Your mileage may vary, but even if you’re not a fan of Firefly, it’s easy to see that this is a surprisingly well-structured film in multiple respects, given its pre-golden era television roots. Not only a mostly self-contained story, but artistically photographed. I suppose they spent enough time on the ship to understand, compositionally, its architecture, but even still.
It’s a fun space western with a satisfying level of pathos, a great villain, swashbuckling set pieces, and wonderful characters. The crew, with its boorish Jayne (though we might retro-hate this particular character), its comic Wash, its no-nonsense Zoe, its confusing Inara (if we haven’t seen the show), and all the rest, are led by the great Malcolm Reynolds.
Nathan Fillion is a tremendous actor, with the ability to switch from goofily light to grippingly serious in an instant — which is important, because that’s one of Whedon’s strengths as a writer is an elastic but controlled tone — and Mal is the perfect character to match his talents. Unlike our current anti-heroes of television, Mal demonstrates a breadth of humanity. He can be violent, he can be protective, or merciful, or cunning — the throughline connecting all these is clear. He’s a loser. He and Zoe fought a losing fight for independence those many days ago, and the empire has been dogging them ever since their great defeat.
His only escape is escape itself, the freedom of space, the adventure that lies beyond the desert horizon. The western motif is obvious, but provides not only a unique atmosphere, but a lyrical idiolect. “You can’t take the sky from me,” might be the extent of the movie’s (and series’) themes, but it’s enough.
This is an action-adventure, blockbuster in premise only (not financial returns, unfortunately for those legion fans), and so it occupies that between-space left of Gattaca, right of Transformers. It’s smart without being intelligent, clever in construction and delivery, and emotional in building toward other things. And yet, that space battle toward the end is pretty damn cool. To follow it up with an Aliens-like sequence — even better.