If there's anything more annoying to a television fan than having a promising new series cut down in its infancy, it's when that series leaves unanswered plot points behind. We'll never get to the bottom of the mysteries behind Nowhere Man or John Doe, but for Firefly fans closure is finally here in the form of Serenity.
If you liked the show, you'll like the movie. All the same elements are there-- the snappy patter, the retro-western patois, the moral ambiguity of survival on the frontier, the gritty barely-holding-together ship. Many of the funniest bits are spoiled by the trailer (why, oh why do those Hollywood bozos not get it?), but there's plenty of Whedonesque humor throughout. Viewers unfamiliar with the series should be able to follow right along, but will certainly miss the deeper level of subtext and resonance that comes from having already spent 14 hours with these characters.
When the series ended, there were a few dangling questions: What did the Alliance do to River? Why do they want her back so badly? Where do the Reavers come from? Will Simon ever stop worrying about River long enough to return Kaylee's advances? Will Mal and Inara just drop the game and confess their feelings for each other? All of these questions get answered. In fact, the movie begins with a terrific double-flashback device that deftly handles not only the required exposition to set up the film for those who missed the television series, but answers one of those burning questions right out of the gate.
Whedon made some interesting choices with some of the characters-- in particular (highlight the space between the brackets to reveal minor spoilers) [not all of the main characters survive the film]-- which have me wondering if he planned things that way from the beginning or changed course to better serve the needs of a motion picture. Would things have wound up differently had the series been allowed to run its course?
The ultimate answer to the question of why the Alliance wants River turns out to be a bit of a letdown, if only because it was invented from whole cloth. Babylon 5 creator and former Murder, She Wrote producer J. Michael Straczynski once said that before you fire a gun, you need to have a shot of it sitting on the mantle. That's why every Bond movie includes a scene with Q demonstrating 007's gadgetry-- so when it actually gets used in the plot, it won't seem like it was pulled out of thin air. And that's actually a very ham-fisted solution to the problem. Far better is to show us the gun without having us realize it's a gun. Whedon set up the Reavers quite effectively in the television series, for example, with the result that their role in the film works. But the bug up the Alliance's butt-- the particular thing they're afraid people will discover-- came more or less out of nowhere. Perhaps the series just ended before Whedon could work in the setup, or perhaps this wasn't quite the payoff he'd planned when the show began.
The characters, however, remain faithful to their established selves-- particularly Mal, whose journey rings especially true. I have other quibbles-- the editing in the climactic space battle made things difficult to follow, some of the series regulars were given short shrift in the screenplay, and the groovy theme song was noticable in its absence-- but I left the theater remarkably satisfied.