It's common enough for defunct TV shows to find new life on the big screen, but that new life usually consists of postmodern twists, showy star power, and/or big-budget special-effects flourishes. Mostly, TV-to-film adaptations are about mocking the source material or blowing it up to big-screen proportions, not furthering an ongoing plot.

Devoted fans of Buffy The Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon likely won't be surprised to see him gleefully bucking trends with his feature directorial debut Serenity, the triumphant continuation of his space-cowboy TV series Firefly. Fox botched the series' release, then canceled it mid-season, just as its central mysteries were cohering. Given a second chance at tackling its mystery-packed storyline, Whedon picks up the threads so faithfully that Serenity feels like a triple-length episode. The big-screen blowup mentality is certainly in evidence—when Whedon first returns to the spaceship that gives the film its name, he sends his camera on a long, continuous tour through her interior as if stretching out comfortably in his newly expanded space. The bravura sequence feels as much like a victory lap as a reintroduction to the cast and setting. And Serenity doesn't skimp on the epic space battles and high-powered chases. But Whedon sticks to his guns, maintaining the show's charming loopy tone while exploring its grim backstory and grimmer future.

That future centers on Summer Glau, a deeply damaged psychic turned into a human weapon by the scientists of the oppressive interplanetary Alliance, then rescued by her brother Sean Maher and brought on board Serenity, an outlaw ship commanded by anti-Alliance rebel Nathan Fillion. As the Alliance makes a particularly strenuous effort to reclaim Glau, mostly through a chilly operative (Dirty Pretty Things star Chiwetel Ejiofor), Fillion and his ragtag criminal cohorts fight back by probing her past to see why she's so important. Their quest involves equal measures of physical fighting and verbal infighting, as not all the crewmembers think Glau's life is worth risking theirs.

Like all Whedon's work, Serenity is steeped in snappy, irreverent one-liners and complicated character dynamics, which may occasionally lose non-Firefly vets; the film is geared more toward obsessive Firefly viewers who care deeply about every new revelation and resolution. And even fans will occasionally notice the cast struggling to make Whedon's future-cornpone dialogue sound natural. But Serenity is still taut, immersive, and alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, a well-balanced blend of whooping Wild West action and space opera. If it has trouble standing on its own, that's just because it's carrying out the full promise of a terrific series, which it does with reckless brio.

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