Friday, October 07, 2005

Reel Fanatic: 'Serenity' is old
fashioned sci-fi done just right

Fall is the best time of year for film buffs.

After the bombast of summer - and this one was particularly atrocious - you get to see not only the movies that are being dangled as Oscar bait, but also those that were too tricky to market in the crowded summer.

One of those little gems is Joss Whedon's "Serenity," the unlikely successor to "Firefly," Whedon's space Western that only lasted 15 shows on Fox. The movie, theme and storywise, lifts huge chunks from the original "Star Wars," but this is more a valentine than a ripoff job.

Its likeness to "Star Wars" is, in fact, much of Whedon's point in making "Serenity," I think. It shows us how great sci-fi movies used to be, something George Lucas himself forgot about the time he came up with those wretched little ewoks in "Return of the Jedi."

The story of "Serenity" is that of Capt. Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and the ragtag band (not ragtime band, as the kind folks at pointed out to me) of petty thieves that make up his crew on the spaceship Serenity. Fillion is Harrison Ford down to every facial gesture, and boy have we missed him.

Also aboard the Serenity is a seer with a secret, a freaky psychic named River Tam played by newcomer Summer Glau, who is exactly Whedon's type for a heroine. Like Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy the famous vampire slayer, she's a waif-thin powder keg about to blow, and Glau is definitely a star on the rise.

What River knows could bring down the all-powerful force that controls the universe - in this case the Alliance - that is requisite for any sci-fi adventure. To take her out, the Alliance dispatches an assassin known as the Operative played with chilling precision by Chiwetel Eijofor, the English actor who co-starred with Audrey Tautou in Stephen Frears' criminally under-seen thriller "Dirty Pretty Things."

To reveal more about what River knows or where the movie goes from there would ruin it for everybody, but trust me, as the Serenity crew flees from the Operative and works to reveal its dangerous secret, you'll love the ride.

Two things set Whedon's work apart from the other fluff filling up our movie screens: great dialogue and a finale that really delivers.

Fillion, in particular, plays his reluctant hero role to the hilt, delivering this speech to rouse his troops: "Y'all got on this boat for different reasons, but y'all comin' to the same place. So now I'm asking more of you than I have before. Sure as I know anything, I know this. I aim to misbehave."

Whedon has been a master of banter for years, with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" his college course, "Angel" his graduate work and now "Serenity" his graduate thesis.

As for the finale, Whedon, who both wrote and directed "Serenity," isn't afraid to show that actions have consequences. I'll just say that in the final standoff between Serenity's crew and the Operative's Alliance troops, not every one will survive, and that's very refreshing.


If I were a millionaire, I'd probably buy at least four DVDs a week. Everyone must have at least one vice, and this is one of mine. As it is, I have settled for the next best thing: Netflix.

Just out is the fourth season of the only show that rivals Whedon's best work for witty dialogue, the WB's "Gilmore Girls." In this season, young Rory (Alexis Bledel) heads off for college at Yale, while Lorelei (the greatly underappreciated Lauren Graham) is left behind in Stars Hollow, a quirky little town full of characters that will be instantly burned on your brain.

As Paris (Liza Weil) once told Rory when they were preparing for a high school debate, this show is all about "wpm's" (words per minute.) The usually dead-on pop culture references fly very fast, and you'll connect with the characters almost as quickly, even if you missed the first three seasons.

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