(spoilers present a little further in, but you’ll be warned)

I went into Serenity expecting a really good, double-length Firefly episode writ large. It was that and more—it exceeded my expectations, and transported me entirely while I was watching. The quibbles didn’t occur to me until afterward.

So the film is a solid bet for any Firefly fan worth his or her salt, but that’s not surprising—the real question is how it will play with the unwashed masses. That’s a closer call, though anyone who doesn’t come out of it thinking it’s at least a pretty good movie is probably critically impaired. Still, I’m having trouble deciding what to recommend to friends who have yet to be exposed to the ‘Verse—go ahead and watch the movie? Or watch Firefly first? If it’s an option, I think watching the series first is certainly preferable. Despite all the expositional juggling that Joss Whedon performs to make the film an independent, separate entity—and he does deserve some sort of award for Most Artful and Riveting Insertion of a Wagonload of Exposition in the First Fifteen Minutes of a Film—the story is still very much a continuation of the plot of the series, and the scenes are rife with nuance that only those who already know the characters will catch.

If you don’t know the first thing about Firefly, the basic story of the series, its premature cancellation, and resurrection as a feature film can be found just as easily as actual reviews of the film these days. If you’re still mildly suspicious about the whole thing—maybe because the trailer made it seem like a made-for-TV movie with people who talk funny—then keep in mind these two things:

1. It’s the Language, Stupid—Characters in Firefly and Serenity do talk funny. Hear it long enough and you’ll realize that it’s a rich, detailed, internally consistent patois that’s a mix of Old West, South, Chinese, and that peculiar something that fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer having been calling “Whedonspeak” for years. Like all good invented languages it is buttressed by a fictional setting that has also been thought out in detail—it lives in a world that breathes. And Whedon just has a knack for the witty banter and the snappy exchange.

2. It’s the Story, Stupid—It’s not a bundle of character sketches with a plot that’s incidental. It’s not a paint-by-numbers formulaic tale of action. It’s not a self-referential winkfest that mistakes being ironic for being clever. Those things are as common as mud in modern storytelling. This is an honest-to-goodness good old fashioned story, and that’s a rare thing.

All the rest—the fact that it takes place on a spaceship, that it’s some sort of weird sci-fi/western hybrid—make the show and the film interesting, but it’s basic stuff like 1) and 2) that make them great.

So, the quibbles. There was one point about two-thirds of the way through the film, as our heroes are approaching a strange new planet, that the pacing gets a little off and the wind starts to go out of the plot’s sails. And this point happens to be at the same time that in this new setting—the strange new planet—the set seems very made-for-TV. A little spare, a little low-budget. I didn’t have any problems with the special effects in the film, but at this point especially and in a few others, the fact that Serenity was made on a very tight budget (at least, for a Hollywood sci-fi action flick) showed through.

And the plot, at a certain level, is is horrendously, even ridiculously rushed. Whedon takes the story he had started to tell over the course of at least one season of TV, and reintroduces it and then resolves it in the space of two hours. As someone who was eager to see the resolution of that story, this didn’t bother me overmuch, and didn’t even register while I was in the theater. But I wouldn’t be surprised if others like the film less because it feels like a TV story that’s been squeezed into a shorter span.

Note that I’m not using “TV story” pejoratively. TV, not film, is the medium where you have a shot at accomplishing the breadth and depth of story that you find in good novels. Films, simply because of their length, can only ever be short stories. The real win here will be if the box office success of Serenity leads to the reincarnation of Firefly.

And now for some spoiler-heavy observations. Stop reading here if you want to remain spoiler-free.

  • Loved the Operative. Nice embodiment of the Alliance’s over-enlightened pride. Great performance. And how refreshing it was to have a story where the villain is defeated, not by getting killed, and not primarily by being bested through violence, but by having his worldview changed. That sort of thing is rare for a reason—it’s hard to pull off, and I think it succeeded here, but narrowly.
  • The Deaths. Saw Shepherd Book’s coming a mile away, but Wash was of course a terrible shock. In terms of this story it works well, because it’s the first nail in the coffin of our heroes as they’re getting attacked by the Reavers. A few minutes later, as Mal is getting his ass kicked by the Operative and everyone else is wounded and the blast door’s not closing and the Reavers are coming, even though in my head I knew that somehow things were going to pull together, my heart was racing because I was terrified that everyone was going to die. And I don’t think that tension could have been established without Wash’s death to set things off. BUT, if the TV series is resurrected, or if there are more movies, Wash’s absence will be sorely felt. The marriage dynamic between him and Zoe was one of my favorite relationships in the series, and it won’t be the same without it.
  • Seems like in a lot of otherwise good movies these days, the action sequences are so frenetic and overcut that, while they convey the chaos and unpredictability of a fight, they make it too difficult to actually follow what’s going on in the conflict. Batman Begins is an excellent recent example. Happily, despite all the hand-cam cinematography, Serenity doesn’t fall into this trap. The action sequences were all very solid, but . . .
  • . . . as with the TV series, it was the quiet moments, the character interactions, and the one-liners that carried the day. It was inevitable that not everyone in the ensemble would get sufficient screen time. The place where I really missed it was Jayne, though. I wanted him to have one of his rare bouts of heroism somewhere there in the end, but he was never really singled out. It was also too bad that everyone had to get their Movie Star Bodies for the film version—both Kaylee and Inara were way more attractive with a little more flesh on their bones than they had here.
  • This is a story with very strong, up-front thematic content and maybe even something approaching a message, viz: you can’t make people be good, and when that sort of thing is attempted at an institutional level, bad things ensue. Love happens one relationship at a time. And while I never found the film preachy or hamhanded in conveying that stuff, it was a lot more up-front than in most storytelling you see these days, and while I’m not sure why, I found it quite refreshing.

    I’ll append more thoughts and/or links as they are discovered.

    UPDATE: Gary Farber’s recent Serenityblogging is here and briefly here. Keep checking back for more—I know I will.