You can see how "Firefly," the short-lived TV show that provided the basis for "Serenity," could have gotten addictive if given the chance.
The movie is a spirited mix of the familiar and the futuristic, of fast-paced chase scenes and butt-kicking brawls, of witty banter and well-drawn characters.
No single element of it is truly original - remnants of "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" are scattered throughout, alongside ideas from utopian novels and Clint Eastwood Westerns.
Yet as a whole, "Serenity" feels like its own uniquely formed universe. And having sprung from the mind (and heart) of Joss Whedon, creator of the cult-favorite TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel," it comes with its own legion following of vocal sci-fi geeks, which now is likely to increase in its ranks.
The loyalists - who clamored for more when "Firefly" was canceled in 2002 after just 11 episodes - should be satisfied with "Serenity," Whedon's feature directing debut, but the uninitiated will find it engaging, as well.
A bit of background for those in the latter category: Five hundred years from now, Earth has been overpopulated, forcing people to discover and inhabit new planets in a new galaxy. After a civil war in which the all-powerful Alliance (which seeks to establish "a beacon of civilization" through even-tempered uniformity) has defeated the rebels (who, you know, want to be themselves), Capt. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a former rebel soldier, now earns a living through petty robberies and transport.
(If Malcolm - or "Mal" as he's known - is the swaggering Han Solo figure in the equation, then his ship, the rickety, rambling Serenity, is his Millennium Falcon.)
The crew consists of his second-in-command, the strong, beautiful Zoe (Gina Torres); her husband, the sarcastic pilot, Wash (Alan Tudyk, grabbing most of the best laughs); Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the down-home, no-nonsense mechanic; and Jayne (Adam Baldwin), a muscular mercenary fighter.
They have agreed to provide shelter for River Tam (Summer Glau), a willowy, teenage psychic who's been turned into a human weapon by the Alliance; and her older brother, Simon (Sean Maher), a young doctor who has smuggled her away from the scientists who were manipulating her.
(All these likable actors, by the way, are reprising their roles from the TV series, along with Morena Baccarin as the gorgeous courtesan Mal secretly loves.)
On their tail is The Operative (the suavely menacing Chiwetel Ejiofor from "Dirty Pretty Things") who works for the Alliance and is trying to steal River back.
But River becomes even more dangerous - and even more sought-after - when she intuitively leads Mal and his crew to the faraway planet of Miranda, where secrets lie that could destroy the Alliance. The place is striking, with the stark look of a biochemical lab compound shot under dreamlike, blindingly bright lights.
Until it turns dark with themes of deception and survival, Whedon's script is a combination of snappy dialogue, awkward flirting, Eastern mysticism ("This is a good death, there's no shame in this," The Operative tells a scientist after forcing him to fall on a sword) and rhythmic Americana ("There'll be no undue fussin'," Jayne drawls charmingly during a bank robbery).
And of course, this being a Whedon production, "Serenity" offers some dazzlingly choreographed martial arts sequences. Sparked by a cartoon image she sees on TV at a bar, River freaks out and takes on dozens of other patrons at once, dropping them all to the floor with a smoothness and efficiency that even would have impressed Buffy.
"Serenity," a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense violence and action, and some sexual references. Running time: 118 minutes. Three stars out of four.