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SERENITY
U.S. Release Date: September 30, 2005
Distributor: Universal
Director: Joss Whedon
Writer: Joss Whedon
Producer: Barry Mendel
Running Time: 1 hour and 59 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (sequences of intense violence and action, and some sexual references)

Space Western's Shining Crew Saddled by Cacophony
by Scott Holleran

Affection for Joss Whedon's Serenity characters is well-deserved, though the spin-off of the writer's television series, Firefly, a quasi-Western science fiction series that clicked in some quarters, is more episodic (and cacophonous) than cinematic. Buckle up and enjoy the ride—but bring the earplugs.

Don't bother trying to study this stuff, with the canceled series available on a popular Complete Series DVD, because writer and director Whedon (Toy Story) digs in with little exposition and gets down to business and that means action—too much and too loud. The best of Serenity, the name of a spaceship captained by a handsome adventurer, is her crew. Get a good look because they are not on screen for long.

When they are, they move. The ship's captain is Mal, a less cynical Han Solo type played by charismatic Nathan Fillion. Mal's crew is a ragtag team that recalls the glorious Star Trek days when one's gender or race was matter of fact: they're sexy, opinionated and as quick to the cut as a samurai is with a sword. Whedon does his best work with the cast, who shine in what are best described as brief bursts between assaults on one's nerve endings.

Hothead Mal, an ex-independence fighter in a lost war against the dictatorship, has a cool sidekick in super-serious Zoe (Gina Torres). She's paired with pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk)—the voice of reason on deck—and they are eventually joined by Mal's ex-girlfriend, the ethereal Inara (Morena Baccarin). Also on board, trying to make a living and finding it necessary to battle the theocratic government: he-man Jayne (Adam Baldwin) and innocent Kaylee (Jewel Staite), who has a crush on passenger Simon (Sean Maher), whose sister (Summer Glau) can see the future before it happens.

The strange sister, aptly named River, bogs Serenity down in a pile of mystical mud that splatters on everything in the movie. Whenever the banter picks up steam, and the trademark Western theme gets going, her weirdness shows up to ruin the mood. Her dominant character—whose utterances provoke random acts and catatonic states in every other scene—drives the plot and drags the wild bunch down. Other characters, including Ron Glass (Harris on Barney Miller) as a kindly preacher, David Krumholtz as a one-man media outlet and Chiwetel Ejiofor as a smooth killer bad guy, are lost.

The spine of the story is fine—even intriguing—with a vague theme that tyranny arrives by invitation, but there's not nearly enough time spent with the characters to care about anyone's plight. It's apparent why the show gained a following, with smart characters fighting for life in a straight cowboys and Indians space adventure, speaking in a Wild West saloon style that sets Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome's uneducated jib jab to a Forties' beat. Whedon writes some great lines.

When Kaylee, who has been trying to score with pretty-boy Simon between bouts with ghastly creatures called Reavers, finally gets a crack at him during a tense climactic battle, she exclaims the movie's best line. But it is merely a tease and, before long, it's back to the barefooted hippie chick and her incestuous brother.

Not as flighty as this year's other attempt at sparking a sci-fi cult franchise, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Serenity is not a bad movie. It is an obnoxiously loud movie. While this first-time firefly's light fades in and out, Whedon has what it takes to blast off in another voyage.


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