On big screen, 'Serenity' loses gravity

A healthy serving of chunky science-fiction soup, "Serenity" is writer/director Joss Whedon's theatrical version of "Firefly," his late, lamented TV show.

What it seems to prove is that the two media in question - television and movies - like the twin moons of Jupiter, share little more than a universe.

Clever in a small-screen fashion and overdone in the tradition of everything from "Star Trek" to "Star Search," "Serenity" is yet another tale that foretells of an interplanetary dictatorship, following a war of insurgency: In this case, the Alliance has defeated and made outlaws of such gunslinging star warriors as Mal (Nathan Fillion) and the intrepid crew of his ship, the Serenity.

While the Alliance occupies one hostile flank in the battle for peace and understanding, the other is inhabited by Reavers, cannibalistic barbarians who represent a fate worse than death.

These are problems, but they can be dealt with. What's thoroughly unpredictable is River (Summer Glau), a psychic, fung-fu-fighting flower child who has been cultivated by the Alliance as a waifish secret weapon.

River may, in fact, be the most annoying heroine in sci-fi history - slack jawed and quasi-catatonic, she turns totally helpless when her shipmates need her, and when she is kicking asteroids, she can't tell the good guys from the bad. She makes one think of an extraterrestrial Alanis Morissette.

Still, no one wants her in the hands of The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an assassin/ideologue who doesn't care who gets killed as long as he can create a "world without sin."

Audiences can read whatever political messages they like into all this, but as cinema, "Serenity" suffers from arrested development. The rhythm of so much television - what can be thought of as the "'E.R.' beat" (straight line, straight line, zinger ... straight line, straight line, zinger ...) - runs out of gas on the big screen. Whedon, of "Buffy the Vampire" and "Angel" fame, has also kept his TV cast together for the feature film, and it misfires. Fillion, who is perfectly capable, can't hold the screen with any authority; his costars, who include Gina Torres as Zoe, Adam Baldwin as Jayne, and Alan Tudyk as Wash, are also fine, but uninspiring. Ejiofor, who was so great in Stephen Frears "Dirty Pretty Things," has what it takes to seize and hold our attention, but as much as one may dislike the dreamy River, she can't very well be surrendered to him. At least not until a sequel or two down the intergalactic highway.

The action sequences, it must be said, are intense, and the film is fun, if you can swallow all the hokum.

Frankly, "Serenity" is a film that raises the question of what distinguishes an animated film from live action: There are enough toy space ships floating around to stock the late, lamented FAO Schwartz. Grade: C+

Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense violence, and some sexual references.

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