Creator of the cult TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel," writer-director Joss Whedon melds Western and sci-fi genres -- an unlikely combination that worked exceedingly well in the TV show, although the oater element is understated here -- for this adventure about a motley crew of misfits aboard the titular transport ship-for-hire. Operating on the edges of space, Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) will take any job, legal or not, to keep his crew fed and his craft flying. Among his passengers is a young fugitive: A frayed thread in the tapestry of the show, River (Summer Glau), unstable and psychic, moves to the center of the picture as quarry for a government operative that will stop at nothing to reacquire her -- and the secrets buried deep within her psyche.
Revisiting familiar themes, Whedon once again unleashes a little girl with mad martial arts skills in fight scenes strongly reminiscent of "Buffy." Also like the Vampire Slayer, in Mal he's crafted a reluctant hero who develops a belief in something larger than himself, while demonstrating that leadership is sometimes lonely and demands that he be ruthless. But, while treating his subject matter with the utmost respect, Whedon also infuses it with his trademark off-kilter wit, in which humor is derived from the unexpected. Whether non-Browncoats will be immediately receptive to these complexities and quirks remains to be seen. Starring Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Adam Baldwin, Alan Tudyk, Jewel Staite, Morena Baccarin, Summer Glau, Sean Maher, Ron Glass, David Krumholtz and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Directed and written by Joss Whedon. Produced by Barry Mendel. A Universal release. Sci-Fi/Adventure. Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense violence and action and some sexual references. Running time: 119 min