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Firefly Burns On 

Don't let the title of this big-budget, action-filled sci-fi film fool you. It's anything but serene. The title refers to the name of the battered, spunky space ship -- the same two adjectives could be used in describing its crew -- that makes "salvage" runs through outer space about 500 years in the future. I use quotes around the word "salvage" because Captain Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his rogue companions are actually petty criminals on the run from the Alliance. But they're what you would call good guy criminals.

Here's some explanation for those who aren't lucky enough to be familiar with Firefly, the short-lived 2002 Fox TV show upon which this is based: Earth is so overpopulated, it simply could not support its people, and most of them took off for a new solar system. An alliance -- The Alliance -- was formed among the central planets, but politics got in the way, and before long, war was being waged with the outer planets. Add to this a group called the Independents, etc., etc. Captain and crew are just trying to eke by -- stealing government payrolls, selling fenced goods -- without getting caught.

That part tends to get a little confusing, as does the main story that comes out of it. And to be honest, writer-director Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, writer of Alien: Resurrection, co-writer of Toy Story) who made and brought Firefly to television, might have erred here by assuming that everyone saw all eight episodes that were broadcast. It seems that he skipped over simple introductory material for his characters in the film because he thought everyone watching would know who they were.

He's wrong -- but not wrong enough to ruin it, just enough to put a little strain on things. For those who have seen the excellent show, sit back and relax: You're gonna like this. For those who haven't, rent the DVD -- preferably before seeing the film. It has three additional episodes that weren't aired, and it lets you know things such as the fact that two of the characters -- the engineer Wash and the warrior woman Zoe -- are married.

The show had multiple stories about each of the very different characters going at once. The film zeroes in on one of them: the mysterious River (Summer Glau), a young woman with special powers that allow her to read people's minds. She and her doctor brother, Simon (Sean Maher), are two uninvited guests on the ship. Summer's (and everyone else's) backstory was always hinted at on the show -- but when it was canceled, so were those stories.

Now it's up front, starting with flashbacks of experiments on her when she was a little girl, to now, when an unnamed steely countenanced Alliance operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) comes looking for her, vowing that no one will live who gets in his way.

And while the story is mainly about that man trying to get that woman, plenty of screen time is shared with plenty of other characters. Nathan Fillion, a gifted comic actor best known before this for a very funny cameo in which he's punched out by Brendan Fraser in Blast from the Past, adds more to the already considerable swagger he displayed in the TV show. The square-jawed, over-eager Jayne is given some comic macho muscle by Adam Baldwin. Glau's River has so much going on behind her eyes, it's hard to figure out even how to look at them.

The film features some grisly violence that remains practically bloodless; some terrific visual effects when it comes to massive flying machines; and some top-notch fights, ranging from the barroom variety with near-impossible odds, to a straightforward and traditional put-up-your-dukes, one-on-one slugfest.

This all takes place in a dirty, messy future. A visit to a city turns out to be closer in feeling to the wretched Los Angeles of Blade Runner than the gleaming Theed of Star Wars. And the atmosphere gains some tension when we catch flashes of the messed-up stuff going on inside River's head. For you fans of political wrongdoing, there's a side plot about a government cover-up.

There are actually quite a few serious issues between different characters, and an extremely serious plot turn. At the same time, the script is never very far away from a drama-defusing comic line. And aside from a formulaic but exciting showdown between our anti-heroes and some very bad guys near the end, this comes across as a fresh chapter in science fiction. But do think about watching the TV show first, just to make watching the film more fun.

Serenity; Rated: PG-13; Directed by Joss Whedon; Starring Nathan Fillion, Sean Maher, Summer Glau.

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