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(2005) (Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin) (PG-13)

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Sci-fi: A group of futuristic, post-war mercenaries and rebel fighters tries to avoid zombie-like creatures as well as a government operative who's after the psychic girl they've recently rescued.
500 years in the future, Earthlings -- facing overpopulation -- have set out to colonize other planets in a distant galaxy. The resultant government -- known as the Alliance -- has colonized and controls the galaxy's inner planets, but those inhabiting the outer ones revolted, resulting in a bloody civil war.

Now that it's over, former rebel fighter turned opportunistic businessman Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (NATHAN FILLION) leads his ragtag crew of the Serenity through space, taking whatever odd jobs pay the best. Those in his crew include Zoe (GINA TORRES), his second-in-command, as well as her husband-pilot Wash (ALAN TUDYK). Kaylee (JEWEL STAITE) is the lovelorn engineer, wise-cracks are provided by muscular mercenary Jayne (ADAM BALDWIN), and the crew's doctor is Simon (SEAN MAHER).

He's the catalyst for the crew's next mission. It seems that his younger sister, River (SUMMER GLAU), a reported psychic, is being held by the Alliance that wants something important out of her head. She's resisted their efforts so far and turns out to be quite the pre-programmed martial arts expert after the crew rescues her.

Their actions, however, draw the attention of a steely government agent known only as The Operative (CHIWETEL EJIOFOR) whose sole purpose is to find River and prevent what's hidden in her mind from possibly destroying the Alliance. With the aid of the likes of Mal's love interest and courtesan Inara (MORENA BACCARIN), preacher/philosopher Book (RON GLASS) who gives them sanctuary, and technology and communications guru Mr. Universe (DAVID KRUMHOLTZ), Mal and his crew try to avoid the Operative as well as zombie like creatures known as the Reavers who habitually kill and eat humans.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Part of what made the original "Star Wars" film so entertaining and successful was its sense of humor that stemmed from the action, drama and their effects on the main characters. That's not to say it was a laugh-fest by any means, but there were plenty of funny and even charming moments that went a long way in balancing out all of the special effects and making one more accepting of all the film's various flaws. Simply put, since the ride was so inviting and enjoyable, you didn't mind the dents, pings and occasional sputter.

And much of that came courtesy of Harrison Ford's portrayal of Han Solo. A space cowboy if there ever was one, Ford and his character won over viewers by exuding a world (or universe) weary, smart alecky demeanor while getting the job at hand done. It's a personality type he also brought to the Indiana Jones character and movies.

Writer/director Josh Whedon is obviously hoping to tap into the same vein with the lead characters in "Serenity," a sci-fi/western hybrid that's so much of the latter that some of the characters actually use what look like old-fashioned six-shooters. Yet, rather than being set "a long, long time ago," this effort is positioned 500 years into the future after Earth has run out of room and sent travelers out to colonize other worlds.

All of that's explained in the opening moments, but it won't come as any surprise to fans of the sci-fi TV series "Firefly" of which this film is really just a continuation, albeit a feature-length one. Originally airing back in 2002, the show only managed to get out 11 episodes -- reportedly aired out of order and often pre-empted by other programming such as sporting events -- before the plug was pulled on it.

Nevertheless, it was enough time and exposure for a small fan base to develop that's since blossomed and turned zealous following the DVD release of the truncated, first and only season. And by watching the film, you can see why. The characters are decently drawn - with some hitting the Han Solo notes pitch perfectly -- and the camaraderie and related, occasional bickering is engaging. The dialogue is snappy (with good bits of humor) and the action is decently staged, even if the special effects are, well, not terribly special.

To be honest, they weren't perfect back in the original "Star Wars" either (Groundbreaking for the time? Absolutely. Flawless? Not hardly, even back then). But everyone involved -- the viewers, cast and even the director (okay, maybe not that big Ewok who started it all) -- realized that, didn't care and just went along for the ride.

Such is the mindset to adopt for this film by Whedon who previously created and oversaw both "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" during their TV runs. With a reportedly modest budget of 40-some million dollars (which is cheap nowadays for almost any studio film) and rumors that some of the effects, sets and costumes were reused from the TV show (some of which were never seen due to the abrupt cancellation), the film is occasionally clunky, much like the titular ship (which was obviously fashioned in theme after Han Solo's Millennium Falcon).

That's particularly true at the beginning where the exposition must be dispensed and the main plotline established. During these moments, the editing ranges from clunky to bad and the film can't shake the feeling that it's just a blown-up, bigger-budgeted version of the original show. Yet, after spending the first act with the characters and their brand of self-deprecating humor, solid chemistry and kick-butt action, the goofy, genre-bending charm soon won me over.

The plot -- concerning the crew trying to keep a psychic, martial arts time bomb -- Summer Glau ("Sleepover") looking like Christina Ricci's kid sister -- from a calm but deadly government operative -- played by Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Four Brothers," "Dirty Pretty Things") -- is present simply to keep things moving from point A to B and then down through the rest of the story alphabet.

There's some socio-political commentary -- which is where the film strikes some similarities to the original "Star Trek" TV series -- as well as plenty of western movie motifs and themes. But what makes the film work rather well is this little "universe" that Whedon has populated with appealing characters. Nathan Fillion ("Dracula 2000," "Blast from the Past") and Adam Baldwin ("The Patriot," "Independence Day") get the best moments playing the Han Solo type characters, but the likes of Gina Torres (the last two "Matrix" films), Alan Tudyk ("I, Robot," "Wonder Boys") and Jewel Staite ("Carpool," "Gold Diggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain") are also decent in their respective parts.

For all of the whiz-bang special effects that George Lucas has put into the latest trilogy of the "Star Wars" films, he's mostly omitted what made his original and now this film so engaging. And that's the ability to tell a decent story with fun characters where no one takes everything so seriously that all of the fun, charm and straightforward entertainment value is sucked dry. Certainly not perfect but fairly enjoyable, "Serenity" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed September 21, 2005 / Posted September 30, 2005

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