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Fighting for Serenity

Rama Gottumukkala | Wednesday, October 5, 2005

For the first time in years, the frontier of outer space was quiet.

With “Revenge of the Sith” recently finishing its triumphant blitz through the summer box office and “Star Trek: Nemesis” already three years removed from theaters, two of the most lucrative, beloved science fiction franchises were suddenly silent.

Into that vacuum steps one of the most unlikely, but worthy, heirs to the science fiction throne – director Joss Whedon’s “Serenity,” a film that by all rights never had a good shot at entering production in the first place.

Based on Whedon’s short-lived “Firefly” television series, “Serenity” is a big-screen sequel to a TV show that lasted only 11 episodes on Fox back in 2003. Fortunately, Whedon was able to sell the rights to Universal, a studio willing to bankroll the 40 million dollars needed to test the film’s flight potential.

And what a flight it is.

The ragtag crew of Serenity, a cargo ship that navigates the far reaches of space, takes freelance jobs as they come, even if those business ventures aren’t exactly legal. Their captain, Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), is a hardened veteran who was on the losing side of a galactic civil war. He leads his crew from job to job, scrapping together a living that enables them to keep flying.

After Reynolds unknowingly harbors a pair of fugitives, the crew members of Serenity find themselves in the crosshairs of the Universal Alliance, the coalition that won the civil war.

Suddenly, Reynolds and his crew can no longer free-float through space, as they elude a mysterious, ruthless Alliance operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) backed by all of the Alliance’s military might.

While intergalactic crusades are nothing new for a genre long associated with numerous “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” offerings, “Serenity” offers something many $100 million extravaganzas cannot – heart. The heart of “Serenity” – and the reason why it is so memorable – is its deep, charismatic cast.

Whether running from one threat to another, hanging on for dear life in the film’s numerous outer space skirmishes or arguing back and forth with pithy banter, the cast is clearly having a lot of fun with their respective roles and it shows on-screen.

In one scene early in the film, Reynolds and his crew are in the process of robbing a bank safe associated with the Alliance. After forcing their way into the practically empty safe, Zoe, Reynolds’ long-standing first mate, quips, “At last, we can retire and give up this life of crime.”

These exchanges of terse, but genuine, comedic wisecracks are sprinkled throughout and lend a charming personality to the film. The characters in “Serenity” could easily have been written into any number of different genres and been just as endearing and memorable.

Whedon, who pulled double duty on the film as both the director and writer, is a creative genius. Juggling nine principal characters is no easy task, especially in a two-hour film. But Whedon’s script is so captivating and so balanced that not a second is wasted, especially as the tension is ratcheted up with each ensuing scene.

With witty dialogue, charming characters and captivating action scenes, “Serenity” accomplishes more than anyone thought it could. Whedon, his cast and his crew have served notice that, given a chance, their little film can sufficiently fill the void left in the science fiction genre.