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Film Review ***1/2: Feeding the ‘Firefly’ Fanatics

Joss Whedon Triumphs in Directorial Debut With ‘Serenity’

By Nivair H. Gabriel
ASSOCIATE ARTS EDITOR

Serenity

Directed by Joss Whedon

Written by Joss Whedon

Produced by Christopher Buchanan

Starring Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin

Universal Studios

Rated PG-13

Opens Today

For the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Firefly,” the transition from season-long story arcs to a 119-minute film probably seemed a Herculean task. Joss Whedon, however, does not shy away from challenge, and “Serenity,” a film adaptation of “Firefly,” is both a fanatic-pleasing romp and an action-packed introduction to a fabulous new world.

If you are a fan “Firefly,” which told the story of a spaceship crew 500 years in the future, be warned — you won’t see copious screen time for your favorite characters, unless your favorite character is swaggering, ruthlessly attractive Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). Details of the universe become clear quickly as the plot progresses; while the delicacy of Whedon’s writing makes sure that the uninitiated will understand. Viewers catch only a glimpse of typical daily life on the humble spaceship Serenity and have to pick up the meaning of things like “reavers” and “shiny” for themselves. Thankfully, Whedon understands that this is an action movie with a message, not a television serial with hours of time to spend on character description and soliloquies.

Whedon, however, is also a master of realistic character creation, and his eight main characters have ample time to bring out their personalities. By the end of the movie, if you’ve paid attention, you will know everybody’s name and whom they want to sleep with (if anyone). Captain Mal’s crew, Zoe (Gina Torres), Wash (Alan Tudyk), Jayne (Adam Baldwin), and Kaylee (Jewel Staite) all perform as they did on the television show, and each has a fancy one-liner or two. Serenity runs as it should, with everyone a little too good at their jobs and not-quite-predictably evading danger.

The two who drive the plot, however, receive the most attention: siblings Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and River Tam (Summer Glau). Simon, a successful doctor, risked everything to rescue his psychic and exceptionally powerful sister from the Alliance, the galactic parliamentary coalition. Since River can feel terrible events happening all around the universe and has been partially trained (via electroshocks to her brain) as a military operative, she always portrays either incredible clarity or complete confusion. The brother-sister dynamic is shakily presented, but it’s there: Whedon’s unique touch is the depiction of honest relationships without unrealistic gender bias or Hollywood convention.

Mal’s struggle also flies in the face of what is normally accepted in this kind of story — he’s not sure whether he’s doing the right thing, and he’s not even sure he cares about doing the right thing. Heroes, Zoe remarks at one point, are often those who just get other people killed. Whedon has a hopeful message, though; Mal finds, as most people do, that he is driven by love to do what he feels is right. Life is often confusing, even in an action movie — but in a Joss action movie, you can leave knowing you’ve gotten a few pointers.

The villain in this movie is scary. If you last saw sweet-faced Chiwetel Ejiofor in a tame summer movie, you will not be expecting his chilling performance as the Operative, whose job is to destroy River Tam and her brother before they can disseminate information about the Alliance’s secret tasks. Those secrets manifest themselves in a devastating and disturbing scene on a lost planet, where a transmission from the past appears to the Serenity crew, and they are forced to watch a holograph of a woman being eaten alive. While Joss’s previous projects have treated nightmares like torture and vampires with a bit of a wink, in “Serenity,” they are truly sobering.

Whedon doesn’t offer solutions to the nastiness of the world, but he presents the lighter side of life and gives both comfort and thought-provoking questions. And explosions — lots and lots of fiery explosions.

Don’t see “Serenity” for the costumes (though they’re gorgeous), the cinematography (though it’s decent), or the special effects (though they’re both original and cool). See it because you’ll experience adventure, laughter, thoughtfulness, intelligence, and damn good storytelling.