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DVD SAVANT

Serenity
Savant Blu-ray Review


Serenity
Blu-ray
Universal
2005 / Color / 2:35 widescreen /119 min. / Street Date December 30, 2008 / 29.98
Starring Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass, Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Krumholtz.
Cinematography Jack N. Green
Production Design Barry Chusid
Film Editor Lisa Lassek
Original Music David Newman
Produced by Barry Mendel
Written and Directed by Joss Whedon

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The 2002 Sci-Fi adventure TV series Firefly was mightily abused by the Fox Network, which showed its episodes shown out of order and canceled it when it did not achieve instant success. But its maker Joss Whedon wouldn't let the show die, and neither would his rabid fan base. In less than three years a feature version arrived in theaters with its excellent cast intact. Special screenings of rough cuts were staged in college towns to rally the faithful and gain cult converts. Serenity didn't become a blockbuster but it did respectable business. As Whedon states repeatedly in the extras on Universal's new Blu-ray, it's a point of pride when a failed TV show bounces back in this way.

As it turns out, Serenity is well worth the concern and the effort. Yes, it's an eclectic bundle of ideas and situations from space operas of the past, but it brings an intelligent tone, genuine wit and likeable characters to a field usually described as dumbed-down and infantile. Fans betrayed by the leaden Star Wars prequels will find what they're looking for.

Firefly was yanked from the air before it could complete its main story arc. Some fans were taken aback by the necessity for Serenity to tell an entire story in two hours' running time, but Whedon has by and large distilled the essence of the TV series while keeping his characters intact. Serenity is the name of the spaceship captained by Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a vaguely Han Solo-ish gray marketeer operating on the margins of an oppressive galactic empire. His first officer is the practical Zoë Washburne (Gina Torres); she's married to Reynold's crack pilot Hoban "Wash" Washburne. The ship's tough-guy soldier is Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) and its engineer is Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite), an endearing softie who could really do with a boyfriend.

Non-crewmember Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin) is the madam of a new-age retreat far too refined to be dismissed as a brothel. Inara is also Mal's ex, which leads to the fairly predictable relationship difficulties.  2 Additional unexpected passengers are Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his sister River Tam (Summer Glau), an emotionally unstable psychic. A powerful mind reader, Tam has just been freed from involuntary "weaponizing" conditioning at a hidden government lab. Because River knows too many classified secrets, an assassin called The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has been dispatched to track her down. This leads to a chase across the galaxy with the Serenity hiding out at a colony run by Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a preacher. Shepherd is a holdover from the TV series, where he had a much larger role to play; The Operative is a new invention for the feature.

The basic space opera story moves at a fast clip and plays better than it reads. After a few mouthfuls of weighty exposition the show gets into gear and leaves the details behind; the adventures include a payroll robbery, entanglements with nasty space zombies called Reavers, and the investigation of a mystery planet. What distinguishes Serenity from 101 indifferent Sci-Fi Channel shows is Joss Whedon's vivid characters. Reynolds' crack space crew are all fond of each other and are a fun bunch to spend time with -- it's Star Trek with a breezy, 20-something attitude. Whedon invents specialized jargon for them, substituting "verse" for 'universe' and "gorram" for "goddam".

The main conflicts on board center around Mal's decision to set aside his ship's mercenary mission and, well, save the galaxy. Even the cynical Jayne allows that they have to save Simon and River: "When you can't do the smart thing, do the right thing." Old Shepherd Book counsels Mal to "believe in something", which is exactly what The Operative tells him to do; Joss Whedon's script otherwise rejects further sermonizing. Just being good guys is good enough.

Serenity's production values continue in the same groove as the handsome TV show; the only letdown are some exteriors filmed in dull Southern California brush country. The design of the ships and interiors overrides memories of stage-bound Star Trek episodes, while the slick cinematography and Whedon's swift direction leave little time to look for flaws. Whedon has his priorities in order. Nobody stops to explain how the ship flies or why Mal's crew use fairly conventional weaponry. The digital effects redeem several tiresome clichés, including a space battle that fills the entire screen with ships. The Operative's space armada runs point-blank into a fleet of raggedy Reaver Ships, giving the Serenity a chance to escape in the chaos.

Serenity is shrewdly designed to appeal to specific demographics. The hipster camaraderie on the ship has the feel of a college dorm; every student can relate to the cocksure Jayne and the slightly insecure Kaylee. The pouting, hair-in-her face River Tam is the show's "troubled but empowered teen". She suffers debilitating flash-cut shock premonitions of gory corpses, but in key moments transforms into a lightning-fast fighting machine that even Jayne can't handle. Serenity's sheer unpretentiousness and likeable characters are rare qualities in today's popcorn movies.


Universal's Blu-ray of Serenity is a fine rendering of this solid Sci-Fi adventure. The visuals hold up well under HD-quality scrutiny, which emphasizes the excellent art direction as well as the good looks of the youthful cast.

The extras include commentaries with cast and crew, outtakes, and deleted scenes. It appears that much of the material dropped from the final cut involved the Mal / Inara Serra romance, which just held things up. A long list of featurettes cover the story of the Firefly - Serenity transition, the film's "future history" backstory, a ship's tour, and the show's cinematography. We also get to see the Joss Whedon introduction that played before special previews in an attempt to generate a convention-style buzz.

Exclusive to Blu-ray are a number of extras filed under Universal's "U-Control" moniker. The feature commentary can be watched as well as heard. Picture-in-picture features -- interviews, rehearsals and a digital tour of the ship -- can be accessed like a live-action trivia track. "Mr. Universe's Compendium" promises to be an even deeper technical manual of Serenity trivia. Should you want new trailers and more undisclosed "exclusive content", the disc is also encoded with BD-Live access.  1


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Serenity Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary, featurettes, deleted scenes, outtakes, PIP commentaries and interviews, tour of the ship, BD-Live extras.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 29, 2008

Footnotes:

1. The film may be laden with specific filmic references but I only caught two. The call number of a shuttlecraft is "C57D", the same as the spaceship in the original Forbidden Planet. I'm sure all my fellow Sci-Fi droogs will get that one, but it takes a Noir aficionado to spot the character names Fanty and Mingo, named after the homosexual thugs Fante & Mingo (Lee Van Cleef & Earl Holliman) in Joseph H. Lewis' The Big Combo.
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2. Corrections from a more observant viewer of Serenity: Glad you liked the movie so much. A few things in case people nit pick:

I saw the almost complete sneak preview in a college town, but I imagine most were in big metropolitan areas with organized Sci-Fi clubs.

The Inara character is a "Companion", a culturally acceptable prostitute / renaissance person in the Serenity universe, and appears to now be an instructor at a companion academy. She was a paying tenant of one of the ship Serenity's two atmospheric shuttles. She added respectability to an otherwise tramp smuggling freighter. She was an ex-interest of the Captain, but the two were never lovers. Presumably the romantic tension between the two would have eventually gotten somewhere if the show were not canceled. While it doesn't effect the movie much, the details of the character dialog does point out that they never got together even in presumed intervening "never-filmed" episodes of the show.

The Shepherd, the doctor, and his crazy sister were also passengers playing minor roles on board the ship. (Cook and Doctor respectively)

The only other thing I'd mention is that Serenity was in the first batch of HD-DVDs released, so seeing it in blue ray felt like an extra nail in the coffin of my XBox360's HD player. -- Dave Erickson
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the 2008 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.

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