"Serenity" re-invigorates sci-fi/adventure genre with urgency!

Urgency.

It's what made Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy click and it's what George Lucas' new "Star Wars" trilogy lacked.* Urgency made "The Matrix" such a rush, and, in its absence, "The Matrix Reloaded" and "Revolutions" such a bore. As the "Star Trek" movies drew to a dreary close, any sign of urgency was absent from The Next Generation's swan song "Star Trek: Nemesis."

How peculiar it is then, that the future of serial sci-fi/adventure movie franchises now lie in the hands of a man who, like "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry, also found his TV series cancelled. Joss Whedon knows urgency well. He's even slyly written his struggle with the Fox network into the clever, genre-tweaking script for his feature-directing debut "Serenity," a film that explodes with urgency on the big screen.

Introducing an audience to a detailed new fictional universe without tons of boring exposition isn't easy, so the first ten minutes of "Serenity" should serve as required viewing for Oliver Stone. Whedon's gleefully schizoid introduction is about as far as you can get from Anthony Hopkins' grave, groan-inducing opening oratory in "Alexander." The film races efficiently from one end of the universe to the next in a series of quick flashbacks, connected with jagged logic, ultimately culminating in a single-take roaming camera shot that introduces the audience to the ship and crew. It is the single best opening scene from any movie I've seen in a long time.

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Serenity *** 1/2

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You can see how "Firefly," Joss Whedon's ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") short-lived TV show that provided the basis for this movie, could have gotten addictive if given the chance. It's a spirited mix of the familiar and the futuristic, of fast-paced chase scenes and butt-kicking brawls, of witty banter and well-drawn characters.

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Humans have exhausted their resources on Earth, and now populate another inhabitable solar system. A bitter civil war was fought, and the victorious Alliance now exercises power over the planets. Whedon's trick is to borrow a little and tweak a lot. Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), captain of the spaceship Serenity, is a more callused version of Han Solo. Resentful from fighting on the losing side of the war, Mal now leads a small crew of misfits around the fringes of the galaxy, constantly torn between the selfish decisions that keep him and his crew safe and the bigger picture of his side's struggle for independence.

Sound familiar? Replace the planets with the plains of 19th century America, and you've got yourself a western, right down to the drawl and cadence of Mal's speech. But as Quentin Tarantino fans will tell you, it isn't what you steal from, it's what you do with it. Whedon weaves the specific type of quirky behavior that makes his previous television entries "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" so touching and funny into the stock characters of the western. This subversion gives the film a fresh, modern feel. Not to mention the fact that the crew actually experience true peril. Scenes are played out to their fullest dramatic potential, rather than simply existing as excuses to put more CGI-effects on the screen.

The writer/director even brings some elements of the horror movie into play, introducing a truly frightening bunch of insane flesh-eaters called the Reavers. Using a less-is-more approach to onscreen effects (the movie was budgeted at around $40 million), "Serenity" shows us only quick and chilling glimpses of these madmen. We are scared because we see that the crew, who have been through their fare share of close calls, is terrified. Thanks to a new passenger, a teenaged psychic (Summer Glau) who carries loads of secrets in her brain, the ship is also being tracked by a coldly calculating Alliance assassin (Chiwetel Ejiofor) whose smarts are matched only by his unwavering confidence.

Mal and the rebels fought against forced rule and lost. Their outlaw status is at stake when they discover a something that will change the face of the battle. The plight of the crew is analogous to any number of world events, past and present, involving colonialism. Like any story dealing with "bigger picture" ideas, you may insert the (displaced) and the (occupying power) like a game of Mad Libs if that's your bag.

Hell, if you are really into allegory, why not read the crew's late-game mission to get a valuable transmission over the universe's communication airwaves as a mirror of Whedon's personal struggle to keep his series alive? But if you're not looking for any deeper meaning, don't worry. There is plenty of great dialogue, affecting drama and fantastic action scenes to feast on. Since, in "Serenity," these three elements go hand-in-hand, you may actually get wrapped up in the outcomes of said action scenes.

"Serenity" is great, guilt-free entertainment. Whedon offers up conventions and puts his own winking spin on them, giving a much-needed shot in the arm to a genre that's become so pompous and full of itself that it wasn't any fun anymore.

* (I did give "Episode III" a 3 ½ star review as well, but stars are relative, and I couldn't help but compare it to the lameness of the other two, thereby cutting it a lot of slack.)

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