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Universal Studios Home Video presents
Serenity (2005)

Wash: This landing could get interesting.
Mal: Define 'interesting.'
Wash: Oh God, oh God, we're all gonna die?

- Alan Tudyk, Nathan Fillion

Review By: Joel Cunningham  
Published: January 03, 2006

Stars: Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin, Summer Glau, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Other Stars: Gina Torres, Jewel Staite, Morena Baccarin, Sean Maher, Ron Glass, David Krumholtz, Michael Hitchcock, Sarah Paulson
Director: Joss Whedon

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense violence and action, and some sexual references
Run Time: 01h:58m:54s
Release Date: December 20, 2005
UPC: 025192632723
Genre: sci-fi

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+AA- B

DVD Review

Space movies are usually about big explosions and little more; aside from The Matrix, there have been precious few intelligent sci-fi films in the last decade or so (and no, the Star Wars prequels most certainly do not count). It seems most of those stories are being told on the small screen now, in well-regarded shows like Farscape, Babylon 5, and, most recently, the new Battlestar Galactica. Certainly the brightest star in this little universe in the last eight years or so is Joss Whedon, creator of the technically horror, but sci-fi leaning, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

In 2003, Whedon debuted Firefly, on oddball melding of Old West iconography and futuristic spaceships, complete with cornpone dialogue. It was an interesting vision of a future in which humanity is recovering from a galactic civil war, its "heroes" a band of refugees, criminals, and former soldiers from the losing side. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) captains the hunk of junk cargo ship Serenity, which looks like a big lightning bug. He's basically a space pirate, with a rag-tag crew that includes amoral mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin, no relation), former soldier Zoe (Gina Torres), her husband and the ship's pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk), plucky mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite), and doctor Simon (Sean Maher) and his mysterious, gibberish-spouting sister River (Summer Glau). Fifteen episodes explored these disparate personalities in fairly fresh and interesting ways (even if some of the plots, including River's status as a super powered government experiment, felt like borrowed Buffy), but Whedon never really got a chance to tell their story.

Not surprisingly, it seems not too many people were interested in a gritty, offbeat, generally grim and morally complex space drama, and the Fox network quickly canceled it amid sagging ratings. Fervent fans, of course, insist the show wasn't given a chance, and that had the network stuck with it, kids would soon be playing Alliance and Browncoats instead of cowboys and Indians. But I don't think it would have made a difference. Firefly always seemed built for cable, and mainstream success always seemed like, well, science fiction.

Which is why Serenity is such a pleasurable and painful experience. When the show was finally canceled, Whedon and his worshippers refused to let it die, and after endless campaigning, somehow convinced Universal to turn it into a big budget movie. Proving that taste doesn't change much in two years, the movie, of course, flopped, even considering its modest budget (never mind that it's the smartest action movie of the year, and leagues better than stilted junk like Chronicles of Riddick). I don't know that a movie based on a canceled cult TV show ever had much of a chance, but does Serenity have any crossover appeal at all? Yes and no, and that's the problem.

On its own terms, it's a decent enough story, but falls well below the threshold of operatic, big-budget sci-fi general audiences have come to expect. So, once again, despite Whedon's best attempts, it seems made for the existing fans, and that's frustrating. I'm one of them, and I'd like to see more stories in this universe, but that doesn't seem likely now. So instead we're left with what is, really, an elaborate, two-hour series finale, crammed with information and character growth meant to be spread out across perhaps several seasons of the TV show, and I'm afraid little of it will mean anything to those not already familiar with the crew of Serenity.

It deals with familiar plot threads—Simon and River's flight from a government known as The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mal's grey morality, and a band of crazy space cannibals known as Reavers—in grand fashion, but everything feels alternately slow and rushed, Whedon's attempt to appeal to both newcomers and die-hard fans. He ends up sort of missing the mark for both audiences, but it doesn't really matter. Yes, the first hour is slow, Serenity is loaded with smart dialogue, real character development (though with such a large cast, some get the short end of the stick—or the pointy one), and the Whedon lynchpins, moments of delirious action laced with big-hearted pathos. He's getting to be a pretty assured director, too, and Serenity looks a lot better than its $40 million budget would imply (cinematographer John Toll is a frequent Clint Eastwood collaborator and shot Million Dollar Baby).

Not the dud its pitiful box office gross implies, Serenity is obviously a labor of love, and hopefully, someday, it will find the audience it deserves.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: This is a very dark film—in many scenes, characters are almost entirely in shadow, with only their faces visible—but blacks are rich and deep, and no detail is lost. Otherwise, the digitally graded colors come off very well, creating a different visual feel depending on the content of a given scene. I noted no edge enhancement or aliasing whatsoever.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
English, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: Serenity is the kind of film for which surround sound was invented, and this is a lively, enveloping mix. The front soundstage is very wide, with strong directionality and panning and clear presentation of dialogue (only in one early scene did speech sound off; one character's voice had a slight echo, but it quickly disappeared). Surrounds are very active, particularly during space battles and gunfights, and the LFE is pronounced when the need arises.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
9 Deleted Scenes
3 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Joss Whedon
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Gag reel
  2. Joss Whedon introduction
Extras Review: Director Joss Whedon provides a commentary track, and while it's enjoyable, it wasn't quite what I was expecting. He's so much about story and character, I thought he'd focus on that, or maybe on the project's unusual history. Though he does touch on those and other issues, he spends most of the running time talking about technical details like lighting, editing, color timing, and the like. He has reason to be proud of his work—the film looks amazing, and even more so when you consider the budget he had to work with.

Nine deleted scenes (with a total running time of just under 15 minutes) are presented with optional Whedon commentary. Most were rightly cut, I think, including a scene of Inara training the "companions" at her International House of Space Prostitutes and a drawn out scene of the Operative expositing about Mal's military background (no one likes a chatty villain). Some characters moments are nice for fans of the series, though, including more of the Mal/Inara romance and a bit more screen time for Shepherd Book.

Future History: The Story of Earth That Was (04m:38s) offers up Whedon's explanation of the sci-fi western universe he's created, and its inspiration, the post-Civil War reconstruction era. And while I appreciate the fact that all of the extras (save the commentary) are subtitled, I'm also greatly amused by the guy who thought Whedon was saying "Millennium Vulcan." Seriously?

What's in a Firefly (06m:38s) is the requisite effects documentary, focusing on both practical and CGI sequences, including a chase over land and, of course, the big final space battle.

Re-lighting the Firefly (09m:28s) tells the strange story of the movie's move from canceled TV series to feature film, with the help of a lot of clips from the show and interviews with Whedon, the producers, and the entire cast. The focus is on the slavishly devoted fans who pushed for the franchise to continue, and while I'm certainly glad they did it, the featurette is a little... uncomfortable, as some of said fans are a wee bit, shall we say, fervent in their beliefs that Firefly is the best show ever, and on a scale of one to ten, you better agree with them. Don't be surprised if, in a few hundred years, there's a Church of Joss Whedon, is what I'm saying.

The director gives props to his disciples in a four-minute introduction that originally played before the film's test screenings to provide a bit of context. It's funny and all, and features Whedon's classic self-deprecating patter (a shtick that's frankly starting to come off as a little bit smarmy), but, again, a little off-putting. To me. Please, don't write me any angry emails if you call yourself a Browncoat, because what do I know? You got the movie made, after all.

Finally, anyone who owns the series DVD release knows this cast gives good blooper reel, and there are some good laughs in the six minutes of Outtakes. The only thing missing, aside from a more substantial making-of, is the trailer. This is actually one of the first major studio DVDs I've seen in a while that features no trailers at all, for the feature or otherwise.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Fans of Joss Whedon's aborted TV series Firefly didn't take cancellation lying down, and their persistence—and Whedon's undying belief in the 'verse he'd created—paid off big time with Serenity, the big damn movie they all were hoping for. It's not perfect, but it's classic Whedon—well drawn characters, wry dialogue, and big, sloppy emotions—and light years beyond the typical science-fiction action epic.


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