Firefly soars again, with director Josh Whedon reviving his short-lived TV series as a big-screen adventure named after the show's rust bucket of a spacecraft. Browncoats--the Firefly equivalent of a Trekker--will walk away with a sense of closure. Others may just walk out after the opening credits.
For the uninitiated, Firefly's 26th-century final frontier resembled the wild, wild West, with gunslingers shooting up mining towns on far-flung worlds. The show playfully chronicled the criminal endeavors of Serenity's motley crew of smugglers, captained by the glib but principled Mal (Nathan Fillion). The ship also serves as home to passengers Simon (Sean Maher) and his sister River (Summer Glau). Serenity swiftly but awkwardly recounts how Simon risked his promising career as a doctor to rescue River from scientists working for the nefarious Alliance, the victors in a cruel war against freedom fighters known as Browncoats (yes, our good captain was a Browncoat). The Alliance turned River, a young psychic, into a killing machine. Now the siblings are on the run. Serenity opens with the Alliance dispatching its harshest operative, known only as--yes--the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), to capture River. So Mal must put on hold his illicit dealings to protect the increasingly violent River. And that means putting Serenity--and the crew Mal regards as family--in harms way. So does it help if you have partaken of Firefly's 14 episodes? It certainly does. Whedon makes few concessions to those unfamiliar with Firefly or its crew and passengers. But if you can grasp the gist of Firefly's intricate political machinations, then the flight's somewhat enjoyable.
Serenity's crew and passengers are all present and accounted for, led as always by Fillion's captain of the ship. Imagine Jason Bateman playing Han Solo--that's Mal, and he's one of the reasons why Firefly was such a exuberant romp across the universe. Fillion's deliciously sarcastic, but he never allows Mal's sharp tongue to overshadow his wily ways and noble intentions. As Serenity adopts a more serious tone than Firefly, Fillion heightens the tension by employing Mal's brashness as an unstoppable force of vengeance. Of course, Mal's a pussycat compared to River. Sure, she's a one-woman army, but Glau doesn't allow River to devolve into a lethal weapon. With a face wracked with pain, and eyes filled with sorrow, Glau heartbreakingly presents a teen at odds with herself and fearful of what she may do to those willing to risk their lives for her. That includes her brother, Simon, who's played with little more backbone by Maher than he was in Firefly. Otherwise, Serenity's remaining crew and passengers--including the brawny Adam Baldwin, the steadfast Gina Torres and the righteous Ron Glass--serve the same functions as they did in Firefly. Only Alan Tudyk stands out from the crowd as Serenity's pilot and the source of much-needed comic relief. But it is Four Brothers' Ejiofor who steals Serenity. He's clever, articulate and devout, with a quiet and calm demeanor that hides his cruelty. How merciless is this self-described ''monster'' of a man? He kills children in his crusade to create a world without sin, or so Ejiofor chillingly reveals. Ejiofor had better be careful that he's not typecasting himself as a brute, but there's no denying he's fulfilling the promise he showed in Dirty Pretty Things.
Whedon's not one to abandon his children. He transformed the bloodless Buffy the Vampire Slayer into a cult TV series. Now he's salvaged his beloved Firefly, which Fox unceremoniously canceled in 1992 after airing 11 episodes--mostly in the wrong order. But Firefly thrived on DVD, so Universal's sank $40 million into a film that skillfully ties up most of the show's loose ends. The reason behind the Alliance's desperate attempt to recapture its science project gone awry is finally revealed, and the answer isn't pretty. The dreaded Reavers--self-mutilating cannibals who prefer their meals alive and kicking--play a pivotal role in the proceedings. And at least one of Serenity's budding romances is consummated. The bad news, though, is that Serenity will make little sense to anyone who isn't a Browncoat. Serenity unfolds like Firefly's series finale, and by the time you figure out what's what, the day's on the verge of being saved. Worse, Whedon is so intent on wrapping up everything that he neglects to retain Firefly's roguish charm. The mischievousness is gone, replaced with a dark and brooding mood rarely hinted at in the TV show. It also doesn't help that Serenity makes little effort to reintroduce the crew and passengers. Whedon does a poor job of making anyone but Browncoats care about the people aboard Serenity. And that's a huge problem when death strikes Serenity. In the case of one influential Firefly character, whose presence is rarely felt in Serenity, a non-Browncoat just won't appreciate the enormity of this sad loss. Browncoats, though, will be stunned that Whedon can be so bloodthirsty. Still, they will feel satisfied Whedon made these sacrifices so that Serenity would prove doggedly true to the Firefly mythology.
In a year when Hollywood bastardized TV classics such as Bewitched and The Honeymooners, Serenity stands out as a welcomed labor of love. Unfortunately, Serenity won't mean much to anyone but diehard fans of Firefly. And that, sadly, will likely result in Whedon losing out on a second opportunity to extend the life of a great TV show that deserves to be on the air today.