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Ambitious, daring, energetic, and entertaining —Marty Mapes (review...)

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Serenity, the big-screen edition of TV’s short-lived Firefly series, will no doubt elicit cheers from in-the-know fans, but those cheers may well be drowned out by the collective yawn of the uninitiated.

The Big Leap

Armed and dangerous in the final frontier
Armed and dangerous in the final frontier

Serenity follows in the footsteps of Star Trek and The X-Files in making the leap from the boob tube to the silver screen. But, aside from that, the similarities stop almost before they begin.

Star Trek nurtured its fan base for more than a decade before it went widescreen, that was enough time to develop a cult following that could sustain several big screen adventures that varied dramatically in quality. The X-Files was a wildly popular, multi-season series that spawned only one theatrical episode.

Firefly, billed as a sci-fi western created by Joss Whedon, who found much greater success with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, produced 13 episodes, only 11 of which aired, and even those were presented out of order in hopes of getting a ratings boost by showing the “juicier” stuff earlier.

As it stands, Firefly found a loyal band of followers and that grew with the release of the series on DVD. “Guerilla screenings” of Serenity, virtually instant sell-outs, were used to build up the hype and the anticipation among Firefly fans.

With the film finally in theaters, it can be said that it goes exactly where Star Trek and The X-Files have already gone before: It’s a big screen romp that won’t catch much excitement outside the core group that’s already bought the TV DVDs and taken in the crew of Serenity as their own family.

While Star Trek caught lightning in a bottle on occasion, particularly with Star Trek IV (yeah, the one with the whales), The X-Files’ trip to theaters left Joe Public out in the cold and so does Serenity. Things start out promisingly enough when Whedon offers a brief run-down of what’s going on in the universe. But then the story kicks in and Whedon never looks back to see if any of the non-believers are still on the bus.

Much Ado About Nothing

For Firefly virgins (and we are legion), the story goes something like this: Roughly 500 years in the future, River Tam (Summer Glau, Sleepover) is a psychic teenage girl. She’s a waif, but put her in some Doc Marten high tops and she can, miraculously, kick some major booty.

River’s psychic abilities make her of value to Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, Saving Private Ryan), a no-nonsense goodnik/treasure hunter who might’ve come out of the same gene pool as Han Solo.

The girl has a secret locked away in her noggin and what she knows makes her a target for the Alliance (think “Evil Empire,” but one that’s got a distinctly corporate feel to it, one that’s out to build better worlds by drugging people into submission). The Alliance has enlisted its chief Operative (the always splendid Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dirty Pretty Things) to track her down with the non-stop determination of Inspector Javert.

River’s secret, jarred loose by the subliminal messages in a TV commercial, is the crux of the biggest mission ever to be faced by the crew of Serenity. OK. That’s being a bit dramatic while also not saying much.

But that also pretty much sums up the movie. It’s dramatic, at times overly dramatic, and it doesn’t really say much.

Wild Wild Whedon

Working in Whedon’s favor is a good enough – and attractive enough – cast. Each member of the large ensemble gets a moment or two to crack a joke or show some personality, but over the course of two hours, things are spread a bit thin and there’s not enough there to really care much for any of the lot.

Sure, even Firefly virgins can glean Captain Mal had some sort of romance with the space hottie Inara (Morena Baccarin, Roger Dodger).

And there is plenty of amiability among the rest of the crew. Space ace Hoban Washburn (Alan Tudyk, Dodgeball) does his best to provide a safe landing for a scrap heap with more issues than the Millennium Falcon. Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite, Cheats) is an engineer who just wants to get some lovin’ before she gets obliterated in one of Mal’s misadventures. Then there’s Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin, Independence Day), a gun-toting toughie who’s always happy to pack along a grenade or two.

But a likeable crew does not a movie make. And, surprisingly, to give the film some emotional heft, Whedon kills off a couple of those “beloved” characters along the way.

Compounding the difficulty of getting caught up in Firefly’s cinematic world is a spate of shoddy special effects. Granted, for the relatively modest $40 million budget, some of the effects are decent, but low-tech tricks like bleaching out the picture in order to create an “otherworldly” atmosphere is also on the palette – and it’s a little too reminiscent of the not-so-special effects from Serenity’s sci-fi TV progenitors.