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Universal // PG-13 // December 30, 2008 // Region 0
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 24, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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discovered Firefly the way most of the series' legions of fans had: on DVD, nearly a full year after its disinterested network had finished swinging its axe. Fox initially discarded one of the most expensive pilots in television history, dumped what was left in the primetime wasteland of Friday night, aired its handful of episodes wildly out of sequence, and pulled the plug after just eleven largely unwatched episodes had aired. It's a scenario that's become more and more commonplace in the years since, and at least at first, Firefly seemed destined to share that all-too-familiar fate: burn brightly, fade away quickly, and pop up every few months in "hey, do you remember...?" threads on TV message boards.

A quickly cancelled, underappreciated TV show doesn't become a major feature film. Impossibly, though, that's precisely what happened with Firefly. Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Angel) was consumed with the idea of finding some new outlet for this universe he'd created, and when a DVD boxed set became an enormous hit when it bowed the following year, Whedon's movie pitch began to seem more and more commercially viable. Universal took a risk by funding Serenity, and like Firefly before it, this feature film version initially underperformed but found a wildly enthusiastic audience on home video. Serenity sold so outstandingly well that the studio used it to launch the fledgling HD DVD format and later re-released the film with a lavish two-disc special edition on DVD. It's an updated version of that re-release that's now making its mark on Blu-ray, further upgraded to include a video commentary, a running picture-in-picture feature, and a handful of new interactive extras.

The uninitiated would be better off giving Firefly -- which itself has just recently debuted on Blu-ray -- a look before stepping aboard Serenity. Whedon does deftly introduce the crew of Serenity and recap the essentials for first-timers, but even though the movie is written so that new viewers can follow the story, they lose out on its heart: the attachment...the investment in its wonderful cast and their exceptionally well-drawn characters. It's a strong movie in either case, but Serenity packs an even greater wallop after spending the better part of a season aboard this rickety spaceship.

The backstory,
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though, is that after Earth was stretched beyond its limits by overpopulation and dwindling resources, humanity turned its eye to a new solar system. The worlds there were terraformed to accommodate our particular species. The central planets were the first to be populated, and the expansion grew outward from there. While the earliest colonies quickly grew in size and stature -- lush, wealthy, cultured, and with every convenience at its fingertips -- the newly-terraformed worlds were harsh and unforgiving, and the same could be said for the settlers who called them home. These colonists have enough to deal with on the outer rim -- such as the Reavers, a band of seemingly mindless killers who rape and murder their way through the entire system -- without having to fret about meddling bureaucrats.

As the seemingly utopian central planets' Alliance tried to force its political will on these colonists, the outermost worlds rallied together and fought a devastating civil war. Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and Zoe Alleyne (Gina Torres) fought on as they watched many of their friends slaughtered in the Battle of Serenity Valley, one of the war's most decisive conflicts. Despite the Independence buckling under the might of the Alliance, Mal and Zoe refused to be assimilated under the rule of the central planets. Mal squirreled together enough money to pick up a Firefly-class freighter, taking the reins as captain and bringing Zoe onboard as first mate. With the rest of his crew -- Zoe's husband, pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk), bubbly mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite), and crass, double-digit IQ merc Jayne (Adam Baldwin) -- Mal takes whatever jobs he can get...legitimate or keep the ship he's dubbed 'Serenity' afloat.

It's aboard Serenity that Simon Tam (Sean Maher) finds sanctuary from the Alliance. The film opens with the young doctor leaving behind a life of luxury and privilege to rescue his teenaged sister River (Summer Glau) from an underground Alliance facility where her mind and body were ravaged to create a psychic killing machine. This makes for both an exceptionally tense introduction to this universe while giving seasoned Browncoats a glimpse at an integral event never unspooled in the series proper. Mal takes at least a little pleasure at keeping the Alliance at arm's length from River, but her increasingly erratic behavior and deteriorating mental state make life aboard the ship even more difficult, and steering clear of the Alliance's radar puts a damper on the ship's potential paydays. It's a dangerous proposition as well; the Alliance had long tried to reclaim River, but fearing that she absorbed government secrets that could topple their utopia, they've dispatched their top operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to reclaim her. The Operative will go to any unflinchingly brutal lengths necessary to protect whatever secrets may be buried deep within River's shattered mind, and unlike the usual hired hands motivated purely by money or power, this unnamed operative has moral certainty on his side. He calmly rationalizes the evils he commits away as a necessity in creating a better world, and
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unflappable and unstoppable, that makes him the most dangerous threat of all.

While Whedon's other creations didn't find steady footing until their second seasons, Firefly roared out of the gate fully-realized, bolstered by an intriguing blend of science fiction with the American West, Whedon's trademark sparkling wit, a compelling set of characters, and an outstanding cast. Serenity builds on what Whedon and his cast had crafted with Firefly, both in terms of that groundwork it laid and the quality of the series as a whole. An unrelenting adrenaline rush of action, a hell of a sense of humor, an enormous scope, a menacing villain who, like seemingly every last facet of Whedon's script, refuses to settle into convention...Serenity is what a big summer action flick ought to be.

Despite Serenity marking Whedon's first time helming a feature film after a lifetime in television -- a medium that allowed him to comfortably take 16 hours to tell a story -- he has a remarkable sense of economy. Whedon cleverly introduces Serenity's entire crew and centuries of backstory within just a few minutes, not leaning on clumsy exposition or quick-cutting flashbacks, and he does it in a way that instantly engages new viewers and veteran Browncoats alike. Whedon does an equally outstanding job juggling his sprawling cast. Serenity is anchored primarily around Mal and River, but each member of the ship's crew is given a chance to shine. Even characters tangential to the central story -- Inara (Morena Baccarin), the 26th century's equivalent of a courtesan, and Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a holy man with a shadowy past -- are integrated into the film remarkably effectively, their presence feeling essential and natural rather than Whedon checking off a list of established characters. While the size of its cast and the density of the plot doesn't leave much room for deep characterization, there's so much color in the performances that fans of Firefly will continually feel rewarded.

Even though Serenity doesn't have
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any established marquee draws on the poster, it does boast a pair of movie stars; it's just Hollywood that hasn't caught up yet. Summer Glau is absolutely dazzling as River. Glau takes this tortured teenager whose mental state is quickly unraveling and creates a character who's somewhat unnerving, strangely charming, and deeply sympathetic at the same time. It'd be a difficult juggling act for any young actress, but to add in the grace and ferocity of the attacks she unleashes makes it that much more remarkable. One sequence in particular with River singlehandedly taking down a bar teeming with thugs and gunslingers is an extraordinary ballet of violence, and to watch it unfold in long cuts without choppy editing or stunt doubles awkwardly standing in made for one of the single best action sequences of 2005.

Nathan Fillion is equally electrifying. Even with just a passing glance when he first steps onto the frame, it's immediately clear that Fillion is the star of Serenity. Think of Mal as a cross between Han Solo and The Man with No Name: an embittered gunslinger driven by self-interest but guided by a conscience he'd prefer not to acknowledge just the same. Fillion, too, is the best of Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood, and damned near any other widely adored movie star I could name. His take on Mal is authoritative, wickedly funny, and a hell of a scrapper even when he's beaten and battered. Fillion is the sort of endlessly engaging actor that makes me seek out movies he's in just for him alone, and I'd love to see him become the household name he wholly deserves to be.

Serenity teeters on the brink of perfection. It's astonishing that a movie like this -- spinning off of a failed TV series with a largely unknown cast -- got a greenlight at all, but for it to turn out so brilliantly...? Even my sixth or seventh time through Serenity, I'm still floored. It excels on every level: taut storytelling, its insistence on subverting stock clichés, a dazzling scale with some awe-inspiring visuals, an indescribably engaging cast...I'd struggle to find anything to complain about at all. Whedon's stylized dialogue can occasionally sound forced, and the fairly modest budget sometimes creeps into backdrops that distractingly look like sets, but those are easily shrugged off. Deliriously fun, exciting, and emotionally resonant, Serenity is more than just an exceptional sci-fi/action flick. It's a really exceptional movie, period, and one that's well worth discovering on Blu-ray. Very, very Highly Recommended.

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was the reason I opted to pre-order an HD DVD player several years ago, and even having watched the movie repeatedly in high definition since the Spring of 2006, I still found myself floored after giving this Blu-ray disc a spin.

Culled directly from its digital intermediate, Serenity is -- much like the movie itself -- essentially flawless. The scope image is startlingly crisp and detailed, not marred by any edge enhancement or ravaged by overzealous digital noise reduction. The thin, unintrusive veil of film grain is retained, and the weight of that fine texture remains consistent throughout. The bitrate of its VC-1 encode has enough headroom that this film grain never causes the compression to stutter or devolve into a blocky smear.

The photography is frequently stylized, adjusting to take advantage of each backdrop. Stepping away from the bright, sterile look of most cinematic spaceships, the scenes aboard Serenity are somewhat dark and underlit. Contrast is deliberately blown out in several of the sequences when the crew goes planetside, especially as the climax draws near. Serenity's palette is robust when given the opportunity, and black levels can be deep and inky, although they do sometimes appear a bit milky and gray as if the gamma levels had been elevated in post-production.

It's not difficult to see why Serenity was selected as Universal's showcase title when HD DVD first debuted, and it's a thrill to now be able to experience the film on Blu-ray as well. This is an outstanding effort from Universal and a very worthwhile upgrade for Browncoats who've already picked up the film in standard definition.

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24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack manages to stand out as even more impressive than its high definition visuals, thanks in large part to its exceptionally aggressive sound design. The surround channels are constantly roaring throughout, and the lower frequencies are titanic. The rattle as this humble Firefly ship crumbles apart, the howling winds planetside, the rush of Serenity violently spiraling out of control, sprays of gunfire from every direction, the foundation-rattling throb of an electromagnetic pulse, slews of explosions, the sheer scale and enormity of the climactic assault mounted in space -- so much of the intensity of Serenity stems from the strength of its sound design, and this is a film that demands to be experienced with this master-quality soundtrack in full six-channel surround sound.

Even with all of the immersive, hyperkinetic action, Joss Whedon's trademark sparkling dialogue is still rendered cleanly and clearly, never unduly overwhelmed in the mix. Serenity also includes lossy DTS soundtracks in six different languages alongside an exhaustive selection of subtitles.

This Blu-ray release of Serenity carries over all of the extras from last year's two-disc special edition DVD set, and Universal has assembled a handful of new interactive bells and whistles as well. The overwhelming majority of these extras are presented in standard definition and either 4x3 or letterboxed in non-anamorphic widescreen.
  • Joss Whedon Introduction (4 min.): Months before its release, Serenity was widely screened for fans from one coast to the other, and Whedon's wonderful intro from those early preview screenings is included here.

  • Audio Commentaries: Serenity features a pair of audio commentaries. The first, with writer/director Joss Whedon going at it alone, is carried over from Serenity's initial release on DVD. It's an extremely comprehensive discussion of the film, delving into the construction of the story, his drive to cast comedians like Sarah Paulson and Michael Hitchcock in dramatic roles, playing to Summer Glau's strengths in dazzling fights where she's doing 95% of the heavy lifting herself, working around Serenity's modest budget as best he could as a first-time feature filmmaker, and even explaining why certain lenses were used in specific shots. Infused with Whedon's trademark wit, this is a fantastic commentary track.
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    The second commentary -- a newly-recorded retrospective from the 2007 DVD special edition -- features Whedon and actors Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Ron Glass, and Adam Baldwin. It's a laid back and chatty conversation that tackles an enormous amount of ground: Whedon's unrelentingly talky 190 page first draft, the force that drives the plot of this movie originally intended as part of Firefly's second season, what exactly is in River's stage vomit, audiences snickering at Inara's bow and arrow before it was digitally redrawn as a bolt launcher, and even Adam Baldwin scarfing down some actual booze in one shot. There's also a lengthy discussion about how each of the actors shaped Serenity's more emotionally intense moments. Because they're able to look at the film from a different perspective two years later, the actors -- and Whedon in particular -- are able to be a bit more critical about what they don't think worked quite so well. Whedon also answers the inevitable question about how likely a sequel may be down the road. It's a bit disappointing that Glau is so quiet, and Glass is barely in the movie so he naturally doesn't have nearly as much to contribute. It's breezier than Whedon's solo commentary but is still an essential listen. This new commentary track was videotaped, and this footage is part of the running Visual Commentary in the U-Control feature.

  • Deleted Scenes (14 min.): Whedon also offers optional commentary for a lengthy reel of deleted scenes, and The Operative and Inara are central to quite a few of them. The Operative's role was trimmed down in the film to make him more of an ominous, mysterious presence. Inara, on the other hand -- seen here with Mal in a couple of chases against The Alliance and in an extended introduction in the Training House -- was virtually gutted out of Serenity, and this footage gives a sense of how much of a presence Whedon originally intended her to have. Among the other highlights are a gag with a fake grenade in a scene that could've been nicked straight out of an old Star Trek episode, a lengthier stay on Haven, and River breaking down.
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  • Extended Scenes (6 min.): These four scenes spend a bit more time with Fanty and Mingo hammering home just how far Mal has fallen, a longer and even more awkward wave transmission between Mal and Inara, a lengthier version of the first confrontation between Mal and The Operative, and some quippy improv between Morena Baccarin and Nathan Fillion on Inara's shuttle.

  • Outtakes (6 min.): I'm usually kind of lukewarm on gag reels, but probably because I'm such a frothing-at-the-mouth fan of Serenity's cast, I was really bowled over by this one. Nathan Fillion has the spotlight shone in his general direction this time around as he and the cast fumble with props, blow line after line, clown around, and...why not?...grab a partner 'n dance.

  • A Filmmaker's Journey (20 min.): By far the best of the many featurettes on this Blu-ray disc, "A Filmmaker's Journey" is a mesh of table readings, outtakes, behind the scenes footage, peeks at training and fight choreography, and interviews with an extensive collection of talent on both sides of the camera. Rather than go through the overly familiar motions of a standard issue making-of piece, this featurette emphasizes the sense of camaraderie instantly rekindled on the set, Nathan Fillion diving in headfirst as a human punching bag, the collaborative and occasionally heated editing process, and the fights choreographed to take full advantage of Summer Glau's skill, grace, and flexibility as a ballerina.
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  • Take a Walk on Serenity (4 min.): Whedon and a couple of his actors offer up a guided tour of the 'Serenity' set, running through some of the differences between the small screen version and the expanded ship from this feature film.

  • Future History - The Story of Earth That Was (4 min.): Whedon also speaks about how he first came up with the concept for Firefly on a break from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and how he wanted to explore the lingering effects of civil war from the perspective of the losing side. Other topics include Serenity's future seeing China and the United States merging into a single superpower and the sticky underbelly inherent to any seemingly utopian facade.

  • What's In a Firefly? (6 min.): Serenity's visual effects featurette delves into juggling the enormous scale of such an ambitious film with a fairly modest budget. Three scenes are lavished with most of its attention -- the MULE chase, a tailspin as the ship plummets from the sky, and the brawl high above the generator -- and the effects wizards highlight some of the subtle touches they contributed to flesh out such a strong sense of reality.
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  • Re-lighting the Firefly (10 min.): Firefly's legions of fans -- and Joss Whedon counts himself as one of them -- were unwilling to let the series keel over and die, and this featurette briefly touches on the role they played in reigniting this universe for the silver screen. It's a Valentine sealed with a kiss to the armies of Browncoats out there in cyberspace and culminates in a standing ovation at a Comic-Con panel.

  • Session 416 (8 min.): This set of virally spread clips charts River's transformation from a bright, bubbly teenager to a mentally ravaged killing machine through a series of interviews at The Academy.

  • The Green Clan (3 min.): Veteran cinematographer Jack Green -- who brought several of his children along to tackle some of the film's camerawork -- struck an almost eerie rapport with Joss Whedon during the Serenity shoot, so he scores his own three minute love letter.
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  • U-Control: A few different features run throughout the movie itself, and they can be freely enabled and disabled with the press of a button.

    • Visual Commentary: Whedon and his cast were videotaped as their commentary track was being recorded, and that footage unspools in a picture-in-picture window as they chat away. Most video commentaries tend to be static, but this one is cut together from at least a couple of different angles and freely zooms and pans as well. Being able to see the five of them as they speak infuses the track with that much more personality, making for my favorite of the Blu-ray-exclusive extras on this disc.

    • Picture in Picture: Serenity includes one other picture-in-picture feature: a mix of footage culled from existing extras as well as previously unseen leftovers from those featurettes. This one is somewhat sparse, though, and fans who've already devoured the extras on Firefly and Serenity aren't likely to be startled by all that many of the topics here.

      Some of the material not tackled elsewhere on the disc include an explanation about why there aren't any aliens in this universe, the casting and discarded naming of The Operative, polishing the look of 'Serenity' in the ship's feature film debut, trying to shoot as much of the movie practically as possible, sprinkling Chinese expletives into the dialogue, additional behind-the-scenes footage of the fight choreography, and defending the use of sound in a climactic battle in space. A number of the interviews also add some additional perspective to the characters and the cast's performances. It's a solid feature, but it can't quite shake the feel of being repurposed leftovers and isn't essential viewing.

    • Mr. Universe's Compendium: A stack of 'Decrypted Files' and 'Intercepted Transmissions' include everything from the legalese of laying down with a Companion to River's acceptance letter to the Academy. They're winks to fans more than anything else, and the only thing that really caught my eye is a clumsy nod to Deadwood.

    • Digital Tour of Serenity: This option appears whenever the ship is on-screen, but even after giving it a shot on two different players, all it seems to do is make an icon blue. No text or graphics appeared on PowerDVD or on my PlayStation 3.
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  • Alliance Database (HD): This interactive blend of text, pictures, and video further fleshes out the universe of Serenity. Its backstory -- from the formation of the Alliance to the war that tore these worlds apart -- is spelled out in a remarkable amount of detail. It also offers a closer look at the central planets and the worlds on the outer rim, and the dossiers of the 'Serenity' crew that the Operative is seen sifting through have also been included.

    This isn't the most reliable feature, though. It froze my PlayStation 3 on a blank, black screen without ever clawing its way forward, forcing me to quit the disc entirely and start again from scratch. I didn't run into that same issue on PowerDVD on my PC, but it did come close to locking up the software at one point: letters randomly disappeared from the screen, and it took a couple of minutes of button mashing to finally get it responsive again. I'm not convinced it's worth the hassle.

  • BD Live: Serenity's online extras are listed as "coming soon", and there's no hint at what may be waiting in the wings.

  • Easter Eggs: I stumbled upon one hidden extra -- a minute-long clip of Joss Whedon chatting about the oddball Fruity Oaty bar TV spot that triggers River's programming, and it's followed by the full thirty-second ad.
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The Final Word
Seeing a handful of unaired episodes of Firefly bow on DVD seemed destined to punctuate the end of Joss Whedon's genre-melding futuristic universe, but the series' doggedly loyal legions of fans -- Whedon himself chief among them -- refused to let this ship and her crew fade into the distance.

To see a feature film of an underappreciated series that had been cancelled with a disinterested shrug roar back to life -- and in a major studio release splashed across thousands of screens, no less -- is startling in its own right. For Serenity to so fully live up to the promise that Firefly offered...a crew its fans sincerely came to love, a razor-sharp wit, a dazzlingly large scope, so much truly spectacular action...without being watered down to pander to a larger audience while still playing as a hell of an exciting science fiction flick makes it all the more remarkable. Serenity is the final send-off both Firefly and its fans deserve.

Serenity's release on Blu-ray is outstanding as well, bolstered by an aggressive lossless soundtrack, a tremendous high definition presentation, and hours of extras. Highly Recommended.
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