Harry Potter!
Cinema Signal:

On Writing
by Stephen King

. "Serenity"

Confusing panache and show-off dialogue slows the blastoff, but this escapist journey turns into high adventure with spirit and the elements of good drama. The main problem is writer-director Joss Whedon's reliance on his audience's prior knowledge of the issues and the characters on his Emmy-nominated "Firefly" TV series, from which this is derived. In fact, this high-steroidal version of the series was originally titled, "Firefly: The Movie," which should bother nobody.

Whedon brings his entire crew of actors over from the TV cast. Fans of the series are going to immediately embrace the concept of flying mercenary missions in galactic civil war space with our crew of heroes some 500 years in the future. The rest of us are likely to feel out in orbit for awhile, trying to catch up to what the violence and fuss is all about. But, that we will, owing to Whedon's clever wit and a nuanced feel for the individuality of his characters.

The political and military power in the universe is sometimes called the Coalition, sometimes the Universal Alliance. It is a power-hungry force, both political and military, holding dominion over all life on the planets. Their science includes the implantation of powers and memories into the brains of subjects who are appropriate receivers. For this, their main prize is River (Summer Glau), a spacy beauty of a girl and a natural telepathic. But her brother Simon (Sean Maher) has other visions for his sister's destiny than as a weapon for the warlords.

He breaks her out of their grasp and escapes to Serenity, a transport-for-hire ship captained by Malcolm (Mal) Reynolds (Natan Fillion), a hardened rebel of the opposition. Onboard is pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk), and crewmembers Zoe (Cina Torres), Inara (Morena Baccarin), Jayne (Adam Baldwin) and sex-starved Kaylee (Jewel Staite), who has eyes for Simon. Fighters and drifters, all.

At first, Mal's repartee with his band seems aimed at instilling a sense of what passes for character depth in TV-land, the quick quip, the one-upmanship sparkly dialogue. But, two things suddenly enrich the quality of Whedon's creation: what the characters are saying actually are the product of a thought process that contains compassion and depth, especially as it applies to Mal's; and the eclectic crew, a group that lives in the close proximity of a family, complete with squabbles, complaints and, in this case, total loyalty.

The second thing is the brilliance and detail of the action choreography and production design. It brings you to a state of respectful attention for a unique take in overfamiliar sci-fi territory and for its determination to do it as well or better than any predecessor.

The Coalition will stop at nothing to find and reclaim their unstable prize, River. They hire the extremely effective, articulate assassin known as The Operative (smooth and smokin' Chiwetel Ejiofor) to track her down. The tale, which now becomes a contest of wills between the tracker and the captain takes on epic proportions, achieved largely by the intensity of the man to man clashes.

A third danger lurking in the universe is the Rievers, a population of furious cannibals that combine the best qualities of flesh-eating zombies and the endless hordes of Orcs out of "Lord of the Rings." These monsters patrol the interstices of space between worlds, trolling for live victims with ceaseless determination. Even the military force of the Universal Alliance has nothing but fear of their ravaging madness.

Besides Fillion's iron will as the head of his team, his superior fighting skills and leadership qualities that demand respect, and Baldwin's loose cannon fearlessness, Glau's figure as the central object of the warring sides is most intriguing as a spiritual presence and an explosive physical force. Glau's round, pretty features suggest she could be a sibling of Samantha Morton's.

On the villainous side of the cosmos, Chiwetel Ejiofor hasn't turned in a performance this focused and fulfilling since "Dirty Pretty Things," a superb film that brought him to our shores and attentions. His steadfast, articulate, futuristic killer is loaded with power and a sure stepping stone to stardom.

By the end of this journey, there's enough positive bonding all around to pay the fare for a return trip. You don't get the sense that this is the last experience we'll have with the crew aboard Serenity.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Sean Maher and Summer Glau
Brother Simon caring for his telepathic sister River
Not as frail and delicate as she seems.
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