In a word: Exceptional. Serenity is by far the best film released this year, and the best film I've seen in a long, long time. Why? Exceptionally written and executed. Serenity is one of those rare films of the calibre of The Lord of the Rings and Gladiator where you actually care about the characters, can empathize with them, and hope to hell that they can pull through.
For those not in the know, Serenity is the continuation of the ill-fated series Firefly, written and directed by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel). Taken from the official site:
The film centers around Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a hardened veteran (on
the losing side) of a galactic civil war, who now ekes out a living pulling off
small crimes and transport-for-hire aboard his ship, Serenity. He leads a
small, eclectic crew who are the closest thing he has left to family -
squabbling, insubordinate and undyingly loyal.
When Mal takes on two new passengers-a young doctor and his unstable,
telepathic sister-he gets much more than he bargained for. The pair are
fugitives from the coalition dominating the universe, who will stop at nothing
to reclaim the girl. The crew that was once used to skimming the outskirts
of the galaxy unnoticed find themselves caught between the unstoppable military
force of the Universal Alliance and the horrific, cannibalistic fury of the
Reavers, savages who roam the very edge of space. Hunted by vastly
different enemies, they begin to discover that the greatest danger to them may
be on board Serenity herself.
Serenity's characters, their relationships to one another, and how these relations unfold are among the film's strongest points. The character development is simply exceptional. The crew of Serenity are human, flawed, the good guys who aren't always perfectly moral but try to do the right things for both themselves, and when they can, others. You feel for them because you can understand them. You can understand Mal's struggles, especially his moral ones, because he's making the choices that you'd probably make in his shoes.
There are so many twists and turns to the plot as well, all masterfully executed that they keep both the audience and the crew of Serenity off the loop. By the end of the film, I was actually feeling rather ill simply because I had gotten so into the story, so into the characters that the film moved me. I wanted Mal to succeed. I wanted the Alliance to get tossed on it's ass. I wanted what was right to be done. It's very rare that a film can provoke these kind of emotions, and it's too bad I can't go into proper detail to really highlight all of this because if I did, I'd flat out ruin the plot for you.
From an effects stand point, the film was great. It didn't go overboard, it wasn't a Lucas film screaming "WE HAVE EFFECTS! LOOK AT MY SHINEY TROOPERS!" Everything in Serenity was akin to The Lord of the Rings in the sense that the effects are subtle; they're there, but you aren't thinking they're there. The end space battle is rather amazing as well, something glimpsed in the trailer.
Of course another unique twist to Serenity is its style of sci-fi, its a sci-fi/western. The back worlds, the non-Alliance weapons, are all western inspired and very low-tech, but functional. Somewhat of a stretch, but executed so well that it's a believable "'verse."
If you're into character driven films with a plot that's so polished, so sound that it'll hit you home on an emotional level, go see Serenity. It is hands down not only one of the best films of the year, but one of the best films of the new millennium.