The real saga of "Serenity" is a heroic tale indeed, a testament to the awesome power of DVD buyers.
When FOX canceled "Firefly," the sci-fi TV series created by Joss "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" Whedon, after a mere 11 of 14 episodes aired in 2002, 500,000 fans hied themselves hence to the video store when the full set of 14 episodes hit shelves. Impressed, Universal Pictures backed Whedon on "Serenity," a $40 million film project that would not only tie up loose plot ends but also introduce a potential franchise to a new audience.
Forty million bucks isn't much by epic standards, but Whedon made the most of his meager scratch when making "Serenity." The special effects are good enough. Giant spaceships unfurl frightening appendages like nightmarish mutant arachnids, and an early chase scene in which the horrifying, cannibalistic Reavers pursue the Serenity crew a few feet above desert terrain is fast-paced fun worthy of the first "Star Wars."
But the appeal of Whedon's creation isn't about bells and whistles. It's about the story -- and the cast, all of which made it to the big screen. That is a good thing.
Nathan Fillion plays Serenity's captain, Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds, an obstinate former commander on the losing rebel side of a galactic civil war fought 500 years in the future against the imperialistic Alliance. In the hard-times postwar era, Reynolds leads a motley pirate crew: his tough former comrade-in-arms Zoe (Gina Torres), her nebbishy pilot hubby Wash (Alan Tudyk), dull-witted mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin), handsome young physician Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and the ship's tomboyish grease monkey Kaylee (Jewel Staite), who yearns for the good doc to tend to her "nethers."
Though no longer aboard the ship, series regulars Inara, the professional "companion" (OK, high-class hooker) played by the impossibly beautiful Morena Baccarin, and the preacher Shepherd Brook (played by the cast's most familiar member, Ron Glass of "Barney Miller") return to tie up or advance story lines. In Inara's case, the long-simmering romantic tension between her and Mal is played, as always, for good laughs.
The action revolves around Simon's sister River Tam, (acrobatic former dancer Summer Glau). She and her brother are fugitives from the Alliance. River's childhood rebellion against Alliance brainwashing earned her a trip to the doctor's office for a lovely process known as neural stripping. Now an unpredictable schizophrenic who also happens to be a psychic, she holds Alliance secrets in her head, and the Alliance wants her back. A chillingly deadpan operative called, well, The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is dispatched to bring her in, and in one standoff scene, he explains to Mal why he has no qualms about killing children to reach his objective.
"I believe in something greater than myself," he says. "A greater world. A world without sin."
Think of whatever real-life sociopolitical parallels work best for you, and that may be what Whedon intended. "Serenity" has laughs and action galore, just as its fans expect, but it also tugs (and angers) the heart in ways they may not have anticipated.
If any actor's performance should be singled out, it's Glau's. With her tortured baby face, catlike barefoot stalking and kick-butt-a-plenty fight scenes, she's a classic sci-fi heroine for the ages. The image of her standing in a pile of dead Reavers with a bloody, dripping ax in her hand is destined to grace laptop screensavers forever.
If the world is just,"Serenity" will spawn the empire it seeks. Action figures will stand proudly on Wal-Mart shelves in tribute to the crew.
A new generation of geeks shall revere the name River Tam and so bechristen their puppies and kittens with it (the few of them that mate with human companions shall pass the name onto their own daughters).
And they shall flood the Internet with cries for a sequel. May their wishes be duly granted.
Staff writer Danny Hooley can be reached at 829-4728 or firstname.lastname@example.org.