Have Gun, Will Space Travel

Serenity spins a classic tale way out West.

Serenity, Joss Whedon’s big-screen spinoff of the 2002 TV show Firefly, which didn’t last even a dozen episodes, is already a cult phenom well before its opening. The show’s DVD boxed set lines the shelf of every fanboy who dreamed of gunslinging in space alongside preachers and prostitutes, and already the movie has screened some sixty times since April, to audiences who applaud even before the house lights dim — thus guaranteeing the hype machine has been finely tuned. No doubt, it makes for a fine business story (“Failed Fox Firefly Flying High at BO”) and nifty pop-culture pieces about legions of Firefly fetishists, called Browncoats, pimping the product on the Web. But does the thing matter outside of this vacuum? That is, does it play to the nonbeliever for whom a Firefly is but a beetle whose ass flares and fades in the nighttime sky?

Pretty much, yeah. During one preview screening, a colleague who’d never seen the show — a campy-quirky take on John Ford’s Stagecoach, set five hundred years in a future run by the Alliance, which isn’t to be confused with the Empire or the Federation — leaned over and asked, “Was the show this good?” He needed no backstory about such things as Browncoats and Reavers, nor any belabored character development. After all, Serenity does nothing new. It’s but a witty, engaging hodgepodge of archetypes and clichés; it retreads not only the TV show’s story lines, but also those of every Star Trek and Gunsmoke episode. It needed the room of a big screen just to fit all of its influences into a single place.

If you labor too much over what’s going on, the movie falls apart; it’s not built for scrutiny, just a quick goodtime glance. It’s as rinky-dink as the spaceship Serenity, itself a sort of Millennium Falcon held together with baling wire and masking tape. The entire film appears to have been made on a TV budget; hence, perhaps, Whedon’s long-held insistence that the show not feature any aliens, which not only serves the plot about a galaxy populated by Earth’s ragtag refugees, but also keeps costs down. And there are few special effects, too, which are rendered unnecessary when the good guys carry six-shooters instead of phasers; a plastic pistol and box of caps will do the trick just fine. But shoddiness becomes Serenity. Whedon wants to make his future look as tawdry, desperate, and dangerous as a dirt-road past, and he succeeds by skimping.

For those unfamiliar with the story, which is to say for those familiar with sunlight and a pleasant breeze, Serenity takes place sometime after a sort of civil war that pitted Earth’s Alliance against folks who didn’t take kindly to being ruled and regulated. Among the rebels is a cowpoke named Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), the bastard son of Indiana Jones, Captain Kirk, Robert Conrad’s Jim West, and Rowdy Yates, who says things like “So here’s us, on the raggedy edge, come a day when there won’t be room for naughty men like us to slip about at all.” Reynolds, who apparently shops at the last Ralph Lauren store in the universe, is the perfect guy for shenanigans like these, good at playing the terrified but foolhardy hero who’s always getting his ass kicked while insisting he is the victor. He breathes new life into the hoary role of Bankrobbin’ Hood, taking from the rich and giving to himself.

His is a crew right out of every Western ever made: the clever prostitute (Morena Baccarin), the arrogant doc (Sean Maher) who harbors an unrequited love for the gallant gal (Jewel Staite), the sage preacher (Barney Miller‘s Ron Glass, relegated to a role little more than a cameo), the gallant driver (Alan Tudyk) and his brave missus (Gina Torres), and the cocky second-in-command who thinks he oughta be leadin’ the charge (Full Metal Jacket‘s Adam Baldwin). Their mission is the same in the film as it often was on the TV show: protecting a young woman (Summer Glau’s River) whose mind has been tinkered with by the Alliance, which very much wants back this powerful prophet with the ability to see into the near future and destroy all comers.

The sole addition to the main cast is an actor whose cool presence threatens to tilt the proceedings in his favor: Dirty Pretty Things‘ Chiwetel Ejiofor, known only as the Operative, who chases Serenity across the galaxy in order to collect River. While the rest of the cast is along for the ride, shootin’ and hollerin’ and talkin’ in apostrophes, Ejiofor is in an entirely different film — a classier and more thoughtful affair, the side of the movie that aims to be relevant, dealing with environmental disasters and other shady military-industrial dealings, rather than mere dusty shoot-’em-up. Ultimately, though, he is just a guest onboard this party ship, which is just as well. Who needs brains when there’s a bullet left in the chamber? Expect a sequel; hell, maybe Serenity will spawn its own TV series, too. Oh, wait.

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