Joss Whedon’s brave stab at transferring his motor-mouthed, semi-satirical geek-fest sensibility onto the big screen is one of the most frustrating and entertaining failures of recent years. The story is solid, the settings original, and the elements had the potential to spark a franchise of galaxy-shaking proportions. From Nathan Fillion’s admirably terse yet lovable range-riding pirating ex-soldier captain to Summer Glau’s schizoid, waifish she-warrior, the characters are instantly more interesting than the mind-numbing ciphers of almost any other blockbuster franchise you can name.
The problem, then, was in making a film that’s grounded in a cheesily produced TV show, and Whedon’s direction never breaks loose of the strictures and modest demands of that medium. The FX and sets are tacky, and Whedon’s action interludes, whilst better shot than many recent blam-blam bits, with good clear camerawork and sharp editing, also badly lack a sense of spectacle and detail. The finale threatens us with one of those tacky TV sci-fi battles where people fire ray guns from behind loosely stacked suitcases, and one of those excruciatingly naïve Macguffins where the fate of the universe rests on a TV broadcast ending fascism – wow, just like The Running Man. Characters and narrative points carried over from the series often seem interpolated half-heartedly, like Fillion's troubling lady love Inara (Morena Baccarin), who finishes up doing just about nothing. The rampaging Reavers, who ought to be a truly nightmarish horde, look like the usual mob of extras in bad monster masks. But, damn it, Whedon’s script and the actors swing like Ruth, guest star Chiwetel Ejiofor provides brilliant villainy, and when Fillion and Glau get into action, you forgive everything. Serenity was stuck between wrapping up a TV show prematurely cancelled and trying for something bigger, and does not really succeed in either point. It could could have been a blockbuster with a brain and a big heart, but I’ll settle for it as it is. Modesty goes a long way.