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The Firefly class ship Serenity appears to barely hold together. Key parts have a tendency to melt down under pressure, and if ever a boat deserved the epithet "rustbucket," this one would be the one. But it always comes through in the clutch, and Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his rag tag crew of misfits, refugees and rogues love her.

So it goes with Serenity the film. In some places, it has problems holding together, but creative mastermind Joss Whedon, his crew and we the faithful still love it. The question is, will outsiders recognize how good it is?

Whedon transitions smoothly to the big screen as a director, which bodes well for future projects such as Wonder Woman. In only a couple of places does Serenity look like it has the scope of the TV show. For the most part, he takes advantage of the bigger budget and higher production values. The Serenity still looks like a mess, but it's a higher quality mess than before.

As a writer, too, Whedon transfers the brilliance that has made him such a beloved figure. Clever repartee abounds, even when the characters aren't being all that clever. If you're new to Whedon, you might also fall for his knack for busting clichés, though admittedly, that in itself is becoming a cliché in his work.

With one major exception that I may never tire of: Joss Whedon is willing to kill his babies. Serenity has a tension that most big-budget franchise films lack, especially since this could easily be a farewell as much as a hello. Anything can happen; no one is safe. That makes every character that much more fragile and heroic. There's no franchise to protect (yet?).

But if you see Serenity in a room full of Firefly fans and you're not one of them, you may still find yourself puzzled by the whooping and hollering. True, the film brings to fruition many long-standing plotlines. However, they're both long-standing and barely explained.

At the center of it stands River Tam (Summer Glau), a psychic experimented upon by the fascistic Alliance that controls most of inhabited space. Her brother Simon (Sean Maher) broke her free from the Alliance and hid her on the Serenity. Throughout most of the series, her behavior was unstable and she would get flashes of men with blue hands that were out to get her.

Perhaps the Blue Man Group took umbrage, because those azure fisted fiends are nowhere to be seen in Serenity. Instead, a calmly effective operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) pursues her and the secrets she must possess.

He rambles on quite a bit about morality, in a creepy quiet way. One thing Whedon really knows how to build are his villains. The Operative moves inexorably toward his goal, while on the other side of things, the crew faces the dreaded Reavers.

Moving to the cinema allows Whedon to show his outer space boogeymen, but he doesn't overplay his hand. They're truly frightening and yet still done subtly; it's nice to see that he knows less is more. Then again, we should have expected that. They, at least, need no explanation; from their first entrance, all the audience needs to know is that they're frightening as all hell.

Once the film starts moving on to others in the regular cast, though, it gets a little more vague. Neither Shepherd (the sublime Ron Glass) nor Inara (Morena Baccarin) have stayed with the Serenity since Firefly ended; how that happened is covered in a recent Dark Horse Comics' mini-series, and the film script doesn't bother explaining. Again, for those just tuning in, this could be very disconcerting, especially since Shepherd gets a couple of nice musings in.

The focus, though, stays on River, transformed into something akin to a Slayer, and the conflict that causes for Mal (Nathan Fillion). If you have female friends, you may know him better as "He Who Causes Reflexive Salivation," but it turns out that Fillion is a better actor than anyone but Whedon knew.

Here's where the film really finds its heart and its sparkle, as Mal essentially recovers his soul. Fillion gives the role complexity, handling heroism and light buffoonery with equal ease. In his hands, Mal Reynolds wears his heart on his sleeve, but has little idea that that's where it is. As science fiction leads go, Fillion just vaulted to the top of the class.

Will Serenity really launch a franchise, or just a few careers? It's hard to tell, but I'll put aside my qualms about its accessibility. It's just refreshing to get caught up in an epic that still cares more about character and plot than sweep for the sake of sweep.

Say it with me now: Then again, I expected no less of Joss Whedon.


Derek McCaw

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