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Serenity (2005)

Reviewed By Todd LaPlace
Posted 10/02/05 03:57:56

"Like “Star Wars” — but good."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

If you plan on sitting through the credits of “Serenity,” waiting for some hidden Easter egg the early risers missed, don’t bother. The only thing that comes at the end is an instrumental version of the short-lived TV shows theme song, and if you’re (un)lucky, you might get a geeky enough audience that will serenade you with the words. I just feel its best to have a solid game plan before walking into such a cult crowd, because they can smell those that aren’t there own. Just be prepared, because they will get freakishly excited during the latest “Harry Potter” trailer, and they will get even more freakishly excited once the movie’s over, because this cult sci-fi flick is just that good.

“Serenity” is not “Firefly.” Fans that bought the DVD collection in huge numbers might be disappointed to learn of the disconnection between the two, but if you walk into the former expecting an extra long episode of the latter, you will be disappointed. The same ragtag collection of characters is back, as is creator Joss Whedon and his well-known quick wit. Perhaps the only difference is Universal, the distributor of the film, hasn’t put the same well-documented rigid restrictions as Fox, which allows Whedon to steer the film into much darker territory than he ever would have with the short-lived show.

For those unfamiliar of the show’s set-up — Whedon will give you a crash course in the first few minutes — it is the 26th Century and dozens of planets and moons have been terraformed for human life by the Alliance, the winning side of a great civil war. On the losing side is Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), the rebel captain of a Firefly-class space vessel named Serenity, and a crew comprised of a miscellaneous collection of lost souls. There’s Malcolm’s army vet Zoe (Gina Torres), the ship’s cold, but noble, second-in-command; Wash (“Dodgeball’s” Alan Tudyk), Zoe’s pilot husband with an affinity for Hawaiian shirts and dinosaur toys; Jane (Adam Baldwin), the more-brawn-then-brains hired gun that lacks any type of social filter; Kaylee (the delectable Jewel Staite), the small-town girl turned expert mechanic; and siblings Simon (Sean Maher) and River (Summer Glau), a doctor formerly in the Alliance system and a schizophrenic seer, respectively, that are on the run from the ambiguously evil central government. Those playing the home game will notice that between the show’s end and the picture’s beginning, former Serenity passengers Shepard Book (Ron Glass) and companion (a.k.a. licensed escort) Inara (Morena Baccarin) deplaned, but both are important enough to the TV fans to pop up and provide pivotal scenes.

Despite the excess of characters, the film really boils down to one, the unstable River. While under government experimentation, River was privy to the Alliance’s biggest secret, which may be stored somewhere in her subconscious, which causes the government to send a nameless assassin (Chiwetel Ejiofor) after the savant. If “Serenity” had actually begun as a film, I wonder how many of the film’s ensemble would still exist. Fox actually shelved the series original pilot for being too dialogue-heavy, opting to intro with a more action-heavy episode, but working in such an expansive medium, it made sense to build levels in his characters. The combination of a shortened format and the potential audience’s naivety about the source material has both forced an expansive cast and a shallow collection of characters. With the exception of River and Mal, the former series regulars mostly fade into the background, becoming nothing more than cute cameos for the fans.

Ultimately, there isn’t much more Whedon could have done with his cast, save making the film three times as long (not that many wouldn’t have been happy with that cut of the film). It’s just a fanboy’s squabble with a cherished source that could make me criticize “Serenity”; the film is actually more rich and dynamic than any of us could have been hoping for. One critic wrote “Serenity” is “sci-fi on a budget — don’t expect ‘Star Wars’ quality,” which Whedon should take as a high compliment. If George Lucas was good at one thing, it was spending a pile of money to make a visually stunning twenty seconds of film, but Lucas couldn’t even script his way to B-movie status. Whedon doesn’t offer the same type of escapist distraction that turned Lucas into a cult icon, opting for a more character-driven sci-fi film. All of Whedon’s classic wit and charm is accounted for, as well as his love of obscure references (River is referred to as the ship’s albatross, a reference to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”). For those following the story since its inception, Whedon also provides the much-awaited origin/explanation of River and her neurosis, which is much more interesting and satisfying than anything that could have been theorized. Whedon has taken his labor of love and delivered a picture that proves you were crazy for not watching any of his now-defunct shows. Shame on all of you.

Trying to craft 22 one-hour episodes a season has led to some interesting and unexplainable leftovers in the film’s delivery that are bound to be confusing to the Whedon novices. For instance, what happened to make everyone and everything adopt Chinese phrases, clothing, lettering and sensibility? Despite the advanced technology, why do millions of people act like they’re living in the Old West, complete with horses and bonnets? Maybe if all of you had bothered to watch the show, we might have reached the point where these were explained. In case you missed it before, shame on all of you.

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