Warning: Spoilers, caution, etc.
Can I ask a favor of the rest of the critical community? Please? It's just... guys, you need to get past this. It makes you look silly, it dates your reviews and it serves no purpose. So let's stop it, seriously. Let's stop saying that every single science-fiction and/or fantasy film that comes out and is even remotely good is "the way the 'Star Wars' prequels SHOULD have been done!" The prequel trilogy sucks quite fine all by itself, and it's unfair to these new films to review them more as yardsticks than movies in their own right. Enough is ENOUGH.
Anyway, if "Serenity" must be related to a previous film, it's CLOSEST relative would probably be "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai," which you may or may not remember as also being a comedy-tinged action/scifi romp set somewhere mid-stream in the astoundingly dense continuity of a franchise which the audience was expected to have prepared themselves for by exposure to the plethora of "Buckaroo" comic books, TV shows, etc. existing outside of the film-proper.
The difference is, "Buckaroo Banzai" was kidding. There was no franchise, there never was, and the entire endeavor was a clever, disturbingly-prophetic ribbing of the then-emerging fanboy culture. "Serenity," on the other hand, is very serious. It really is the no-beat-skipped cinematic continuation of a franchise, in this case Joss Whedon's canceled space series "Firefly." Canceled after one season but ressurected by sheer force of fandom via DVD sales, Whedon here continues his story as a feature-length film, expanding on the storyline and (one can only assume) tries not to think too hard, lest he seem less-than-humble, about the history of a certain other canceled space-age TV series that went (boldly) to the movies...
In terms of setting, "Serenity" and it's prior incarnation take place in the same basic realm as most other spacefaring yarns post-Trek: The well-traveled galaxy largely dominated by a powerful Utopian uber-government. The twist comes in Whedon's rendering of the world-spanning Alliance as a facist police-state with Marxist overtones. The heroes, namely the scruffy crew of the titular spaceship (which is shaped like a duck,) are thusly gun-toting libertarian outlaws shooting their way across planets "at the raggedy edge of the universe" which all bear a non-accidental resemblance to the Old West.
To drive the point home, it's stressed that many of the good guys are fomer soldiers from the 'less advanced' losing-side of a recent Civil War. They're known to eachother as "browncoats," (get it?), which is also what hardcore "Firefly" fans tend to call themselves. Oh, there's also some "see!? Cuz it's the future!!" fun had at the notion of breakdowns in gender barries (the Wolverine-esque hardcase is named Jayne) and languages (everyone cusses in Chinese.)
In terms of story, the main plotline involves Serenity's crew discovering that a waifish psychic teenager (Summer Glau) that they've been helping sneak around space was once a reflex-programmed living weapon for their Alliance enemies, who now believe that her psychic-sponge of a brain may be carrying a Terrible Secret and have dispatched a merciless asassin (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to take her out. The mystery is revealed in between western-styled action scenes and visits with various supporting castmembers, while the main crew takes it's time going through the venerable Han Solo Arc of self-preserving-brigand-to-greater-good-superhero in time for the big shootout.
Altogether, all of this is greatly amusing if you're a fan of the genre in general or "Firefly" in particular. Much has been made of the fans' hand-wringing over whether or not those not intimately-familiar with the series will be able to follow the story (or care to try,) but having seen the film I find this to be an overblown concern (and, methinks, a bit of wishful thinking: after all, no "cult hit" franchise has truly arrived until it's been rejected by the "norms.") A few of the more specific references to continuity-past will be lost on the uninitiated, certainly, but for the majority of the film anyone with even a passing familiarity with the "crew-on-a-spaceship" TV genre will be able to follow this just fine. If you feel MUST do something to "prep" before seeing it, just cruise an episode of "Firefly" (or "Star Trek." or "Battlestar Galactica." or "Space: Above & Beyond." or "Babylon 5." or "Andromeda." or "Cowboy Bebop." or... you get the picture) and you'll be good to go.
That's not a knock at the film or the prolific Mr. Whedon, (late of "Buffy," soon-to-be director of "Wonder Woman" and currently in the midst of a great run on the "X-Men" comics,) merely an observation that his herladed originality is here targeted more at reconstructing and subverting familiar archetypes than inventing them outright: A lot of what crops up in "Serenity" we've seen before, from the sword-slinging Terminator-esque baddie to the statuesque African American tough-chick-with-a-gun to the perky-girl grease-monkey ship's mechanic to the aforementioned wispy-waif-with-potentially-scary-super-powers (a hook Whedon is, let's be real here, almost as guilty of overusing as fellow "X-Men" scribe Chris Claremont.) The difference is in the subtle, clever ways in which these old bits are presented.
It's not perfect, at times feeling a bit too much like a high-end TV production than a true feature actioner. The scope which seemed so sprawling in hourlong episodes of "Firefly" often feels a bit constrained by the standards of a big-budget movie. Unfortunately, the screenplay's knack for cleverness of dialogue isn't consistently backed up by cleverness of visual design: The space scenes are a little too much like "Star Wars," the blue-collar interiors a little too much like "Alien," the facist Alliance a little too reminiscent of "Starship Troopers." It's not a deal-breaker or that serious a problem, but it's a problem all the same.
Still, I'm reccomending it. It's fun, and fans and non-fans should get a decent kick out of it. As newer action movies go you can do a lot worse (you could go see "Flightplan", for example.)
FINAL RATING: 8/10