I'll preface this review with the fact that I was a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan and over the summer a friend of mine introduced me to the boxed set of Firefly, so I wasn't going into this movie with a blank slate. I will also divulge that I'm a big Joss Whedon fan (except for Alien Resurrection, what the fuck?). This review will of course be biased.
I'll get through the problems with this film first (there aren't that many). The biggest hurdle that Whedon had in transferring his show into a movie was characterization, and he doesn't quite clear it. There are nine main characters in the show, and how the hell are you going to juggle nine characters in a two hour span when you're used to having years of examining each of their intriguing facet? I have no clue, and apparently neither did Whedon. Whedon's able to differentiate everyone because he's a master of dialogue, but for the uninitiated I don't think the major points of drama in the film will resonate like it will with those who watched the TV show. For those who are familiar with the television show it's really a treat to find out how everything ends(?) (*dun-dunn-dunnn*).
As for the rest of the film...it was great! (I was having trouble holding in the inner fanboy). Having a larger budget really allowed Whedon to show what he could do with a bigger brush. I must admit that I was worried Whedon might be too acclimated to television to handle the Big Screen. These worries were thankfully unfounded. Whedon knows how to use action without supplanting the story. There's some good choreography, and he's smart enough of a director to allow the viewers to follow the action instead of substituting quick cuts thinking the audience will think they're excited. Towards the end the kind of action expands but I never felt I was lost in the spectacle of special effects.
This was also a great film for Whedon to showcase his visual talents. With a relatively small budget (I think it was 40 million) he is able to immerse us into a believable and unique world. He is also smart enough to vary the landscape. The viewer is treated to a Hong Kong style city, the familiar border towns, and a place that looks like it came out of Frank Lloyd Wright's imagination.
There is a very Whedon feel to this movie. As anyone who has watched Firefly or Buffy knows, when you're watching those shows you feel that not only are you getting to know the characters on screen but the creator behind those characters as well. One of Whedon's great abilities is to make sure the audience is never complacent. For example, the opening consists of a scene where River is being taught at school, but soon we find out that this is going on inside her head and we're really being treated to a scene where her brother Simon is breaking her out of a secret government facility, but wait, this turns out to be merely surveillance video (hologram?) the villain is watching of their escape. It sounds very clumsy in print, but is used to great effect as the movie's opener. There are plenty of other surprises in the film, but I don't want to spoil anything more.
Well, I'd better stop praising Joss Whedon lest people think I'm gay. Lets just say that people should be pleased with this movie (probably Firefly fans more than novices). Oh, and there's an allusion to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and I can't tell you how long I've been waiting to hear that in a science fiction western originating on television.