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Serenity   C+

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Joss Whedon
Writer: Joss Whedon
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass, Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Review by Rob Vaux

It's a difficult task separating Serenity from the zeal of writer-director Joss Whedon's fans. Their unabashed adulation of the project produces the same level of irritation as those who said Titanic was a romance for the ages, or that there will never be a movie as scary as The Blair Witch Project. Neither of those films was bad, but the fanatic devotion of their admirers set a standard that they simply couldn't meet. Both have aged poorly and their assets, though notable, have largely been forgotten beneath the backlash against too much praise too soon.

So it is with Serenity, an amiable B-level spinoff of a cult sci-fi series whose reach clearly exceeds its grasp. This is the sort of film that might have been a pleasant surprise had it aired quietly on the Sci-Fi Channel. Instead, it gets a big theatrical release boosted by the hysterics of a fan base who have already declared it the greatest science fiction movie ever, ever, ever. It can't support that weight, not by a long shot. Its story embraces undue pretensions, its dialogue thinks it's far more clever than it is, and its Star Wars envy is positively unseemly. In other circumstances, it all might have been forgivable, because the remainder of the film is good popcorn fun. But saddled with unconscionably high expectations, that fun fights too damn hard to reach us.

Whedon's reputation stems largely from his scripts, so it's surprising that he handles the director's duties much more adroitly here. Reassembling Firefly's cast of scruffy renegades -- thieves and smugglers sticking it to the intergalactic man of the 26th century -- he quickly throws them against the monolithic Alliance who have their eye on a passenger onboard their ship. River Tam (Summer Glau), the sort of spooky little girl who shows up in Japanese horror remakes, is actually a bioengineered weapon carrying devastating state secrets and mystic powers of kung-fu ass kickery. Initially, ship's captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is wary of keeping her around, but then the Alliance sends a soft-spoken Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to secure her return with a few quietly phrased threats. Pushers get pushed, as the saying goes, and Mal and his crew end up protecting River precisely because it annoys the Alliance for them to do so.

Whedon's universe angles for the western end of the sci-fi/western scale, with dusty towns and weapons that resemble old-time six-shooters more than ray guns. It's an interesting look, though a little flat, and to it, Serenity adds some modestly nifty creative concepts. In addition to the Alliance, Mal and his crew must face the Reavers, cannibalistic raiders who feast upon still-living bodies, as well as the possibly inadvertent threat posed by River herself. Whedon does a decent job of getting new audience members up to speed on the nuances of his space opera, and keeping the plot self-contained. You don't have to be steeped in Firefly lore to understand what's going on here. The film's star-bound chases and running gunfights are well-choreographed, and the pacing never flags, giving Serenity a nicely engaging consistency. Though many of the set pieces are unduly derivative ("Hey, let's have a bar in outer space! And people can get into fights there!"), they remain punchy and light thanks to Whedon and editor Lisa Lassek.

The characters are somewhat more problematic. The actors all know their roles, but with eight members of Mal's crew, there's little time to develop them into convincing personalities. They're limited to a lot of glib one-liners and some smug exposition delivered in a variation of Western vernacular. Thankfully, they're also largely appealing, and though some have precious little screen time (the fine Alan Tudyk is woefully underused), they endeavor to make the most of it. The real scene-stealer is Ejiofor, who brings the same kind-eyed empathy he displayed in Dirty Pretty Things to the role of a remorseless killer. Good villains go a long way in movies like this, and Ejiofor's never-named Operative is often the best thing on-screen.

So with all that in its favor, what exactly is the problem with Serenity? Simply put, it's never more than disposable: a modestly entertaining late-September release of the sort that comes and goes like autumn leaves. And yet everything about it, from the concept to the development to the sights on-screen, suggests that it wants to be so much more. The characters' iconoclasm is lionized, yet never feels as subversive as Whedon would like us to think; at the end of the day, they still fit into all too traditional good-guy roles. Their speech, too, deviates into heavy (and rather derisive) philosophizing, while laced with a lexicon that clearly aches for pop-culture repeatability. The jokes are smart, but far too aware of their intelligence -- like a witty dinner guest who talks only about himself. And despite its claims to originality, there's a whole lot about it that we've seen in a whole lot of other films. The flaws settle beneath the surface of Serenity like sand in the turtle's shell: itching and scratching and detracting from the better elements on display. Like Titanic and Blair Witch, it boasts some impressive assets, but lowered expectations will produce a much more satisfying experience than the assumption that this space oater is the heir apparent to George Lucas. It's frustrating: Serenity could have been a fun little flick... if only its creator (and his fans) were comfortable with that status.

Review published 09.29.2005.

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