Serenity (UK - DVD R2)
Paul Greenwood takes an early look at Joss Whedon's recent popular sc-fi flick
Joss Whedon's Serenity is a movie extension of his very short lived series, Firefly, which ran briefly in 2002. Fourteen episodes were filmed, only eleven of which actually aired before it was cancelled by the network. But fan power brought about its reincarnation on the big screen last year and hopes were high that it would not only continue the quality of that show, but act as a catalyst for a proper revival.
Without a word of hyperbole, Firefly is one of the greatest things I have ever watched on television. Very few programmes have come close to its blend of characters, action, drama and humour without sacrificing one at the expense of the other. If you're not familiar with it then buy the DVD now, devour it, then come back and watch Serenity. Of course, you don't have to have seen the show to be able to follow the movie, but knowledge of the characters will deepen your appreciation of it greatly.
Set five hundred years in the future, it's sci-fi with the sensibilities of a western—everyone carries pistols and shotguns and barroom brawls and shoot-outs abound. We follow the adventures of the crew of the Firefly class spaceship, Serenity, a group of pirates and smugglers willing to take on any paying job, legal or otherwise, from transporting goods to robbing payrolls. But they're not exactly criminals, more rebels against the powerful Alliance (not as derivative as it sounds by the way) trying to survive in a tough universe.
Mal Reynolds (Fillion) is the captain of Serenity. He was on the losing side during the Unification War a few years earlier and has been off the radar scraping a living ever since. He's a Han Solo style rogue who's as quick with a wisecrack as he is with a gun. Zoe (Torres), the ship's first mate fought with Mal in the war and is married to Serenity's pilot, Wash (Tudyk). Then there's Kaylee (Staite) the mechanic and Jayne (Baldwin) the muscle—the most mercenary of the crew, you can trust him in a fight, but can you trust him? An odd addition is Inara (Baccarin) a companion or, as Mal would have it, whore, who services wealthy clients in her private shuttle.
Along the way they've picked up passengers in the shape of Simon and River Tam (Maher and Glau) sibling fugitives seeking refuge. Simon is a doctor who rescued his sister from the Alliance scientists who had been experimenting on her—River seems disturbed, but she has telepathic abilities as well as a dark secret so you'd do well to keep an eye on this one. Finally, there's Shepherd Book (Glass) a preacher and the crew's conscience.
Reports that Serenity is one of the best sci-fi actioners in years are not exaggerated and it delivers everything that Firefly fans have come to love, but should also prove accessible to newbies. A well constructed prologue introduces us to River and the focus of the film has shifted squarely onto her and her developing powers, something that was only hinted at in Firefly, but which would surely have become a key storyline had the series continued. The Alliance are extremely nervous about some very sensitive information that she possesses (though she may not consciously know it) and have despatched the Operative (Ejiofor), a top assassin to track her down. Things become even more complicated when it emerges that her abilities are not simply mental but physical, and that she may pose an immense danger to the crew of Serenity. There's also the slight problem of the Reavers, a band of savage cannibals who roam the galaxy preying on defenceless ships. The race is on to get to the truth before the Operative or the Reavers or even River herself destroys them all.
For a medium budgeted film the special effects are of an extremely high standard, favouring realistic and gritty over polished so that, even with a thousand things happening on screen at once, the CGI never becomes obtrusive. The trademark humour is front and centre and this, along with an increased dose of action are the key elements, not to mention likeable and involving characters. Mal Reynolds is a hugely engaging hero, a mixture of Solo, Indy and Humphrey Bogart, but he also displays the darker side of a man haunted by his past and hell-bent on redeeming his future.
Unfortunately, Serenity achieved nowhere near the box office success that had been hoped, seemingly unable to break out beyond the cult status it already enjoyed to reach a wider audience. The real tragedy from the loss of Firefly is that Whedon was unable to tell his story over the space of several seasons (Shepherd Book's background, River's powers, Mal and Inara's relationship and much more). The events and revelations of Serenity are of enormous import and, though they're far from skimmed over, it's still a hell of a lot cram into under two hours. Given room to breathe, the overall plot arc could have been truly monumental.
Editor’s Note: Unfortunately DVDActive was not aware that the screener provided for review purposes was to feature burned-in watermarks. Usually we would refuse to review such material on the grounds that it is not wholly representative of the finished article, but as the disc was already in our possession and fan interest remains high, we decided to proceed. Apologies for the unsightly studio branding on the captures.
The anamorphic transfer has a lot of different aspects and picture variations to deal with and it handles almost all of them very well indeed. Early scenes are a cool steely blue and probably represent the video quality at its weakest, being a little on the soft side and slightly lacking in detail—not bad, just not on a par with the rest of the disc.
The blacks of space are bold and deep, as are the night time campfire scenes which do a good job of presenting brightly lit faces against dark backgrounds without any smearing or ringing. Flesh tones are first rate throughout and blemishes are entirely absent from the print. The interior of Serenity is fairly dark and dingy and occasionally a face will get lost in the shadows, but for the most part detail levels are high. Bright outdoor scenes are where the transfer really shines, with sharpness and clarity at a very high standard and fast moving scenery not compromised.
Nothing much happens outside of talky scenes for the first few minutes of the film, so it's fitting that Serenity herself creates the first sounds of note. She arrives with a roar, shattering the silence of space as the ship breaks atmosphere and every speaker bursts into life, the fronts especially generating plenty of oomph in conjunction with the LFE channel and setting us up nicely for a great ride to follow.
The planet bound Reaver chase is a fine example of the work that's gone into creating superb directionality and movement using the 5.1 track, with bullets and vessels whizzing all over your room, front to back, side to side and all with power and precision. Punches and gunfire rattle with authority throughout the film and laser and cannon blasts from spaceships are sharp and resounding. Dialogue can occasionally be hard to understand, but I reckon that's more through mumbling than any audio deficiency, while music sweeps around the speakers without overpowering any of the effects.
Writer/director Joss Whedon delivers a quite tremendous commentary track that is an absolutely essential listen. He's an engaging and self deprecating speaker who touches on many aspects of the production, from the actors and crew to the cinematography, and there are good anecdotes about the FX. Character arcs and motivation are covered in detail as are the reasons behind the deaths, and he reacts to the criticism that all his creations are super-powered girls. In the course of a hugely entertaining one hundred minutes, he gives us his reasons and rationales behind just about every shooting decision he made. There is a touch of the everyone-is-great syndrome, but it's always funny, always interesting.
Deleted scenes follow, and there are nine in total: ‘Extended Lilac Entrance’ (just a few seconds of some crazy talk from River), ‘Extended Kaylee and Jayne’ (around one minute of extra exchange between the pair), ‘Inara and Sheydra’ (two minutes of Inara teaching other companions and speaking about their ways and, most fun, denying the rumours that she had an affair with a pirate), ‘Operative Tracks Mal’ (two minutes of the Operative learning more about Mal and Serenity), ‘Extended River and Simon/Haven Opening’ (also includes some more of Shepherd Book), ‘Escape from Companion Training House’ (Mal and Inara fool some Alliance soldiers on their way back to her shuttle), ‘Mal and Inara Shuttle Chase’ (a few seconds for some humour), ‘Mal and Inara Quiet Moment’ (a touching couple of minutes between them) and ‘Extended Mal and Operative Coda’ (a few extra words).
These scenes are all worth watching and are available with or without commentary from Whedon, in which he gives us an excellent insight into his editing process and why they were cut—some for time and the need for momentum and a focussed structure, some because they could have caused confusion, some that were too much exposition, and some that were simply not necessary.
Six minutes of outtakes follow. This is the usual collection of prop mishaps, fluffed lines and pratfalls, but it's made very entertaining by the charm of the actors who all look like they're having a great time.
In the ‘Future History: The Story of Earth That Was’ featurette (4 mins) Whedon reveals how the seeds of Firefly were sown after reading about frontiers people and talks about his vision for the worlds he created.
‘What's In a Firefly?’ (6 mins) is an intriguing look at the visual effects that were used in the film, how they achieved some of the mechanical effects and how much of a part CGI had to play.
‘Re-Lighting the Firefly’ (10 mins) features Whedon and the cast sharing their feelings on the cancellation of Firefly and their great sense of loss. Whedon was determined not to stop until he found a new home for the story, be it on another network or with TV movies. Fan power allowed them another opportunity, and the wild reception they received at a convention just as Serenity was going into production made them realise the depth of feeling. This one might bring a tear to your eye.
The ‘Joss Whedon Introduction’ (4 mins) is the intro that preceded Serenity when special preview screenings were held in the months before the film's cinema release. Whedon is his usual jokey and affable self and this is a nice inclusion.
‘A Filmmaker's Journey (20 mins)’ is a featurette that is missing from the region one release and is more behind the scenes stuff shot during the making of Serenity. Once again the focus is on the fun that everyone is having and how much they enjoy working together and the sense of family. Fillion is a constant source of amusement on the set and there's also a good look at Summer Glau being put through her paces for the fight training and choreography.
It's astonishing how much love there is for Firefly and Serenity. This will sound a bit ridiculous if you're not a fan, but more than once during the extras I felt myself welling up, both at the amount of affection on display here and the thought that we may never meet these characters again. The extras make up in quality what they lack in quantity, but it still isn't quite the full package. With the region four Australian release promising even more exclusive material, chances are there's a special edition yet to come.
In the meantime, there's no reason in the world not to buy this. As a sci-fi action movie in its own right, Serenity is up there with the best of them. As an extension of Firefly, fans really couldn't have wished for either a better continuation or a better finale, if that indeed is what this film proves to be. They might have stopped the signal but they can't take the sky from us.
Review by Paul Greenwood
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 27th February 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Extras: Commentary, Deleted Scenes, Featurettes, Outtakes
Easter Egg: No
Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Jewel Staite, Adam Baldwin, Morena Baccarin, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi and Western
Length: 119 minutes
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