The time is the far future and the aftermath of a bloody war between the planets of the Alliance and the outer worlds, although all are descended from the population of the overcrowded Earth many years before. The Alliance would have its citizens believe that they were the right side, they won after all, and they plan to make the peace last as long as possible. But as what remains of losing side makes their way through life as best they can, frequently resorting to crime to get by, the crew of one ship, the Serenity, harbours a secret - a secret even they don't understand the significance of. She is River Tam (Summer Glau), a seventeen-year-old girl who has been experimented on by the Alliance's best scientists to be a powerful psychic. The questions remains - why?
Joss Whedon had his problems with an Alliance himself: an alliance of evil television executives who saw to it that Firefly, the series that preceded Serenity, was taken off the air and was barely given a chance to succeed thanks to their meddling. The series was shaping up to be every bit the equal of Whedon's previous one, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but as it was it only became a cult favourite when it was released, complete, on DVD. So the fans were delighted when the news came through that Whedon was planning a big screen feature, written and directed by Whedon, to tie up all the loose ends and with any luck start a new franchise.
Taking the familiar space opera format and imbuing it with a strain of another genre, the Western, proved to make the stories come up fresh as daisies on the small screen, but for film there's a threat of being overfamiliar - if Blake's 7 had ever been a movie, would it have been swamped by all the Star Wars rip-offs being put out at the time? Fortunately, Serenity did rather well, and was received warmly in the main, mostly thanks to its excellent special effects (always an important element in these things nowadays) and the superb playing of its cast, returning from TV. The crew of the spaceship genuinely appear like old friends and their camaraderie is never less than convincing thanks to Whedon's dialogue.
The captain of the Serenity is Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) a cocky hero despite himself in the Han Solo mould. When we meet him he's drawing up a scheme to relieve a bank vault of its cash on a quiet planet; all goes well until the film's flesh eating, wildly destructive bogeymen, the Reavers, turn up and the gang have to make a quick exit. They manage to escape thanks to River's psychic warnings, but Mal's right hand woman, Zoe (Gina Torres) has reservations: they may have got the money, but what about the civilian who tried to climb aboard their transport for help? Mal pushed him off and had to shoot him before he was eaten, but Zoe points out that back when they were fighting the war, Mal would have saved him.
This struggle between idealism and personal gain informs the story. Mal and his crew are, in the main, crushed idealists who regain their sense of doing the right thing for society thanks to their sheltering River and her elder, doctor brother Simon (Sean Maher) from the Alliance, but the villains, represented by one of their operatives (the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor) also have ideals that see them wishing to improve on the population under their command. It's just that their methods are morally repugnant and don't match the criteria of the Utopia they are working towards, a neat twist on the clichés of Star Trek.
As a film Serenity rarely seems like a television show lost on the silver screen, Whedon has made it truly cinematic with its camera swooping around the vastness of space or the dusty landscapes and there's always room for the characters' engaging emotions. The cast handle the laughs and tragedy with equal skill, although some have more opportunities than others, and the way the baddies are always one step ahead, until the finale anyway, puts the goodies in an especially precarious - and thrilling - position. However, while very good, the film doesn't match the best episodes, lacking both the intimacy of TV and a feel for the society outside the immediate drama - you're not sure how ordinary folks lives would be changed by the news at the end in the face of the all- (or mostly-) powerful Alliance. That said, it's nice that the series was given another, proper chance, and makes you wish that many science fiction action movies could be this intelligent. Music by David Newman.