If you're a long-time science-fiction fan, you'll recall that the term "space opera" is derived from the use of "horse opera" to describe a western story -- that a space opera is simply a western set in space. From what I understand, this is exactly what Joss Whedon set out to do when he put together the TV series, Firefly, which is now followed by the new movie, Serenity.
And he's succeeded magnificently.
Now you should understand that I've never watched a single episode of Firefly, nor am I someone who waited each week for every episode of Whedon's other TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. I was able to walk into Serenity with a fresh set of eyes and a shortage of expectations.
Serenity is the best space opera film that I've seen since the original Star Wars came out over 25 years ago. It's bright, and funny, and upbeat, and occasionally deadly serious. There's plenty of action, but nothing that will overly traumatize your teenagers and nothing so revolting that you have to look away from the screen.
But then there's the question that everyone asks: "Will it work for someone who never saw the TV series?" If it isn't obvious from what I've written above, the answer is clearly yes. It works really well, because we recognize every one of the archetypes that populate the film.
Is Mal, Serenity's captain, cut from the same cloth as Han Solo? Is Kaylee yet another of the slightly eccentric but hypercompetent engineers who can keep a ship flying with bubble gum and baling wire? Is Jayne the wildman who you want at your back in a fight?
Absolutely! Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. It's not just that we're dealing with archetypes here, but it's the little twists on those archetypes that make them fun to watch. Scotty, for all his virtues, was never quite as cute as Kaylee, nor was Han Solo ever quite as befuddled by his crew as Mal is.
Without giving away too much of the plot, Serenity is the story of how the Alliance's Operative pursues River, a young female psychic who the Alliance had trained for use as a living weapon before her brother, Simon, engineered her escape. But while River was an Alliance captive, she learned their terrible secret, now buried beneath layers of her psychosis. The Operative will protect this secret at any cost, which is guaranteed to be bad news for the crew of Serenity since that's where River and Simon are hiding.
This sounds grim and it frequently is. But there are many intentionally humorous moments providing comic relief, something that the original Star Wars provided and that the most recent trilogy never did. It's the sense of humor that makes Serenity one of the great space operas.
(There was one -- I assume -- unintentionally humorous moment when Gretchen and I looked at each other knowingly and I whispered to her one of my favorite lines from Galaxy Quest, "The person who wrote this episode should die!" You'll recognize it when you see it near the climax of the film.)
Don't stare too closely at the science. This is, after all, a space opera. But while we're asked to use our willing suspension of disbelief to allow twenty terraformed worlds to exist within a short distance of each other, it turns out that the physics of this universe doesn't allow for photon torpedoes and phasers. Guns, however, still work just as well as they always did.
If you never watched Firefly, you'll find Serenity to be a great ride. And my friends who did watch the TV series tell me it was a great ride for them too.