SERENITY is famously (just how famously depends on your frame of reference) spun off from the short-lived but much-loved FIREFLY series, created by Joss Whedon, who serves here as writer and director. For those who watched the series, it's clear that the movie begins awhile after that ended. For those who didn't, the film quickly sets up for us that humanity has spread out into another solar system, where a central government squashed a rebellion a few years back. The worlds range from what we'd consider futuristic high-tech to a kind of Western low-tech, with gradations in between.
Somewhere in the middle of this, Capt. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his small crew fly their ship Serenity, smuggling and committing the odd robbery (they're not Robin Hood, but they don't steal from the poor, either) while trying to avoid both the ruling Alliance and cannibalistic marauders known as Reavers. Awhile back, Mal and Co. took on as passengers young Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his disturbed, psychic young sister River (Summer Glau). Mal knows the Alliance had River captive and wants her back, but neither he nor Simon fully knows why. They're about to find out ... and it's a pretty spectacular answer.
One of the many cool things about SERENITY is that its plot logic pays off for once, when we find out the big secret, it has the scope to impress us. Perhaps even more bracing is the fact that the only character who has a sense of "destiny" is the antagonist, the superbly calm and collected Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is brilliant), sure he is on the side of Good as he bloodily presses forward with the Alliance agenda. Our heroes are mostly trying to save their skins, though eventually doing the right thing enters the picture.
The characters are all splendidly delineated and differentiated, so it's always clear who is who and what their relationships are to one another. Fillion is a compelling lead, letting us see that Mal is both smarter and more decent than he believes himself to be without standing outside the part and indicating. Glau is a marvel in motion the actress is filmed so that we can almost always see that it's her and not a double in the impressively athletic and varied fight scenes. Adam Baldwin is a hoot as the most truculent of the Serenity crew and Alan Tudyk has swell deadpan delivery as the pilot. Gina Torres has great authority as Mal's lieutenant, and Maher, Staite, Morena Baccarin and Ron Glass all provide strong support. David Krumholtz deserves special mention as an eccentric information-monger who manages to ingratiate himself with us despite very little screen time.
The special effects by Zoic, headed up by Loni Peristere, are very nifty, with some actually new ideas about the look of spacecraft. Makeup effects seem good, though we see a bit too little of the Reavers (perhaps to preserve the PG-13 rating) some sequences are editing a bit too briskly for maximum impact.
The film is beautifully shot by Clint Eastwood's usual cinematographer Jack Green and David Newman's score is understated and appealing.
The bottom line is that SERENITY represents superior storytelling it has something to say, but does so as or more entertainingly than most of the so-called tent poles that have much less on their minds.