"Firefly went on the air a few years ago and was instantly hailed by critics as one of the most cancelled shows of the year. It was ignored and abandoned, and the story should end there ... but it doesn't."
In the Fall of 2002, the creator of Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer brought a new vision to the small screen in the form of Firefly. Set in a distant future where overpopulation has forced mankind to colonize other planets, Joss Whedon's new television series blended science fiction ideas with classic western storytelling as it followed the colorful crew of Serenity. Performing whatever odd jobs would net payment, some more legal than others, the crew of this small starship struggled to carve out a living, free from the restrictions of an increasingly meddlesome interstellar government. With clever writing and a remarkably talented cast, Firefly showed signs of potential greatness even more quickly than its predecessors, but it never had a fair chance to get off the ground as FOX executives buried the show on Friday nights with little fanfare and illogically aired the episodes in a nonlinear order that both confused and annoyed prospective viewers. While 11 of those episodes ultimately aired in the United States, the series was marked DOA the moment it hit the schedule and was destined to disappear to the ever growing vault of promising but short-lived FOX series.
Sometimes, though, greatness dies hard, and for whatever reason, Joss was not willing to let go of this particular love affair. To his delight, neither were its growing number of devoted fans. With staggering sales and great critical response, Firefly's DVD release made a huge splash and shed light on FOX's blunder, sparking a glimmer of hope that the cancelled series may just have some life left in it. That hope was ultimately fulfilled by Universal Pictures and realized in a major motion picture that premiered to overwhelmingly positive reviews from both fans and newcomers alike. Now, barely 3 months after its official theatrical premiere, Serenity appears for the first time on DVD in a thoroughly entertaining release that is sure to appeal to just about anyone.
"Earth That Was" could no longer support its growing population, so mankind took to the stars, colonizing another solar system with dozens of planets and hundreds of moons. A futuristic interpretation of America's own colonial expansion, central planets organized themselves into an interstellar government known as "The Alliance", while the border worlds maintained their own individuality and resisted Alliance control. An epic war solidified Alliance sovereignty over these Independents, but the hand of a central government could only reach so far, and while the nearby planets enjoyed what they considered a utopian enlightenment, many border worlds still largely played by their own rules. This is the universe in which Serenity takes place, and the film's cold opening quickly informs the new viewer of these circumstances without boring the already knowledgeable Firefly fan.
It is a fine line that must be walked when adapting a television series into a major motion picture, balancing an appeal to new viewers with appeasement of current fans, but by the time the opening titles roll, it is very clear that writer/director Joss Whedon is up to the task. Using a clever series of shifting perspectives, he establishes the setting with more than a simple narrative exposition, he introduces two of the more important characters in a way that still seems fresh to those in the know, and he sets the stage for the film's primary plot all in the first 10 minutes.
River Tam (Summer Glau) -- a psychic lab rat forcibly tested, trained, and tortured by the Alliance (likely as some kind of weapon) -- has escaped; and they want her back ... at any cost. With the help of her brother Simon (Sean Maher), who abandoned his promising career as an Alliance doctor to engineer her escape, River finds refuge aboard Serenity, a small Firefly-class starship. She is exceptionally intelligent, but the countless experiments performed on her brain have rendered her more than a little unstable, and the ship's captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) has grown weary of the constant trouble that follows her around. A former volunteer for the Independents who commanded the losing side of one of the war's bloodiest battles, Mal wants nothing to do with fighting the Alliance anymore and simply wants to scratch out a modest living as far from their influence as possible. Sheltering their most wanted fugitive, however, makes that a difficult proposition, especially once he falls under the watchful eye of their most ruthless Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Constantly in pursuit of River, and therefore Mal, the Operative is best described in the film as a "believer". He is not simply some hired gun serving his duty to the best of his ability. He is a devout believer in a better utopian future for all the worlds of humanity, and he is absolutely convinced that hunting down River is the right thing to do. This makes for a very interesting villain, for the Operative is not a moustache twirling evil nemesis, but a reasonable, educated man who sincerely believes his is on the correct path. As the one star not from the television series, Ejiofor brings this intriguing character to life with an eerie performance that displays a disturbing resolve and calm. His pursuit of his target is logical and relentless, and he makes for a very formidable opponent to the crew of Serenity.
Serving alongside Mal in the war and now on his ship is Zoe (Gina Torres), a no-nonsense soldier who is fiercely loyal and dedicated to protecting her captain in all his pursuits. Witnessing the horrors of war, she too is content to avoid the Alliance as much as possible, but she is certainly not afraid to stand up to them when necessary. Her husband Wash (Alan Tudyk) also serves aboard the ship and represents a nice counter balance to her intensity as the laid-back wisecracking pilot. Keeping the ship in the air is the sweet but jaw-droppingly blunt and unrefined Kaylee (Jewel Staite), a brilliant mechanic who harbors feelings for the polished and well-mannered Simon. Rounding out the crew is the man they call Jayne (Adam Baldwin), a dim-witted mercenary who proudly asserts that he'll kill anyone in a fair fight ... or if he thinks he's about to start a fair fight. Each of these characters is showcased wonderfully in the television series, but in a film that must sustain its own theatrical plot over a 2-hour span, there is only a little bit of time to devote to the sizeable cast. Fortunately, Whedon finds room in the script to carve out great nuggets of hilarity and heroism for each of them. Inara (Morena Baccarin) and Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), who have since left the ship, have somewhat smaller roles, but they too get their chance to be a part of the story in a way that isn't forced. While fans of the television series will undoubtedly be wanting more of every character, each of them does get a chance to shine, and it is a credit to the writing that these moments are woven so tightly into the overall story.
Still, this film is largely about Mal and River, and both Nathan Fillion and Summer Glau deliver fantastic performances. In the series, River's character existed often in mystery and confusion, but this film seeks to clarify her history and purpose, and Glau handles it very well. In some cases, the editing of her psychosis is a bit jarring (likely intentional) and not as effective as it could be, but on the whole, Glau brings this character to life in a way we never fully got to see in the series. As for Nathan Fillion, he is almost certainly a mega movie star in the making, hiding beneath the radar until someone discovers just how amazing he is, and in Serenity he brings a level of humor and depth of character rarely seen in the typical action hero. He is not a noble "white hat". He is very flawed and has no problem thieving from the rich or even shooting an unarmed man, but he does have a moral compass and an inner strength that drives this film. The character of Mal has been compared to Han Solo, and it's hard to imagine Whedon was not inspired by the handsome shoot-first rogue who stole the show from the young Jedi, but Mal is an even deeper and more complex character, and his motivations are at the very heart of what makes Serenity succeed.
And succeed it does. On nearly every level, Serenity is a triumphant statement that you can have fun at the movies without checking your brain at the door; you can make a kickass science fiction action adventure that isn't just about epic space battles but carries with it an underlying message about humanity that is worthy of attention. Serenity is not just a western in space; it is legitimate science fiction, and the crux of the story, the secret the Alliance desperately wants to protect, is rooted among the most classic concepts of the genre. Moreover, the fight waged by Mal and his crew is not simply the result of circumstance bearing down upon them but the pursuit of something noble and important. They don't have to be in this fight; they choose to, and it's this dramatic core that separates Serenity from so many other films in the genre.
One of the unique qualities of the television series that has carried over to this film is the characters' manner of speech. Mal and his crew have been living on the edge of the frontier for quite some time, and those removed from the central planets speak with a folksy western style that sets them apart from more cultured characters like Simon and the Operative. It makes for a nice dynamic and creates some absolutely hilarious word play, particularly from the blunt and uninhibited Kaylee. Something that doesn't work particularly well is the use of Chinese exclamatory phrases. Part of the foundation for this universe is that the United States and China, the two final superpowers, somewhat absorbed each other's cultures before they left Earth. This is evidenced in some of the architecture and much of the clothing, and when characters get flustered they tend to swear in Chinese. This interesting approach always sounded better in concept than on the screen, and it doesn't work in the film any better than it did on the show. Fortunately, it has been reduced to just a moment here and there, and it isn't overly distracting.
A particularly fun aspect of this feature length film that does work well is the way in which Joss uses the lack of sound and how he toys with classic action movie clichés. It is a subtle touch, but accepting that sound does not travel through the void of space provides freedom for David Newman's score to carry a scene, and it is used sparingly but effectively. In addition, there are multiple times in the film where Whedon takes the viewer right to the edge of a familiar cliché -- a grand theme playing behind the ship's majestic flight or the hero uttering some witticism during a major fight sequence -- and then turns the cliché on its head, presenting a clever and more realistic resolution. Little things like this are part of the charm of Whedon's style, and they play to great effect on the big screen.
Joss's experience is still mostly in television, though, and while he has written and directed some of the strongest hours ever aired, there are a few spots in this film where a seasoned big-budget film director could have added a more theatrical polish to the work, and a couple of the special effects sequences come across a little hokey. There is a particular use of a holographic image that never really works, and some of the blended sequences with River fall a little flat, but these are minor nitpicks in an otherwise fantastic film. I must be clear that while it has its flaws, this is most definitely not an over-budgeted two-hour television episode like some of the recent Trek sequels came across. Serenity is an actual movie, a larger-than-life motion picture worthy of theatrical presentation on the big screen. Part of that success can be attributed to director of photography Jack Green, who cut his cinematography teeth on nearly every Clint Eastwood film in the last 20 years. In the commentary and in interviews, Whedon is not shy about giving him credit and rightfully so. The lighting, framing, and overall scene composition make the script pop off the screen in a way not seen before in Whedon's television work, and it helps elevate the film to even greater heights.
With some of the wittiest dialogue you'll ever hear, compelling characters, surprisingly strong special effects sequences, and a genuinely moving story, Serenity is everything a big-budget blockbuster should be (and at a fraction of the budget). That it still has yet to reach so many people who would almost certainly enjoy it is truly unfortunate, for it isn't just a great science fiction film or a great action adventure film. It is simply a great film. Whether you are a fan of the series or haven't heard about it until now, whether you like science fiction or typically shy away from it, Serenity is the very essence of entertainment. In the simplest of terms, Serenity is just plain fun. When I first saw it in the theater, I was almost sad that I had forgotten how much fun a science fiction adventure really could be and that I had become so willing to accept mediocrity when such a strong film was clearly possible. If you have the time, I'd certainly recommend watching the Firefly television series before viewing this, as it will provide even more depth of understanding into the events that take place, but if you want to just jump in with this film, you will not be confused, and you will not be left behind. It stands just fine on its own, and it stands tall. Whether you choose to watch the series or not, see this movie.
Note: My review copy is watermarked and may not be representative of final product. When I receive the final release, I will update this section of the review with any notable differences.
Serenity is presented on DVD in 2.35:1 widescreen with anamorphic enhancement, and it looks very good. A lot of interesting lighting choices are made with this film, leaving a character almost completely engulfed by shadow or overexposing the shot for a particularly bright planetary landscape, and it is all reproduced very well for this DVD. There are some areas where the black levels could be better, and in scenes of the most extreme contrast, I detected some hints of edge enhancement, but on the whole, this is a faithful presentation of the film. There is a constant grain to the shots and it is frequently quite dark, but it is almost exactly how I remember it from the theatrical presentation.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio sounds as great as it looks. Levels are balanced well such that dialogue and heavy action can occupy the same space, and the surround channels are utilized very effectively. In fact, I believe it sounded better watching at home than when I saw it in the theater.
The menu structure on the DVD is laid out exactly as it should be, with an interesting animated menu that links to the bonus features, audio options, and scene selection. Navigation is easy and as expected, and appropriate special features are blessed with a helpful "Play All" feature. The film itself is subtitled in English, Spanish, and French, and to my surprise, most of the bonus features are subtitled as well. Sadly, the Chinese utterances didn't make the cut.
With the exception of the marketing-enhanced "Zombie Attack" cover art, this is a very solid DVD presentation that should please the fans.
WHISTLES & BELLS:
Many fans were hoping for a super spectacular uber limited special edition release of this beloved film (which may still be on the horizon), so there was some disappointment when this disc was announced with only a few special features. When you break them down, however, they make for a more impressive slate than one would expect at first glance.
There are 9 Deleted Scenes totaling a little over 14 minutes. Often when I watch deleted scenes, I wonder why they filmed something in the first place, or worse, why they decided to cut it. Here, though, everything pretty much makes perfect sense. Most of the cut scenes involve Inara or the Operative, and while it may be nice to see more of both, the film is structurally better without them. In particular, one scene that heavily features the Operative expositing about Mal's past would have been a nice history lesson for the new viewer, but the character is more menacing without it. These scenes can be watched one at a time or through the "Play All" feature, with or without commentary from Whedon.
To the delight of anyone with the Firefly DVDs, there is a 6-minute Outtakes reel. While there is nothing as hilarious as Fillion's prank on "The Message", this is still a very funny addition and something I wish more DVDs would include.
3 short featurettes are also included. Future History: The Story of Earth That Was (4:31) is essentially just Joss Whedon talking about how the Serenity universe was conceived, how it got off the ground, and why certain things are the way they are. What's in a Firefly (6:32) covers a few of the major special effects sequences with Joss and crewmembers of ZOIC. Finally, Re-Lighting the Firefly (9:40) tells the story of how the series returned from extinction and follows the cast on their mind-blowing trip to ComicCon. While these featurettes do not comprise a complete behind-the-scenes documentary, they are much more than promotional "First Look" fare, and they are definitely worth watching.
The true gem of this set and the feature I was looking forward to most is the Joss Whedon Introduction. While it isn't specified anywhere on the DVD (which may be a bit confusing to new viewers), this is the 4-minute introduction Joss filmed specifically for the fans who attended advance screenings of the film many months before its official release. The love he has for this project is palpable, and with his wry sense of humor it is at once a hilarious introduction and a moving thank you to the fans. The huge grin on his face as he introduces the film speaks volumes.
Finally, this disc contains a feature length Commentary with the writer/director himself. I hesitate to make such a bold assertion, but this is very likely the best commentary I have ever listened to. Everyone wants something different from this type of special feature, and some simply do not like them at all, but I have found that I thoroughly enjoy listening to the architects of a film discuss in depth how they accomplished the daunting task and why they made the decisions they did. In this case, there is no one closer to the project on any level than Joss. The idea is his, the writing is his, the direction is his. As such, he is an endless reservoir of information about every single aspect of production, and he is more than prepared to speak in a compelling manner about all of it. He wastes little time admiring his own work and gets right down to the interesting details. Best of all, his unique brand of humor is all over this track, poking fun at the mistakes he made as well as mocking some terrible movie clichés, and it makes for not only a hilarious listen but a very informative one as well.
Of note, there is an insane easter egg showing the genesis and complete finished product for the Fruity Oaty Bar commercial. The level of disturbing hilarity occupied by this feature defies description.
"We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty."
Inspiration is a curious thing, and we often find it in the most unexpected of places. As the credits rolled on Serenity, I found that I was not simply entertained by an exciting adventure ... I was inspired. Based on everything I have come to know and expect from the Hollywood machine, this film should not exist, and yet here it is, first in wide release with the backing of a major studio and now in my hands on DVD. This simply does not happen, and it took some time for me to collect my awe and exit the theater after my first viewing. But the victory is not confined to the film's existence, for in a time when box office numbers are sagging across the board, and audiences grow weary of the same tired retreads and uninspired star vehicles, Serenity soars as a deliciously entertaining adventure and a reminder of just how much fun can be had at the movies. This isn't just some average little film made to appease the niche fans of a cancelled television series. This is a film for the masses, a bona fide kickass movie with wide-reaching appeal that will with time hopefully make it to the countless unaware viewers who would almost certainly enjoy it as much as the rest of us have. Serenity is not a perfect film, but it sure is fun, and I Highly Recommend you give it a chance.