American TV audiences and studios can be a fickle bunch - the fate of a series is often decided within the first few weeks of its life. After Buffy and Angel were a big success for Fox, their creator, Joss Whedon decided to make his next project a departure with the Sci-Fi Western, Firefly. In some ways selling the concept must've been a challenge and while science fiction and westerns aren't as far removed in narrative terms as their respective settings would suggest, combining the two with a liberal helping of martial arts and the Chinese language could result in a hard time convincing the suits at Fox.
Indeed, following an unsuccessful pilot, Fox first decided not to proceed with Whedon's vision, instead granting James Cameron's Dark Angel a third season. However Whedon was not discouraged and went ahead with a second attempt, this time prompting Fox to take a chance by cancelling a moderately successful series and replacing it with an unproven one. Unfortunately bad scheduling and so-so word of mouth from the Buffy/Angel contingent meant low viewing figures and eventually only fourteen episodes were made.
As is the case these days, DVD sales can sometimes more than make up for poor TV viewing figures - Family Guy got a fourth season after being prematurely cancelled and there continue to be rumours that Futurama could also make a return in one way or another - and this is all down to the huge success both shows had on DVD. The same has occurred with Firefly prompting Universal to approach Fox to option the show for a big screen adaptation with Whedon at the helm.
So, a couple of years later we finally get to see Firefly make a triumphant return, this time to the big screen, and with advance word being very good for a TV spin-off few remain to be convinced by Whedon's vision of the future.
Whedon's previous dabbles with the world of cinema have been varied, and not entirely unsuccessful; of course he created the concept of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the big screen and managed to resurrect the same story for a far more successful TV series, he was involved in writing the first Toy Story film and even turned his hand to the Alien franchise with the much maligned Alien: Resurrection (although Whedon suggests that the film's bad reputation is down to post-screenplay meddling rather than the original story).
Serenity is set a few months after the last filmed episode of the television series and Mal (Nathan Fillion) and the rest of his crew continue to eek a troubled existence outside of the law carrying out missions for various members of the criminal underworld. While dodging the Alliance and the murderous Reavers, every day is a fight for survival against ever worsening odds. Unfortunately, Mal's troubles are compounded by a couple of passengers, Simon (Sean Maher) and River (Summer Glau) Tam, themselves on the run from the Alliance after Simon rescued his sister from a top secret research facility. With the risk that River knows the inner workings and secrets of the Alliance an assassin, known only as The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is dispatched to locate and neutralise the threat she poses.
Despite the legacy of Firefly being very obvious, Serenity actually assumes no detailed knowledge. A brief prologue and introduction to Simon and River as they escape the clutches of the Alliance give us all we need to understand their plight and while regular viewers will understand far more of the story it's not entirely necessary to overdose on the DVDs before heading off to the cinema. There are plenty of surprises along the way and Whedon delights in playing with the audience by putting each and every member of the crew at risk; there's no guarantee that any of them will make it through the film alive and at times you actually think none of them will.
In addition to catering for newcomers to the Firefly universe, plenty of questions that hung over the series itself are answered, including the origin of the Reavers, a group of humans intent on raping, murdering and pillaging all of the worlds not under the tight grip of the Alliance; and despite the comparatively short running time, Serenity allows for plenty of growth in it's characters; in particular Mal who becomes much easier to sympathise with as the film progresses.
There is plenty of the trademark Whedon humour here too - even during the darkest moments of the film he'll chuck in something to raise a dry laugh from the audience and some great, if idiosyncratic, dialogue gives Serenity a fresh appearance without alienating non-fans.
Serenity is also surprisingly violent and at times graphic. In the opening sequence when Ejiofor's Operative pays a visit to the scientific team tasked with studying River there is a particularly notable moment as the lead scientist falls on to the Operative's sword and slowly slides down it. Despite the need for ratings, Whedon and Universal have obviously decided not to burden the film with cuts in order to achieve a lower, audience attracting certificate and this in itself is somewhat refreshing.
The special effects are a noticeable step up from the television series too with a spectacular battle within a planetary atmosphere putting anything from the Star Trek films to shame and the focus on story rather than pretty visuals hasn't detracted at all. Serenity is a far more rounded film than any of the Star Wars prequels in this respect.
Whedon's direction is largely adequate - but there are a few questionable moments of camera work. Whether these are failed attempts to be more adventurous with a wider canvas or whether it's just Whedon's inexperience with big-screen action is up for debate but for the most part these don't distract from just how good the rest of the film is.
Serenity succeeds in every way; it's a great introduction to Firefly, it has the potential to lead on to bigger and better films and most of all it pleases the fans who believed in the story and show from the start. Even better, it's a damn good film and well worth checking out.
You can now view the opening nine minutes of Serenity here.