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Serenity provides a stirring encore act for the desperados of Firefly

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The genre-blending sequel Riddick inspires five days of space Westerns.

Serenity (2005)

Browncoats rent their gorram garments when Joss Whedon’s Firefly was hurled into the vacuum of network space. But they, and Whedon, got a reprieve when Fox greenlit a big-screen sequel to its failed TV show. Toning down the series’ oater affectations (no horses, fewer dusty outposts), Serenity taps the Western at its source with a story of renegade ex-revolutionaries whose idealism hasn’t quite been stamped out. Steered by Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), who in earlier years would have come to Casablanca for the waters, Serenity’s crew is a raggedy bunch, to say nothing of their cargo: a traumatized psychic (Summer Glau) whose brain holds untapped government secrets. With Chiwetel Ejiofor as a ruthless government-employed zealot whose desire for “a better world” excuses all of his actions, the movie blends the Western’s inherent exploration of America’s past with science fiction’s anxiety about its future, resulting in a dark and sometimes frightening parable of the battle between amoral ideologues and disillusioned democrats. (Mal is a veteran of what sounds like the intergalactic equivalent of the Spanish Civil War.) 

With no next episode to vouchsafe, Whedon rips down scenery as he goes, kicking away the supports and leaving his audience in terrifying and exhilarating free fall. Naturally, some of the series’ characters get short shrift, especially Morena Baccarin’s courtesan and Ron Glass’s cleric, but the movie’s clean lines and self-contained narrative also quell some of Firefly’s meandering excess. Serenity’s lukewarm box-office put an end to Mal and his crew’s adventures (although they continue in comic-book form), but Whedon took the chance to write an end to his story, and to begin his career in feature filmmaking.

Availability: Serenity is available on DVD and Blu-ray, for rental or purchase from the major digital services, and to stream on Netflix.