Joss Whedon is the magician behind the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off series, Angel. Not only is he very skilled at creating convincing scenarios where vampires and demons co-exist alongside high-school friends but he is extremely talented at putting smart, witty and extremely natural words into the mouths of his characters. Like Aaron Sorkin's work on the political drama, The West Wing, Whedon's mastery of dialogue is unsurpassed. When Buffy was drawn to a close and Angel was not renewed for any more seasons, Whedon set about bringing his new dream baby to the Big Screen. Entitled Firefly, it was a TV series that ostensibly played as a cross between a Sci-Fi and a Western, but the most important feature to it was the script, for that was where Whedon worked his magic. Unfortunately, in the treacherous waters created by Reality TV and the pressure of getting good TV ratings, Firefly was pulled mid-season and given barely enough time to round off its stories. This was one of the biggest TV show tragedies of all time. However there is some kind of a happy ending to it all since, largely thanks to the uproar caused by fans, the TV show has been re-ignited - not for a further season, but actually for a major new feature film which, depending on its success, could be the first of many.
For those of you who have not seen either, I highly recommend you see the entire series first and then watch the movie, it works much better that way than in the reverse order. I was told that you could see the movie independently from the TV series and lose none of the enjoyment, but that is not strictly true. Watching the episodes prior to the movie enables you to get to know the characters in a way that is simply vital for your full appreciation of the movie. Sure, the plot is fairly standalone (and subtly clashes with the TV series storylines) but the most important aspect of this franchise is the characterisation, for these characters are the ones who will speak Whedon's magic lines. So I strongly recommend watching the TV series prior to the movie - it is currently selling for a ridiculously low price and is well worth it for the fourteen episodes of pleasure it provides.
In brief summary, Firefly, the TV series, introduced us to Mal and Zoe, two soldiers caught up on the losing side of a massive war between the Alliance and the Independence. They are forced to go on the run as smugglers and 'transporters', running a Firefly-class space-ship called Serenity which is small enough to keep them largely off the Alliance radar but big enough to get them out of trouble. The ship is crewed by these two, along with the pilot, Wash, who also happens to be married to Zoe, Jayne - the heavy support and the engineer, Kaylee. Strapped for cash, they pick up a boat-load of miscreants, including a doctor and his strange but gifted sister, River - who may just have some special powers that the Alliance are desperate to get their hands on (and which they may have even given to her in the first place) - and who find themselves feeling more at home on Serenity than anywhere else.
Serenity picks up with the crew still on the run, but this time the evil Alliance have dispatched a top assassin to eliminate River as it turns out that she is more of a threat to them than anybody ever realised. Mal and his crew are forced to use all of their skills and contacts (including reuniting with some familiar faces that fans will recognise from the series) in order not only to evade the Alliance's assassin, but also to stay clear of the deadly Reavers, a vicious group of cannibalistic space pirates. In the process of protecting River and just basically staying alive, they manage to uncover a secret that threatens to destroy the Alliance forever.
Whedon has clearly used all of the tricks in the book to graduate his dream-child from the small to big screen, actually making the transition look relatively simple because the final result is amazing. Serenity is a top class feature film, seamlessly integrating Whedon's classic lines and warm camaraderie with a more epic story and some spectacular set-pieces. This is probably the reason why Lucas' disappointing Star Wars prequels have been compared so much to Whedon's sci-fi alternative. They offer you a visual extravaganza (perhaps not on the same scale, but a pretty good effort considering the fact that is cost a fraction of the Star Wars prequels' budgets), a solid story and - above all - some superb dialogue, that helps you really relate to and care about the characters (something often lacking in Lucas' counterparts, particularly with key players like Hayden Christensen's wooden Anakin). Serenity reminded audiences of the fun, space cowboy, Hans Solo element that has been missing in their cinematic diets for the past couple of decades.
Of course the Whedon script would mean nothing if the cast that he selected could not deliver the lines with perfect timing, so it is almost astounding that none of the actors have any significant Big Screen experience. These guys aren't even B-movie actors, they are TV actors, who have more often than not made their biggest impact through Whedon productions. In spite of this, when you watch the movie in the cinema, it is impossible to see how anybody else would have been better in the respective roles - and you have to remember that I am not biased by their performances in the series because I saw the movie first.
Heading up the cast is Buffy's Nathan Fillion as Serenity's Captain, Malcolm Reynolds. Playing his character's haunted past to just the right degree, Fillion's Mal is a modern-day answer to a cross between Hans Solo and Indiana Jones (although admittedly his brawling reflects the latter more so). Unlike in the series, his character gets to take quite an unusual turn within this movie, having an entire arc to his self. His romantic interest is Morena Baccarin as the lovely Inara, shamefully underused, especially in the final act. His second-in-command, Zoe, is a loyal follower, played with equal strength and elegance by Gina Torres, whom Angel & Alias fans will also recognise. Zoe is married to the ship's pilot, Wash, played by Alan Tudyk, who provides much of the humour and down-to-earth behaviour within the movie.
Adam Baldwin (from X-Files and Joss Whedon's Angel) is the heavy weapons expert, Jayne, playing him as much more than the gun-for-hire that he pretends to be. Whilst he talks like he would sell his own mother for the right price, you still get the impression that this character knows the difference between right and wrong (particularly in his Reavers speech) and, more often than not, he gets the best lines. Then there's the ship's engineer, Kaylee, played by Jewel Staite. She's just cute as a button and desperately adorable, especially in her desperate longing for the doctor, Simon, who is rendered staunch and unemotional by Sean Maher. Then we have two of the most important characters in the movie. There's the assassin, played by somebody I don't recognise - Chiwetel Ejiofor - but would certainly like to see in more movies. He is simply superb as the ludicrously articulate Alliance operative sent to deal with River and the character developments that we see from him make his bad guy one of the best to grace our screens in quite some time. That brings me to River, probably the star of the show. She is played by the beautiful and mesmerising Summer Glau and basically, she kicks ass. Fans of the series will be quite surprised at just how cool her character developments are in the movie.
I strongly recommend you go and check out the fabulous world of Mal and his Serenity crew, it truly is well worth your time. It does provide many things that were missing from the Star Wars prequels, but it also gives us so much more - action, sci-fi, romance, comedy and western antics all rolled into one, with a script that is simply to die for. As with the likes of the great Shane Black, Joss Whedon's productions will always have me coming back for more. In light of this, I am pleased to say that it was rumoured that Serenity was just the first out of a trilogy of movies that Whedon penned. With any luck, one of the worst decisions Fox ever made - cancelling the series - may just spawn a movie franchise that fans could have never imagined possible. I have my fingers crossed.