Space drama is geek vindication

In the 25th century, astronauts are cowboy-like pioneers who carry old-fashioned pistols and occasionally swear in Chinese. Such was the idea behind “Firefly,” the failed TV show that’s now the basis of a full-length movie.

“Serenity” is the directorial debut of screenwriter Joss Whedon, the fanboy hero who created “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” (TV shows based on a failed movie – maybe it’s the circle of life). His latest story is a fun, comic book-style adventure worth checking out by fans and newbies alike.

The hero of the story is Captain Mal (Malcolm, nicknamed Mal) Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) of Serenity, a cargo ship that is literally falling apart in the sky. Mal is his generation’s Han Solo, a no-good rebel who is secretly an honorable man. His crew of petty thieves and criminals is usually being pursued by uptight agents of The Alliance and by the disfigured Reavers, a roving pack of merciless cannibals who represent the closest thing here to an alien race.

The movie’s other central character is River (Summer Glau), a 17-year-old rescued from the clutches of the government by her brother, Serenity’s doctor. River is a frightened, graceful waif with more strength than a dozen grown men (Whedon Fixation number 1). Oh, and she’s also prone to staring creepily and talking in cryptic nonsense, since she’s equal parts brilliant, psychic and insane (Whedon Fixation number 2). Soon the crew must decide how far they’re willing to go to protect the innocent and dangerous girl.

What separates “Serenity” from other movies of its kind is the vividness of its characters. The visuals are only a slight budget increase away from TV-quality, but the dialogue is filled with enough wit and energy to make you realize just how dull most sci-fi movies are underneath the shiny costumes and special effects. In between the stylized fistfights and noisy explosions, this movie actually cares about the simple interactions of people on small ships and dusty planets.

Despite frequent humor, be warned that the film is darker in tone than the television series was. Network executives once demanded that the captain be kinder and fluffier than the shell of a defeated war veteran has any right to be. Movie Mal has a harsh attitude and proves more than once he has no problem shooting an unarmed aggressor. Throughout the movie, he’s haunted by doubt and uncertainty and has a tendency to isolate himself from the people he needs the most. By the way, this is Whedon Fixation number 3.

The movie picks up with three romances left dangling by the original series, including cute, awkward tension between Mal and his lost love Inara (Morena Baccarin), whose status as a socially-respected prostitute is only subtly hinted at.

Other scene-stealers within the large, mostly unknown ensemble cast include the adorable, grammatically challenged Kaylee (Jewel Staite) and gruff mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin), the passenger most likely to start a mutiny at any moment. Even The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a gentle-voiced, intellectual villain with a particularly gruesome way of executing his enemies, is given a more ambiguous side than most movies would allow. Some characters are given more time than others, but the creator finds moments to showcase all of their unique personalities. And as it turns out toward the end, he isn’t shy about killing them off one by one, if that’s what it takes to make us worry about the rest.

People ask if “Serenity” is a more meaningful experience if you were a fan of “Firefly.” The answer is yes – there’s no way it couldn’t be. When we get the first glimpse of the battered ship and a re-introduction to the crew in an unbroken 10-minute tracking shot, it’s a special kind of geek vindication.

But even if you know nothing about the history of this movie, you’ll enjoy it at face value. It’s funny, scary and smarter than the average space drama. In short, “Serenity” is a very cool movie.