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FireflyFirefly - "Serenity" DVD - Dvdtimes.co.uk Review
Monday 17 July 2006, by Webmaster
Joss Whedon’s portfolio as a screenwriter is decidedly chequered. Throughout the 1990s, he made something of a name for himself doing uncredited rewrites on everything from the lamentable Twister to the phenomenally successful X-Men, as well as contributing to the screenplays for the wonderful Toy Story and the embarrassing Titan AE. Despite his feature writing credits, however, he is still best known as the creator of cult TV hits Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and, more recently, the short-lived Firefly, a "Sci-fi Western" series that was cancelled by producer 20th Century Fox mid-way through its first season, with many of the episodes that had been filmed eventually only surfacing on DVD.
And yet, Whedon and his creations seem to instil a level of fervent fan loyalty that is virtually unprecedented outside a handful of established franchises like Star Trek and its ilk. As such, while the notion of rusurrecting a failed TV show as a feature film might seem like commercial suicide (which, judging by the eventual box office gross, is not too far off the mark), this film was always guaranteed to eventually find its audience, however miniscule it might be. Even so, Serenity’s existence is something of a miracle, not just because it got made at all, but because it seems to have been made entirely as a love letter to the small but fiercely dedicated army of Firefly fans (known as "Browncoats", a reference to the leather trenchcoats worn by the group of renegades around which the series revolved). And yet, despite seeming to aim for such a specific audience, Serenity stands on its own feet and can be enjoyed greatly by those who didn’t follow Firefly (a group to which I belong, despite my affection for Buffy and Angel). And enjoyable it is: Serenity doesn’t attempt to re-invent the wheel, but it is a witty, engaging and occasionally powerful piece of filmmaking that possesses in spades just what has been missing from so many recent action blockbusters.
As with Firefly, the plot takes place five hundred years into the future, and focuses on the crew of Serenity, a ragtag bunch of rebels led by Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). Earth as we know it no longer exists, and Serenity’s crew find themselves caught between the governing Alliance and the vicious Reavers. Also aboard the craft are 17-year-old River Tam (Summer Glau) and her doctor brother Simon (Sean Maher), who, it turns out, are on the run from the Alliance after Simon rescued River, a psychic, from a laboratory in which she was subjected to all manner of horrifying experiments. The action kicks of when Mal brings River along on a raid, the events of which trigger in her a wave of unexplained memories and latent aggressive tendencies. The Alliance, it soon becomes clear, are desperate to capture River, and have dispatched a nameless Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is willing to use any means necessary to reclaim her.
Given my lack of knowledge about the universe in which it takes place, I was surprised by just how quickly I felt at home aboard Serenity. The film, like the series, is very much an ensemble piece, with a diverse cast of characters, many of whom have pasted shrouded in mystery, and yet it never feels crowded or bloated. More to the point, all of them are likeable to a degree. Whedon has a knack not only for crafting great dialogue but also for creating characters whose motives are believable and understandable, whether they are the hero, villain, or somewhere in between. Case in point is the Operative, a ruthless zealot who is completely devoid of compassion and who, like many of the villains who appeared in Buffy and Angel, is clearly intended to resemble a religious fundamentalist. The backdrop against which the action unfolds is impressive in its scale, and one gets the sense that there is infinite scope for stories and characters in this franchise.
And yet, despite the larger scale of the production, it doesn’t lose any of its creator’s special touches. There are plenty of little Whedon-esque moments peppered throughout the film, from the dry humour to the one continuous shot that plays out behind the opening credits. The latter, especially, is a gimmick that Whedon has been trying to perfect since the days of Buffy, and it really pays off here in this, its longest and most complicated incarnation yet. It also carries on the various stylistic traits of Firefly - namely the blending of Science Fiction, Western and Eastern motifs - except on a larger scale. Before seeing the film, I had serious doubts that Whedon would be able to pull off the transition from directing television to directing a feature film, but, looking at the final product, you would never think that it was essentially helmed by a first-timer. True, there are few, if any, moments that will wow you, but the execution is consistently slick and professional, with just the right level of grit that a post-apocalyptic tale such as this demands. Cinematographer Jack N. Green’s framing is at times inspired, while the computer-aided effects, provided by Whedon’s old Buffy collaborators at Zoic Studios, are for the most part subtle.
At the end of the day, Serenity is highly unlikely to change the world of sci-fi for ever. I also find it difficult to not feel slightly resentful towards it, since it was because this project was greenlit that Whedon was unable to write and direct th final episode of Angel. (Not that this affected my overall scoring, though!) However, as someone for whom the science fiction genre holds little interest, I was surprised by just how much I engaged with the film. True, its television origins occasionally show themselves in the form of its less than feature-calibre performers and the nagging sensation that this is an individual episode of something bigger rather than a stand-alone story. Otherwise, though, this is a fine film: engaging, entertaining and, frankly, just plain fun, it will hopefully be the first of many accomplished feature productions for its director.
HD DVD Presentation
I have now seen four HD DVD releases - two from Warner and two from Universal, and, so far, the latter have consistently delivered a superior product. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 at 1080p, Serenity on HD DVD is literally the home video title I’ve been waiting for since the inception of the DVD format. Those who have read any of my reviews will know how picky I am when it comes to image quality, so you can rest assured that, when I say Serenity looks amazing, it looks really amazing.
"Flawless" is not a term I like to use when discussing transfer quality, since, no matter what format you are using to encode it, it is always going to end up being compressed. The degree to which the compression is visible is down to the constraints of the format and the skill of the technicians responsible for creating the disc, and so, to say that this title is perceptually flawless is not something I undertake lightly. And yet, despite pressing my nose against the screen and staring hard at it for an extended period of time, I would be hard pressed to point out any flaws whatsoever. The image is beautifully rich and detailed, with smooth, natural colours and excellent shadow detail. Even more impressively, the edge enhancement and noise reduction problems that were present on the two Warner HD DVD titles I have viewed - Million Dollar Baby and Constantine - are completely absent here. Seriously, there is no edge enhancement whatsoever. This has got to be something of a minor miracle given the extent to which this infuriating and pointless piece of digital meddling ruined most DVDs. Add to that some wonderfully untampered film grain, and it really does feel as if Universal have struck gold.
So yes, Serenity looks amazing - perfect, almost - and while watching it on a 32" LCD display cannot hope to match the experience of seeing it projected theatrically, it certainly conveys the sensation of being at the cinema. By that, I mean that it looks and feels like film rather than video, and as such accomplishes everything that I could want from a transfer.
There you go. I don’t normally gush about image quality, so savour it.
Audio options consist of English, Spanish and French tracks, all in Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1. Like the image quality, the sound is stellar. Indeed, the extent to which it sounds better than the average DVD soundtrack caught me off guard. I certainly wasn’t expecting the depth, bass and clarity on offer here, and once again I am hard pressed to find any faults whatsoever. Bearing in mind that I don’t have a Dolby Digital-Plus compatible audio decoder, and am instead relying on my Toshiba HD-A1 player to convert the audio to a DTS stream, it is entirely possible that I’m missing out on the full capabilities of this new audio format, but, regardless, I am very, very impressed by what I’m hearing.
Subtitles are included in English, Spanish and French. Unfortunately, they are the usual Universal type that are positioned creatively around the screen in order to clue the audience in to who is speaking, rather than being placed in the bottom centre of the frame. All of the extras, apart from the audio commentary on the deleted scenes and film, are subtitled in all three languages.
All of the bonus features included with this release are replicated from the standard definition version, and as such are presented in plain old 480i. Switching between them and the film itself certainly gives something of an idea of just how much of a phenomenal improvement HD DVD is.
The main extra, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a feature length audio commentary by Joss Whedon. Those who have listened to his excellent commentaries on Buffy and Angel will know what to expect here: an informal, highly informative and often self-deprecating overview of pretty much every aspect of the production. At times, he is a little too liberal when showering praise on his actors - from what he says here, you’d think Nathan Fillion was the single greatest actor who ever lived - but it’s all done in good humour, and his passion for his creation shines through at all times.
This is followed by around 15 minutes of deleted scenes, with Whedon once again weighing in for optional audio commentary. By and large, these additional snippets take the form of incidental exchanges or extended takes of conversations that made it into the final. Broadly speaking, they help flesh out the characters a little more, but their removal is understandable, as they would probably have bogged down the running time of a film that revels in its sprightly pace. These scenes will definitely be of interest to Firefly fans, however, who will undoubtedly have a far stronger attachment to the characters than audiences meeting them for the first time within the film. Around 6 minutes’ worth of outtakes are also provided.
Future History - The Story of Earth That Was is a 5-minute featurette providing a very brief overview of the origins of the Firefly universe. It’s interesting as far as it goes, but tantalisingly brief. A much more in-depth look at how the series came into being would have been much appreciated. The same is true of What’s in a Firefly, which provides a 6-minute look at the use of visual effects in the film, both practical and CGI.
More interesting than these brief featurettes is a 4-minute introduction to the film by Joss Whedon. This piece, clearly recorded for an audience about to see an incomplete advance preview of the film (he mentions that some visual effects and music cues are missing), is an amusing affair in which the director stresses how much the film’s existence owes to the tireless campaigning of Firefly’s fans (which, he surmises, means that, if it’s because of them that it’s a success, then, if it fails, it’s all their fault). This is a great little piece, and I for one am glad that it is accessed from the Extras menu rather than playing at the start of the film, as is so often the case for directors’ introductions.
The final extra is a 10-minute piece entitled Re-lighting the Firefly, which focuses on the campaign to get the film off the ground following the series’ cancellation. Of the various featurettes, this is probably the strongest, if only because it affords an opportunity to witness, first-hand, the sheer force to be reckoned with that is an auditorium of rabid Firefly fans.
Shoddy cover art aside, Serenity on HD DVD is a magnificent package, and indeed is a strong contender for the best release I’ve seen on this format so far. Fans of the film who are capable of playing HD DVDs are well advised to throw their grotty old DVD copies on the scrap heap and invest in this absolutely magnificent presentation of a fun, highly engaging sci-fi romp.