As writer-director Joss Whedon proved in his long run on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (seven seasons) and his short one on Firefly (eleven episodes), he has two distinct yet complementary gifts: He can write quick, gabby banter for an array of heroes and oddballs better than any auteur since Preston Sturges, and he can dramatize the camaraderie within an ensemble better than anyone since Howard Hawks. Thus, Serenity—his big-screen expansion of Firefly, bankrolled by Universal because the DVD sold way beyond expectations—is a sci-fi saga that manages to be at once stirring and screwball, gut-busting and gut-wrenching, and more fun than you had at any bigger-budget movie this past summer.
Whedon knows you never watched the original TV show, and so he makes that fact not matter. His clever opening scene, set during a history class of kiddies 500 years in the future, swiftly clues in the viewer: Following a war, the solar system was taken over by a fascist coalition, the Alliance. Our protagonists are the rebel dissenters from that governing body: Independents, they’re called—outcasts who traverse the universe, picking up jobs and fights, just like gunslingers and cowboys. The crew of the battered spaceship in Serenity is headed up by Captain Mal Reynolds (boyish but broad-shouldered Nathan Fillion), who oversees a familiar assortment of trusty companions and crusty hotheads whom Whedon renders fresh, with well-planted early jokes that detonate much later in the proceedings—indeed, one joke does so literally, via some grenades and the rowdiest crew member, Jayne (Adam Baldwin). Serenity frequently plays like the best sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark that Steven Spielberg never made. Whedon is intensely self-conscious—a quality that juices up rather than paralyzes his wit. He constantly sets up genre tropes—a bad guy giving a sadistic speech about how he’s going to kill Mal; the unexpected deaths of beloved characters—only to raise these situations beyond mere surprise or laughs. The filmmaker also takes the opportunity to explore the one character who was clearly meant to become a crucial factor had the TV series continued: River (Summer Glau), a 17-year-old whose psychic powers have made her the target of torturous experiments by the Alliance. River takes center stage in Serenity, and we get to see her awesome cerebral and physical strength unleashed in viciously precise, balletic fight scenes that take advantage of Glau’s background as a trained dancer. (The River sequences build one’s hopes for Whedon’s next big-screen project, which also involves a potent female: Wonder Woman.)
Beyond all this, Whedon makes the juxtaposition of the Alliance and the Independents pay off as a meaningful political metaphor: At bottom, what first Firefly and now Serenity are about is the way people in power shape our collective memories to maintain control: “One task of writing history is hiding the truth,” says Mal in one of his more eloquent moments. (More typical is the man’s-gotta-do tagline from the trailer, in which Mal growls, “I aim to misbehave”—triggering the crowd I saw the movie with to howl their own vicarious revenge-lust.)
With Serenity, Whedon proves once again that the storytelling and characterization featured by the best television writing are just as rich and deep—often more so—than anything in the cinema. The movie is suffused with a uniquely sardonic romanticism (humor and passion both tart and sweet). And it’s also an action movie that truly defines the term “space opera”: When slight, thin-boned River goes ballistic and takes out the franchise’s most frightening villains, a rapacious horde called Reavers, Serenity achieves a grandness—a heightened rapture—that few adventure films even have the imagination, or the idealism, to aspire to these days.