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Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans know this already, even if you don’t: Joss Whedon is cheeky. But giving the undead and the demonic pop-cultural savvy and witty dialogue is one thing. Staging the meeting of Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa in a galaxy far, far away is another—and in the same year as Episode III, no less. Serenity, the big-screen adaptation of the Western-in-space that appeared briefly on Fox as Firefly before being put out to pasture, is nowhere near a masterpiece, but it more than justifies its writer-director’s insolence. In the 26th century, smuggler Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) whisks his ship Serenity about the universe with impunity until two passengers, a fugitive psychic/victim of government experimentation (Summer Glau) and her brother (Sean Maher), bring the wrath of the Empire, er, Universal Alliance crashing down on him and his crew. Though Whedon’s zippy humor—one character complains, “For a year now, I’ve had nuthin’ ’twixt my nethers didn’t run on batteries”—keeps this premise from veering too much into fanboy territory, the killing off of not one but two major characters will surely provide plenty of grist for the Whedonites’ blogs. The rest of us get 119 minutes of not-quite-vacant entertainment with occasional lapses into tedious melodrama. Sure, Serenity has all the problems of a television show masquerading as a movie: laughable special effects, pacing that cries out for Seinfeld promo spots, and actors who are out of their depth—especially Fillion, who aims to make Mal an existential Han Solo but will never be Harrison Ford. Yet the movie also has genuinely freaky cannibals, some flippant warrior-code mysticism, plenty of relevant-to-now thematics about large-scale imperialism, and one fabulously menacing baddie in the form of Dirty Pretty Things’ Chiwetel Ejiofor, slumming it as Alliance assassin the Operative. George Lucas incurred the disappointment of a generation when two of the six Star Wars films weren’t genius but merely enjoyable. With Serenity, Whedon scores two victories: He turns a canceled TV series into a passable film, and he unwittingly proves that not everything set in the universal badlands has to be a religious experience to be fun. —Justin Moyer