At the end of Serenity, ship’s captain Mal (Fillion) has a little speech about the first rule of flying a spaceship – “it ain’t all buttons and charts” he says, but “love that keeps her in the air when she ought to fall down.” Writer/director Whedon is surely addressing the legions of “browncoats” – the diehard Firefly fans whose dedication brought the story of the crew of Serenity back from the dead when Fox mishandled and then prematurely cancelled the original show.

Love (and phenomenal DVD sales) kept the story of Firefly alive when it should have died, the only question now is: was Serenity worth the effort?

The answer is yes, unequivocally. Serenity is by no means perfect but it is hugely entertaining.

Whedon strikes a sensible balance between filling in back-story for those unfamiliar with the original series and moving things along fast enough for fans. Inevitably, perhaps, the first half of the film is a little exposition-heavy as the large cast is introduced and complex history explained. That Serenity doesn’t become bogged down is due to Whedon’s trademark fizzy dialogue and tight plotting.

In the second half Serenity really comes to life. Big action sequences, dramatic tension and well developed character relationships all pay off handsomely to deliver a taut, traumatic and triumphant final hour. The result is a film that outdoes the great majority of blockbusters in terms of action and excitement and that easily outpaces them in intelligence and wit.

The story focuses on River (Glau), the precocious but damaged fugitive smuggled aboard Serenity by her brother Simon (Maher). The Alliance, concerned at the secrets this, apparently fragile, telepathic girl might know send an operative (Ejiofor) – a cold-blooded killer – to capture or kill her. As River is revealed as more than she seems and the operative hunts down the crew’s few friends, River’s memories begin to surface. These lead the crew of the Serenity into a close brush with the rampant, flesh-eating madness of the Reavers via a dead planet to a final showdown with the Alliance.

Whedon is playing to his strengths here with a large ensemble cast sharing quick, often very funny banter that hints at deeper emotion. Love is, as always, difficult, with no one quite able to say what they really mean until it appears too late. Whedon has never been afraid to explore darker elements in his story and those familiar with his writing on Buffy and Angel will not be surprised that not all the characters in Serenity get out in one piece. For fans, this can be painful – especially when a favourite character becomes the focus of Whedon’s baleful gaze. But it means the viewer can never relax, even established and loved characters can be sacrificed. Whedon’s worlds are never cosy.

The cast, all returning to reprise their television roles, are uniformly excellent but Fillion is a stand out. His captain, Mal Reynolds, is the kind of swashbuckling rogue Han Solo dreams of becoming. He has absolutely no problem with shooting first. Tough to the point of cruelty, Fillion still manages to imbue the character with humour and vulnerability.

There are annoying flies in Serenity’s ointment – the opening exposition clearly states that the action takes place in a single solar system with dozens of planets and hundreds of moons. But one planet has, apparently, been kept “secret” from the whole population. Are there no astronomers in this system? Don’t all those pilots in their spaceships notice a big ball of rock influencing their orbits? And why does everyone seem to refer to this solar system interchangeably as both the galaxy and the universe? It’s a tiny, but irritating, point.

More crucial to the plot is the question about what sort of government and/or drug company carries out its first test of a new drug on a whole planet?

And The Alliance and, especially, Ejiofor’s operative, are simply too implacably wicked to be truly convincing villains. Tyrants and fanatics construct complex webs of self-justification for their actions, they do not simply concede their intrinsically evil nature to the enemy.

Niggles apart, Serenity is solidly realised science fiction, as entertaining a piece of space opera as you are likely to see and has enough depth to reward repeated viewings.

(Originally published in Matrix 176, Nov/Dec 2005)

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