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Photograph by Sidney Baldwin

Kick Up Your Heels: Summer Glau gets frisky in 'Serenity.'

Far Future, Old West

'Serenity' boasts space outlaws, space Apaches and the best space captain since Shatner shed his velours

By Richard von Busack

THEY SAY THAT it is not seemly for a writer to show all that he knows. But Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has made a career of doing just that. As a third-generation TV writer, he is soaked in the history of the tube and knows just how to manipulate its machinery. He knows when to lower the boom on an audience, when to rustle up a "Scenes We'd Like to See" worthy of Mad and when to spray a group of actors with the shrapnel of an exploded cliché.

Whedon's Serenity is based on his 2002 TV series Firefly, sabotaged in the usual fashion by the Fox Network—first, broadcast the show without the pilot episode, for maxim confusion of the viewers; second, show the episodes out of order and pre-empt them with little warning.

Fortunately for Whedon, the sci-fi fans are the most vocal and organized of all TV-gazers. Firefly's rabid supporters, self-described as "Browncoats" (after the losing side in a space rebellion), stuck with the show long enough to bring it around to a full-length movie.

So, welcome the outlaw Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), the true successor to Capt. Kirk. His 26th-century space ship, Serenity—held together with Bondo and bailing wire—is named in honor of the Battle of Serenity Valley, a space Gettysburg where rebels fought against government forces. Happily, the captain didn't catch one in the face. Fillion has the improbable handsomeness, the good-humored slouch, of Victor Mature in his cowboy roles.

His wanderin' crew consists of six specialists of various degrees of gung-ho. The three who stand out are Jayne (Adam Baldwin), more powerful and more intelligent than a box of rocks; Gina Torres, a leather-clad Super Lt. Uhura; and River (Summer Glau), a waifish, half-sane stowaway mind-reader whom Mal plans to use on his raids. It helps to have someone who knows if a robbery victim plans to draw a gun. River turns out to be a Buffy-style martial arts maniac when triggered by a code.

The ship's hand-to-mouth existence is complicated by Reavers (of the planet Faulkner?)—howling savages who splash war paint on their space ships and use skeletons as hood ornaments. Hunting Mal is "The Operative," a government samurai (English stage actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, the duplicitous pianist in Melinda and Melinda). The Op crosses space to run Serenity down, while never seriously raising his well-spoken voice. His dirtiest trick is making a hostage of Mal's lady love, Inara (Morena Baccarin), a sacred courtesan (but shoot, the dance-hall gals in those Westerns were always sacred prostitutes).

This morsel is battered with a crunchy crust of crash landings, fight scenes and much neurotic complaining by the crew. Its anti-government qualities will warm a lot of hearts. And a subplot about psychoactive pharmaceuticals will bring comfort to those believers of a certain sci-fi-based religion—the ones who think Hitler invented Trazadone.

To unearth the double-meaning in the title, Mal needs faith in faith itself, a higher power to help him find the serenity he needs. The captain's spiritual plight is counteracted by the Reavers' nihilism. Folks around here say these savages were driven mad by the sight of the edge of the universe. (In the words of existential comedian Brother Theodore: They looked into the void, and the void looked into them, and neither one of them liked what they saw. The muscular Jayne, untouched by spiritual worries, grunts, "I been on the edge of space. And all it was was more space."

Whedon hasn't made the hyperjump between small- and big-screen composition. Serenity is visually noisy, with the restless jitteriness that is the way of distinguishing a TV show from a film at one glance.

Otherwise, Whedon's first film is a low-tech treat, as witty and nimble-minded as it is low-budget. It's a happy reminder of the days when a tree was a tree, a rock was a rock and Vasquez Rocks was Mars. All the planetary surfaces look like the rugged side of the Antelope Valley, except for a futuristic academy surrounded by ornamental ponds and cypresses (some Theosophical Society's water garden).

Against these economical but reassuring backgrounds, Whedon stages a yarn about space Apaches, blazing carbines and a captain who doesn't stick his neck out for anybody. George Lucas may make sure every window on an imperial palace gleams in a different way, but he's long forgotten the good, dirty, meaty storytelling that's in Whedon's blood.

Serenity (PG-13; 119 min.), directed and written by Joss Whedon, photographed by Jack Green and starring Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin and Summer Glau, opens Friday valleywide.

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From the September 28-October 4, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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