Joss Whedon has come full circle. He rose to fame (and fanboy deity status) by taking a failed vision of his movie and turning it into a television cult classic (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and now has taken a prematurely cancelled television series (Firefly) and turned it into a potential movie franchise with Serenity. Whedon deserved the benefit of the doubt, given his track record, not the ill treatment of showing the series episodes that aired out of order, especially given his penchant for season long story arcs that build on each episode. However, the movie has everything a fan could want from a science-fiction space opera: grand special effects, cool fight scenes, and dizzying space battles.

For those concerned about missing out on the 2002 series on which this movie is based, the movie is a fine jumping on point. Since the show was cancelled eleven episodes into its run, the characters stories were far from being told. Taking place some 500 years in the future, Firefly followed a rag tag crew of not-quite mercenaries–loveable outlaws and former rebels–who search for smuggling jobs (legal or less-than-legal) to make ends meet. Their captain, Mal (Nathan Fillion) does his best Han Solo in a ship so make-shift that it makes the Millennium Falcon look fresh out the factory. Dodging the totalitarian Alliance regime becomes a lot more difficult when the crew picks up a wayward doctor, Simon (Sean Maher) and his mentally ill sister, River (Summer Glau). One of the central mysteries of the show is the basis for the movie: the truth about River.

“Do you understand your part in all this?” –Mal

The show has a background mythology of its own (thus why characters are prone to speaking in Chinese as well as English); and picking up on how Star Trek originally meant to be Wagon Train among the stars, the movie wraps itself in Western trappings to give a real frontier vibe to the show. It’s a self-aware movie that plays up to cliches only to veer in unexpected directions. This time around, the crew is pursued by The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), one of the Alliance’s most competent and ruthless (though stylish) agents, to protect the secret that psychic/weapon River carries in her tortured psyche.

The crew is one “big happy family”, that is dysfunctional on its best day. An unsentimental lot who love each other, or are at least honor bound to one another as a crew, even though they don’t always like each other much. As with Whedon’s other shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel, it feels like he’s writing a super-hero team (much like the comic book he writes, Astonishing X-Men). Each character has their own power/skill: Mal, the leader; Zoe (Gina Torres), his right hand and fellow soldier; Wash (Alan Tudyk), the pilot; Inara (Morena Baccarin), the Companion; Jayne (Adam Baldwin), the maverick; Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the mechanic; and Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), the Shepherd. Each adds to the body, using their gifts for the sake of the community.

There are many spiritual connections to make in this movie. River needs to become a person, actual and whole; to become fully human. At one point, she even cries out “Please God, make me stone” as a prayer of desperation. Whedon is a well-known agnostic (he claims atheist), and here he attempts to craft a villain out of believers. A certain type of believer, anyway; one that’s devout, methodical, and unquestioning of what it is they believe.

“Do you know what your sin is doctor? It’s pride.” The Operative

“Only one thing’s gonna see you through this. Belief.” –Shepherd

The movie serves as an allegory of sorts for the power of unexamined belief. The Operative believes in a better world, a world without sin, but the way in which he seeks to bring that world about is evil. Also, unfortunately for him, his belief is in a totalitarian regime (the Alliance) that is out of control. The religion is the government and its institutions in a quest to make people better. Though people need to know the truth, true believers are willing to die for that truth. Essentially, Whedon has crafted the believer, those who have faith, as the villain in The Operative. At the same time, and claims of atheism aside, it takes Mal finding faith in order to triumph over The Operative (too bad it required the death of the Christ figure in the movie in order to move him along that path). The conceit being that it is not truth that is the problem, it is the interpretation of that truth.

Serenity reminds us that no battle–even one for a lofty goal such as a world without sin–is fought without cost. With witty banter and humor that can turn in an instant to horror and tragedy, Serenity definitely lives up to its hype as an intense ride. I don’t know how many adventures this crew can survive, but I can’t wait for their next one.