"Firefly went on the air a few years ago and was instantly hailed by critics as one of the most canceled 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 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 canceled series may just have some life left in it. That hope was ultimately fulfilled by Universal Pictures and realized in the form of Serenity, a major motion picture that premiered to overwhelmingly positive reviews from both fans and newcomers alike. The theatrical presentation was quickly followed by a very solid DVD release in the United States and shortly thereafter a debut on HD DVD. Now Serenity returns to DVD in a 2-disc "Collector's Edition" that retains all the material from the initial release, includes the additional bonus features from the Region 4 release (minus the Australian Q&A), and adds a new cast commentary and a DTS audio track.
"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. The sweet but jaw-droppingly blunt and unrefined Kaylee (Jewel Staite) keeps the ship from falling apart as a brilliant mechanic who harbors feelings for the polished and well-mannered Simon. And 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 anyone he thinks is 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 sizable 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 want 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, I don't know how this guy is not a huge movie star yet. His talent is immeasurable, and in Serenity he carries the film with ease, bringing a level of humor and depth of character rarely seen in the typical action hero. He is not a noble "white hat", but 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 fantastic 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 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.
The most obvious change for this "Collector's Edition" is the packaging. The two discs are housed within a three-panel cardboard structure, where the top panel is hinged at the base on the left to form a covering mechanism for the two panels that hold each disc. The total footprint is about the same as two regularly sized DVD cases, with the top extending just slightly higher and an excess width (or depth on a shelf) of about 1/8 of an inch. There's no need for it to be this size other than a marketing desire for it to stand out. The cover panel is mostly transparent except for the Serenity title and artwork of River in the upper left-hand corner, such that when it folds to close the case it creates a slight 3-dimensional effect with the artwork on the panel behind it. I'm not sure the picture of an angry Mal toting a weapon he carried for barely two minutes in the film is the most appropriate image for the cover, but it's a dramatic improvement over the original artwork that featured a glamour-shot River floating above a landscape of attacking zombies.
Serenity is presented again 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 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. As far as I can tell, the transfer on this new disc is the same as the first release.
The original English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is provided on this "Collector's Edition" as well as a new English DTS 5.1 track. On both, the levels are balanced effectively, allowing dialogue and heavy action to occupy the same space. Surround channels are used appropriately, working especially well during flight sequences, and the deep bass creates a wonderfully immersed viewing experience. The new DTS track is a great addition, as it provides an even richer and fuller presentation that truly envelops the viewer, and audiophiles may find this worth the additional purchase alone, but each is a fantastic way to experience this film. Also available are Spanish and French Dolby Digital 2.0.
Subtitles for the feature presentation are provided in the same three languages. Most of the bonus features are subtitled as well.
The menu structure on the DVD is laid out largely the same way as the first release with some curious changes. First, the menu doesn't "explode" onto the screen like it did before or produce the same effect when selecting "Play" from the main menu. Also, the quickly flashing images in the center of the main menu have been replaced by a slow flight of Serenity, yet the heavy action-based background music remains the same, creating a combination that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I'm not sure why these changes would be made as they serve little purpose. One positive about the new menu is that there is more background music on the sub-menus. Also, for whatever reason, text goes from red to green when making a selection instead of white to red.
Note: I had all kinds of problems playing this on the Panasonic DMP-BD10 Blu-ray player. During Chapters 12 and 13, it would freeze and skip and became nearly unwatchable until I manually jumped to Chapter 14. I tested the disc without incident on 5 other players, including a now-antique first-generation Sony and an awkward SACD player that's given me trouble in the past. There was not even a hint of a problem on any of them, so I am inclined to assume for now that the issue is with the Panasonic (designed primarily for Blu-ray), not this disc, but it is something to keep in mind.
WHISTLES & BELLS:
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 an hilarious introduction and a moving thank you to the fans. The huge grin on his face as he introduces the film speaks volumes.
To the delight of anyone with the Firefly DVDs, there is a 6-minute blooper reel. While nothing is as hilarious as Fillion's prank on "The Message", this is still a very funny addition and something I wish more DVDs would include.
There are 9 of these, 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.
"Fanty and Mingo" shows more interaction between Mal and Jayne and the twins when they meet at the Maidenhead. It also provides a little more texture to the bar and its patrons. "Mal Inara Wave" is a longer version of their wave conversation with some funny material that probably didn't need to be trimmed as much as it was. "Mal and Operative" shows slightly more depth to the Operative's motivations for tracking River. And "Shuttle Improv" features some brief improvisational dialogue between Mal and Inara on her shuttle that rightfully never made it into the film. While the die hard fan might like seeing these, there's really not that much here.
The three featurettes from the first release are here once more, this time moved over to the second disc. "Future History: The Story of Earth That Was" 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" covers a few of the major special effects sequences with Joss and crewmembers of ZOIC. And "Re-Lighting the Firefly" tells the story of how the series returned from extinction and follows the cast on their mind-blowing trip to ComicCon.
Four new featurettes, most taken from the Region 4 release, are also present. "A Filmmaker's Journey" is by far the most interesting of the new material. It's more of your typical behind-the-scenes piece than the previous featurettes, and it showcases the camaraderie of the cast as well as going into some detail on Summer's training and the editing process. "Take a Walk on Serenity" is a mostly sarcastic tour of the set with Nathan, Alan, Adam, and Joss. "The Green Clan" is all about previously mentioned cinematographer Jack Green, his family, and their contributions to the film. Finally, "Sci-Fi Inside: Serenity" is a mostly useless puff piece hosted by Adam Baldwin that aired to promote the film before it was released. For a much better analysis of the film's creation and its fan base (also hosted by Adam Baldwin), see Done the Impossible.
"Session 416" is a compilation of all 5 of the "R. Tam Sessions" that were released on the internet as a form of viral marketing leading up to the film's release. Set during River's time at "The Academy" (before Firefly and Serenity), these low quality recordings provide a glimpse into her state of mind during her progression from sweet little girl who loves to dance into the mentally unstable River we've come to know. Most fans have probably already seen this, but they're nice to have on DVD anyway.
"We'll Have a Fruity Oaty Good Time" brings the original description-defying easter egg to the main menu. It shows the genesis of the Fruity Oaty Bar commercial that aired in the Maidenhead followed by the complete finished product. It's absolutely hilarious, and I'm sure to have that ruttin' jingle stuck in my head for months now.
The first commentary is from the original release and is with writer/director Joss Whedon by himself. At that time, it was probably the best commentary I had heard, and it still holds up today. 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.
The new commentary includes Joss as well, this time with stars of the film Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, Summer Glau, and Ron Glass. It starts off pretty rough, with everyone talking over each other, but Nathan soon brings it into focus and then passes control to Joss. Summer is naturally such a quiet person, and Ron is barely in the film, so most of this commentary is dominated by Joss, Nathan, and Adam, and they are great fun to listen to. There are moments when the group is just acting silly, but much of it is quite informative, without too much overlap with the other commentary. I don't know if it's good enough to warrant a double-dip on its own, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
"We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty."
As the credits rolled the first time I saw 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. This simply does not happen, and it took some time for me to collect my awe and exit the theater after that first viewing. But the victory is not confined to the film's existence, for this is much more than 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 hopefully make it to the countless unaware viewers who would almost certainly enjoy it as much as the rest of us have. If you don't own the first version of this DVD, then my recommendation is a no-brainer, as I enjoyed this every bit as much as the first time I saw it. If you're wondering whether to purchase another one, however, I'd suggest that the DTS track, the cast commentary, and the "Filmmaker's Journey" featurette are all worth owning, and the price point is reasonable enough to once again rate this title as Highly Recommended.