Whedon’s rollicking, rambling space-set six-gun adventure fully deserves its second chance.
Made with considerably less money than your typical ‘tentpole’ blockbuster, the film starts explosively and doesn’t let up. We're 500 years in the future, in the aftermath of a war that destroyed Earth, in a newly colonized solar system run by an Orwellian cabal called the Alliance. Resisting the Alliance's totalitarian control is Capt. Mal (Nathan Fillion) of the starship Serenity and his ragbag crew of rebels. They are joined on board by Dr. Simon (Sean Maher) and his newly-liberated 17-year-old telepath sister River Tam (Summer Glau), who has been secretly trained by the Alliance as a superweapon, a one-woman army. Naturally they want their experiment back, so they send chief bad guy The Operator (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in hot pursuit. This serene, mannered villain is resolute and unstoppable, firmly believing his cause is necessary and vital. With the heroic captain likewise convinced that he’s got something worth fighting for; Whedon introduces a suitable theme of belief and perseverance, perfect for a movie based on an original idea that Hollywood belatedly fished out of a rubbish skip.
The remainder of the story follows a path based on secrets and revelations, and is worth discovering for yourself, so I won’t spoil it.
Fans of his various television shows will recognise Whedon’s trademark pithy wit; mock-heroic, bombastic monologues punctured by snide remarks and sharp rejoinders. That superb dialogue is the key to this space-opera, quick fire and dripping with sarcasm, and not what you’d expect at all. Whedon has crafted an elaborate nomenclature here, based on the drawling, agricultural tones of classic Westerns and the high, odd-sounding syntax of Edwardian costume drama. It flows like music and perfectly fits the quirky story, which firmly remains a sci-fi while bumping off John Wayne and Kung Fu and Zombie Horror and, it has to be said, all points in between.
It's not all glory though. The film is not without its flaws - major structural gaps are barely held together with explosive misdirection and vast reams of story are rushed through with scant regard for newcomers. There are a few too many bad guys, far too many premises and a spiky legion of characters to keep track of. Most damaging is the overwhelming feeling that the events in the film take place in the middle of something much bigger but Whedon blithely assumes his audience is familiar enough with the Serenity crew and the situations they find themselves in that he can skimp on the niceties of character development. It's tough shit to first-timers, like me.
Curiously for a balls-out Hollywood adventure movie, it’s genuinely funny, but writing a gag is in Whedon’s blood. His grandfather John was a television comedy writer for early sitcoms like Leave it to Beaver while his father Tom wrote Benson and The Golden Girls. He also has the rare gift of knowing precisely when to pull an audiences internal strings, with real tension and palpable danger seemingly appearing out of nowhere, and a couple of frantic high-octane set-pieces that glue you to your seat.
Most of science-fiction is old westerns in snazzy jumpsuits. The first wave of Asian directors revered the vast Fordian mesas of those monochrome oaters and adapted the heroic stories wholesale into samurai cinema. Together these two genres provided the foundation for Lucas and Star Wars and almost everything similar since. Whedon has consciously come full circle, ripping his references magpie-like from everything he likes that has gone before and still managing to be both wildly original and tellingly obvious.
Whedon is no gom and grabbed his chance to tell the rest of his abbreviated story with both hands, but makes the rookie mistake of trying to cram everything into two hours. His might be a complicated, half-explained story that still manages to have about five different endings but none of this matters when it is told with innate charm and is thoroughly entertaining.