Serenity (US - BD)
Gabe will get back to you later, he's watching Morena Baccarin in 1080p...
By now I’m guessing that most of the folks reading this review already know the tragic tale of Firefly, and the perhaps even more tragic tale of Serenity, so I’ll run through my own point of view in a speedy fashion. And by ‘speedy fashion’ I mean in a ‘long and rambling fashion’.
I was introduced to Firefly in (probably) 2004, kicking and screaming, by a group of friends. I like science fiction, but made for TV science fiction was, at the time, not very good. Star Trek’s glory days were a galaxy far, far behind them, and every other show I could think of ( Babylon 5 for example) was really just Star Trek: The Next Generation-lite. I mean that in a bad way. TV Sci-Fi was cheap, staged like a sit-com, and all too often without humour.
‘But it’s written by Joss Whedon.’, they said, as if it meant anything to me.
‘Who?’, I implored, doing my best to appear as if I actually cared.
‘The guy that wrote Buffy: The Vampire Slayer’, they replied, again, as if that meant anything to me.
Despite having no working knowledge of Whedon (beyond his script doctoring on various movies like Alien Resurrection, X-Men, and Toy Story), and no love for TV Sci-Fi, I let my pushy friends push me into watching the show. As the episodes ran I finally stopped pretending to enjoy myself, and actually did. Firefly was dynamically shot, looked pretty pricey, and was wickedly funny. More importantly I liked the storyline, and wanted to see where it was going. There was just one problem, I was in formed later—the show had been cancelled after only half a season.
But soon later I found out that the clouds in heaven had parted. Firefly had been picked up for a theatrical adaptation, and the second season was going to be crammed into a single feature film. Fan lobbying had ignited interest with Universal Studios, who decided to take a medium budget chance on the property, which given a different set of circumstance (perhaps an alternate dimension?), really could’ve panned out with popular audiences. I followed the making and release of the film pretty closely. If Serenity is remembered in another thirty years, it’ll be for this origin story, unfortunately, not its accomplishments on screen, because the tale is far too unique, and the film itself was rather unpopular. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I saw the film first day, with a packed audience of fans who all reacted perfectly to the material, me included. Serenity is an unmistakably exciting movie. It has displays obvious monetary advantages over the original series, and its swagger and wit are hard to resist. The experience was electrifying. If I’d written a review that night it would’ve been a 10/10. From this high horse I sat with the series’ other fans, and the fall over the next week would be a hard. Serenity didn’t make money, and was considered a flop, despite some excellent reviews. It was at this point that a second tragedy began to set in.
I got over my sadness pretty quickly simply because I wasn’t fully emotionally invested in seeing the rest of the story, but there were a lot of hard feelings among the hard-core fans that had helped get the movie made. The attitude of these valiant cornered animals quickly turned so toxic I was hesitant to even talk about the movie in mixed company. I took the time to see it again while on vacation, but there was a bad aftertaste in my mouth walking into the theatre, and realized that my initial reaction was probably a little ravenously driven. More to the point, I kind of hated vast expanses of the third act. Sobered by time, and not packed into a fan-tastic (and somewhat vocal) audience, I wasn’t hooked by the high of not knowing what was going to happen next.
(These next two paragraphs contain a huge spoiler, so skip ahead if you haven’t seen the film)
My duelling opinions concerning the film both hinged on a single scene. It’s actually not even a full scene, it’s about a minute of film at the tail of the space battle, just before the crew has their Rio Bravo moment—the part where Wash is unceremoniously killed. The first time the sudden death came as such a violent shock it coloured the next thirty or so minutes of film. If Whedon could kill Wash, he could kill anyone, all bets were off, etc. I had the perfect visceral reaction. It helped that a lack of third act (hero) death had been my biggest complaint regarding Return of the Jedi, and that the deaths in The Matrix: Revolutions (which was still on our tongues) had struck me as phony and drawn-out.
The second time I saw Serenity I knew Wash was going to be speared, so the scene lost much of its drama, and the following scenes were no longer dulled intellectually by the impact. What had been the linchpin of the entire film now felt more like a cheap shot. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Wash was the most expendable character in the situation, because he served little purpose in a fight (as any fan of the series knows), and because he would be missed by the audience as the harmless nice guy. The threatened deaths that follow in the Rio Bravo sequence are cheapened as well, not to mention the fact that I then noticed that the film had a Rio Bravo sequence. Another Rio Bravo sequence!
So how do I feel about the film now, after an even bigger buffer of years? I’m stuck between my first two opinions. For every new thing I find to love (a bit of banter I’d missed, a really beautiful shot) I find something new to dislike (a bit too much talking, frankly). Serenity is still better than most movies pooped out of the Hollywood factory every year, and I recommend it to any and everyone that expresses interest, but it’s not as fresh as it was that all important first time, and that’s not a sign of a perfect film.
Ultimately Serenity should’ve been a stepping stone. In a perfect world the film should’ve led to more and better Firefly films (can you imagine Whedon’s Empire Strikes Back or Wrath of Khan?), and it should’ve led to successful careers for all its major participants. People forget that Whedon was a first time movie director. If this is what he can do the first time out, what could he do with lessons learned intact and a bigger budget. He almost directed X-Men 3, they based the movie on his comic, but instead we got a much more popular director—Brett Ratner (okay, to be fair Whedon turned the gig down for Wonder Woman, which of course was never made).
Then there’s the outstanding cast—that talent group of people that can actually speak Whedon’s dialogue without sounding like the awkward teenagers with really expensive thesauruses on hand. I’m not saying the cast’s careers are dead, but when’s the last time you saw Sean Maher, Jewel Staite, Morena Barccarin, or Gina Torres in a leading role on the big screen, or even a decent supporting role? Sure, Adam Baldwin’s remained busy (and typecast), Alan Tudyk has moved from one stealing supporting role to another, and Summer Glau has that (boring) Terminator show, but what about Nathan Fillion? On screen Fillion is a bundled mass of Harrison Ford, Bruce Campbell, and Clark Gabel, but his luck in Hollywood has been sketchy at best. I see his lack of super-stardom as the whole ordeal’s biggest tragedy.
This is my first look at Serenity in high definition. I actually owned a six dollar copy of the film on HD DVD (some of those sales were too hard to resist), but I never watched it, so I’m not going to do any comparison there. Basically speaking, I’m very impressed with this transfer. Whedon overdoes his comic book colouring a bit (in my opinion James Cameron and Steven Spielberg have all but killed solid cool colours for modern Sci-Fi, and the warm colours are often a little too Star Wars prequel-y), but they’re a great arena for hi-def possibilities. I saw the film twice in theatres—once in a good one, and once in a really bad one—then watched it a few times on DVD, but I’ve never seen the colours this bright, this full, or this clean.
I’ve also never seen it this black. The black levels on this disc are almost unbelievably deep, and there could’ve been some major detail loss, but shockingly there is none. In fact, for such a stylized and varied production (including several different stocks, over-modulation, soft focus, heavy grain, etc.) this is an incredibly detailed transfer. I never noticed the scars on Chiwetel Ejiofor’s head, even on a two story screen. The story goes both ways though, because now some of the digital animation set against real footage doesn’t look quite as convincing as it once was, and Mal’s chest scares look a lot like, well, make-up appliances.
It seems that Whedon and crew actually got so into the more theatrical scale they even went out of their way to find excuses to break their (scientifically accurate) no sound in space rules by setting the big space battle in an ion cloud. There’s plenty of big and blustery audio moments in the film (which is often a good way to disguise a less than gigantic budget), and the DTS-HD Master Audio track is the best way to experience this effective mix at home so far. Not that I don’t consider Serenity as a whole an audio tour de force, but the best scene to impress your friends comes pretty early on in the film. The chase with the Reavers that introduces the amped action to the television audiences is full of duelling sound effects, overlapping, chunky bass sources, swashbuckling music, and a whole lot of spatial movement. Check it out.
The Blu-ray disc is a slight upgrade from the HD disc in terms of extras, but there’s not much for those with the special edition DVD to get excited about. The HD release was a port from the original DVD release, this is a port of the special edition, plus a little added U-Control input.
Things start with Joss Whedon’s solo commentary, which is still pretty good. Whedon is a little awkward, but is much more prepared than most directors in his position, running down his universe, talking about what might have been, and admitting to almost all his good natured theft. My favourite bits are the ones where Whedon describes his cost cutting measures, which is much more interesting than in depth discussions of masses of faceless computer techs. The second track, featuring Whedon and actors Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, Ron Glass and Summer Glau, is from the later edition DVD, so the idea exchange is a more retrospective discussion. Having the actors around leads to more humour, and those with profile 1.1 and up players can have the added joy of watching the commentators as they speak.
‘Alliance Database’ is, I believe, the only Blu-ray exclusive extra (except the U-Control extras). This is a hard to navigate, but undeniably pretty looking, interactive hi-def endeavour. Here fans can explore the planets, history and characters of Whedon’s universe. The facts are minimal, but the interface is pretty cool (though you can get generally the same information out of the ‘Mr. Universe’s Compendium’ U-Control Extra).
There are nine deleted scenes, four extended scenes, and a group of outtakes on the disc. The deleted scenes, which run about fourteen minutes, have a ‘play all’ option, are presented in non-anamorphic standard definition, and feature commentary from Whedon. Many of these represent my favourite kind of deleted scene—one which shouldn’t have been included in the final feature, but aren’t entirely extraneous either, so they’re fun to watch. It’s also interesting to see the scenes in their raw form, minus all the post-production colour tinkering. The extended scene, which run about six minutes, aren’t as rough as the deleted ones, but still aren’t totally finished, and are non-anamorphic SD. The outtakes are expectedly amusing.
Next up is a selection of featurettes, starting with ‘Future History: The Story of the Earth that Was’, a minor exploration of the hows and whys of the Serenity universe (only four minutes). It runs through the genesis of the story, and fills in a few gaps for non-series fans. ‘What’s In a Firefly’ is a six-and-a-half minute look at the filming of the big special effects scenes, including pre-vis, location filming, and special effects. ‘Re-Lighting Firefly’ is a pretty fluffy look at the show’s Phoenix-like ash rising, featuring cast and crew interviews, and Comic-Con footage set to schmaltzy music. It runs about ten minutes. ‘Take a Walk on Serenity’ is a brief four minute walk-through the ship set with Whedon and the cast. ‘The Green Clan’ is a three minute look at cinematographer Jack Green’s work on the film.
‘A Filmmaker’s Journey’ is the most substantial featurette, exploring many aspects of the making-of process over a period of almost twenty minutes. The funny thing is the title, because the majority of focus is upon the actors.
The final extras are a series of five web featurettes which give insight into River Tam (running eight minutes). Not carried over from the special edition DVD is a made for Sci-Fi channel featurette, and a pretend candy commercial.
Not only is this review a little on the late side (I promise, I’m getting caught up on all my back reviews), but I’m sure fans would’ve bought it even without my advice. I hope you enjoyed my little story anyway. I’m sorry I’m unable to make a comparison between the HD DVD release and the Blu-Ray release A/V-wise, but I imagine there is an advantage to the DTS Master Audio track. The additional extras aren’t too much to get excited about, unless you’re a really big fan of PiP options.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 30th December 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital Surround English, Dolby Digital Surround Spanish, Dolby Digital 5.1 French
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Japanese, and Portugues
Extras: Director Commentary, Director/Cast Commentary, U-Control Extras, Deleted Senes, Outtakes, Extended Scenes, 'Future History', 'Re-Lighting Firefly', 'What's in a Firefly', 'Take a Walk on Serenity', 'A Filmmaker's Journey', 'Session 416'
Easter Egg: No
Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Chiwtel Ejiofor, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy and Sci-Fi
Length: 119 minutes
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