Somehow, in the wake of Lucas’ CGI evisceration of his own work and overblown space operas like The Chronicles of Riddick, somebody still knows how to put together an outer-space romp that trades just as heavily on quips and character as it does on conflict and explosions. All the better, there’s barely a movie star in sight. The film in question is Serenity, the by-product of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Joss Whedon’s sci-fi series Firefly. Somehow, Whedon convinced Universal to pony up about $45 million to make and show Serenity to multiplex audiences, 95 percent of whom will have never seen the original series, which lasted on Fox for only 11 episodes back in 2002.

It’s no matter, though, as Whedon gets the uninitiated up to speed quick: 500 years in the future, most of the human-colonized galaxy is controlled by the autocratic Alliance, who won a war some time ago against the rebel Independents, now roaming the fringes of explored space. This is where we find the rattletrap freighter Serenity, crewed by a loveable gaggle of rogues who want to be free to wander at will and maybe pull off the occasional crime. The unusually personable crew is led by Malcolm ‘Mal’ Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a sarcastic loner with a not-so-secret heart of idealism. A shambling kind of hero, he’s about the best thing to hit movie screens since Harrison Ford lost his sense of humor. Since every good hero needs sidekicks, Mal’s backed up by badass Zoe (Gina Torres), her geeky husband Wash (Alan Tudyk), weapons-crazed lunkhead Jayne (Adam Baldwin), and wide-eyed girl mechanic Kaylee (Jewel State). There’s also some new crewmates: a doctor, Simon (Sean Maher), who we’ve seen busting his teenaged sister River (Summer Glau) out of an Alliance research facility where she’d been being turned into a psychotic killing machine. Now River just mopes around the ship, occasionally having psychic flashes, while Simon ignores advances from lovestruck Kaylee.

At film’s start, the Serenity is touching down on a remote planet to pull a bank heist; nothing too violent – they’re good guys, after all – just get the money and haul ass. Problem: In the middle of the job, the town is sacked by a shipful of Reavers, a crazed band of marauding, nihilistic cannibals who seem to exist only to destroy. Bigger problems are in the offing, too, as the Alliance isn’t ready to give up on River yet, and have sent a smooth-talking assassin (serene theater actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, practically walking away with the whole film) to get her back from Serenity‘s wisecracking crew, not all of whom are so jazzed about hanging on to her.

Whedon’s seen more than a few Westerns in his time and has fully absorbed their laconic sense of heroism. Unfortunately, he’s also been writing for TV shows for years, and Serenity, his feature directing debut, shows the limitations of the small-screen form. While Whedon’s script is fortunately motivated more by punchy (and surprisingly funny) dialogue than action, this also tends to lead to a static structure, as well as some interminably clumsy fight scenes and ratty-looking sets which look to have been picked up from one of the lesser Star Trek spinoffs. Whedon also has a comic geek’s affinity for hammy emotional payoffs and killing off characters just when they start to get interesting, neither of which will endear the film to a mainstream audience.

Those quibbles aside, this is wonderfully satisfying pulp sci-fi in the grand tradition, a film which never loses its humanity and reminds us that without Han Solo, Star Wars would just be guys with funny names chasing mythological clich├ęs and playing with ray guns.

The DVD includes 20 minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes, an extensive making-of documentary, commentary track from Whedon, and a few additional featurettes.

A new collector’s edition adds a second disc to the mix, with more in-depth featurette material, extended scenes, tours of the Serenity itself, and more. Nifty packaging, too.

If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times. Stop leaving bodies on the stairs!