancelled; gone in several weeks but apparently not forgotten. A DVD edition sold 200,000 units in Europe. Impressed by those numbers, Universal Pictures encouraged Whedon to do a film sequel, which was completed but not released this spring. Instead the studio has shown sneak previews of the film 66 times across North America since April, hoping to draw Internet fan-site buzz.

Today everyone can judge the first space western since robot gunslinger Yul Brynner holstered his six-guns in Michael Crichton's Westworld in 1973. And while it's safe to assume Firefly fans will be ecstatic to see the cast from the old TV show return to do battle with the totally totalitarian bad guys of the Alliance, even strangers to the series should appreciate Whedon's assured feature-filmmaking debut.

The story begins with schoolchildren gathered outside on a lemony bright day listening to a patient oracle explain how the Alliance took over the worlds, making everyone happy -- everyone except for the spoilsport rebels, that is. One of the kids, a troubled child named River, asks a series of probing questions. At which point the smiling teacher stabs a needle into her forehead.

Two scenes later, the questioner, now a teenager, has been stolen from the Alliance and is on an old Firefly-class vessel, the Serenity, blasting through space. It appears to hit turbulence. "This should get interesting," the pilot tells Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). Reynolds asks him to define interesting. The pilot pretends to be a hapless passenger on a crashing plane. "Oh God, oh God, we're all going to die interesting," he jokes.

Fans of Whedon's oeuvre will recognize the swift transition from gruesome to wise-ass clowning. As Whedon proved on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, no one is better at mixing flinch and fun. And part of the kick to Serenity is watching the filmmaker expertly play with moods as he hyphenates the western and sci-fi genres. Whedon's space cowboys wear holsters and talk as if they should be chewing on grass sprouts as they mosey about the galaxy.

As mechanic Kaylee Frye, Jewel Staite brings a storming energy to the proceedings. And Fillion has evident fun fooling with the role of a jut-jawed hero. In fact the whole crew makes for good company, a sure sign that an action adventure movie is working. (For nationalists keeping score, Staite is from White Rock, B.C., and Fillion from Edmonton.) In his big-screen debut, Whedon also displays the ability of a heavyweight action-film director to throw proper Biff! Pow! combination punches. But perhaps what's most admirable about the filmmaker's efforts here is the uncommon swiftness with which he goes about his work. After witnessing the wearying parliamentary debates among good and bad senators in recent Star Wars episodes, it's a pleasure to watch a sci-fi movie where more than just the spaceships move quickly.

In one memorable action scene, Captain Mal flies his way out of a booby trap, after which Whedon cuts to the Alliance mastermind trying to capture him. "Define disappeared," is all he says to his perplexed second-in-command. Just two words and Serenity is off in another direction, pulling us again to the edge of our seats.
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