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Firefly - "Serenity" Movie - HD-DVD Dvdfile.com Review

Dan Ramer

Saturday 23 September 2006, by Webmaster

Universal Studios Home Entertainment / 2005 / 119 Minutes / PG-13

I am not familiar with Firefly, the series upon which this feature film is based, but that may be a good thing. Having no preconceptions, I was able to watch this film unbiased, and I was pleasantly surprised. It exceeded my expectations. My only disadvantage was that certain terms and back-stories were unfamiliar; I was left with the distinct impression that I could have benefited from knowledge of the television episodes. Regardless, series creator and director Joss Whedon seems to have done his best to create a work that stands alone.

We immediately learn that Earth had become uninhabitable due to nuclear war. Fortunately, mankind had advanced sufficiently for interstellar travel and terraforming inhospitable planets. But when the survivors inhabit the planets and satellites of a distant solar system, the governing body found itself at war with a rebellious element that is somewhat reluctant to be controlled; perhaps they are disillusioned by Earth’s destruction. The powerful government - the Alliance - had defeated the rebels, but resistance and rebelliousness remain.

There are immediate hints that the Alliance is totalitarian, perhaps a benign dictatorship, much like the central government found in Brave New World. Citizens are expected to assume the roles that society imposes on them, all for the greater good. There may be a subtle form of eugenics at play as well. This becomes clear as we watch River Tam (Summer Glau), a teenage girl with lethal skills, being forcibly conditioned in a secret training center. She is not only unusually deadly, but she possesses psychic powers; that makes her even more dangerous.

It seems that high-ranking members of Parliament were ushered into her presence by the center’s director. This was a serious lapse in judgment. Even sedated, River likely absorbed some of the state secrets ferreted away in the heads of the visitors. So when her brother Simon (Sean Maher) pulls off a daring rescue from the facility, she essentially becomes the Macguffin. Enter the heavy of the piece, a noble sociopath played by Chiwetel Ejiofor simply known as The Operative. He’s reminiscent of a Samurai, highly disciplined, highly loyal, driven, sensitive, and utterly deadly. It falls upon The Operative to track River down, capture or kill her before the Alliance secrets can be revealed.

In exchange for Simon’s medical services and River’s help with a heist, the captain and crew of the starship Serenity helped rescue the teen. Mal (Nathan Fillion) commands, Wash (Alan Tudyk) is the ship’s pilot, Zoe (Gina Torres) is Wash’s wife and first mate, Kaylee (Jewel Staite) is the horny ship’s engineer, and Jayne (Adam Baldwin) just seems to be a rough and tumble crewmember that’s good in a fight. The Serenity is falling apart, so a heist has become the last refuge of desperate people. And it’s during that job that we meet the relentlessly violent, cannibalistic Reavers. No mercy; those captured are eaten alive. The Reavers are another force to be reckoned with, and will become pivotal to the plot.

This setup occupies the first act. The rest of the film becomes a complex chase and a series of action set pieces punctuated with character development. The crew is threatening to break up. I could not tell from the film whether or not Mal had a physical relationship with Inara (Morena Baccarin), a professional companion (essentially a pillow Geisha), but his sublimated affection for her is used as bait to lure the Serenity into a vulnerable position. River seems not quite right, suffering disturbing flashbacks that slowly reveal the secrets locked in her head. The Operative is ceaseless in his pursuit. And the Reavers simply become more ravenous.

The Serenity crew may be on the fringes of society (pirates may be the best way to conceptualize them), but in their souls they remain Independents fighting against the Alliance. And when a deep dark Alliance secret is finally made clear, they become willing to sacrifice their lives to expose the amoral government. The concepts are clever and the interpersonal relationships intriguing. Mal puts on a rough and gruff exterior to hide the emotional pain of loss. River is tortured by the person she’s become as a product of her involuntary conditioning. And The Operative is a compelling villain, someone who projects empathy, is seemingly invulnerable to anger, and remains unapologetically lethal.

Whedon blends humor, high drama, and action with satisfying skill. The CGI special effects are far better than I expected for such a small film. It has a great look and an exciting soundtrack. It’s one of the more intelligent Sci-Fi efforts; it only waivers occasionally. For example, when the Serenity wants to avoid the Reavers, the crew thinks in two dimensions, not three. And when a character seems to have its back broken, that same character is simply found walking around several minutes later. Those quibbles aside, this is a sleeper that will appeal to science fiction enthusiasts whether they’re fans of the television series or not.

The Video: How Does The Disc Look?

The film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is presented in a modestly impressive high definition transfer. On DVD, this is a very, very dark film; in many scenes black areas of the screen become large featureless voids. On HD DVD, the brightness has been pumped up a tad, but it didn’t help resolve a lack of shadow detail, it simply made black a warm, very dark gray. This is most apparent in star fields; the black void of space is less black than the black bars above and below the 2.35:1 active picture area as projected on my 1.78:1 screen. So since I know my system is properly calibrated, the very black window box bars verified my impressions of the transfer. Darker scenes sometimes have a bit more visible grain, as well. The brightly lit scenes, like on the surface of a planet in daylight, are wonderfully conveyed. Highly detailed, with excellent small object detail and terrific finely grained textures, I was very pleased when I saw visual minutia that were completely invisible on the DVD. Color accuracy is quite good based on natural skin tones, but I was left with the impression that the palette was exaggerated sometimes to create an impression of hyper real. I was also very impressed with the quality of the CGI special effects. I couldn’t fully appreciate the subtleties and nuances of the complex textures and objects on DVD; on HD DVD, they are quite striking indeed.

The Audio: How Does The Disc Sound?

This Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 track is first-rate. The surrounds are exceptionally active, immersing the viewer in complex sound fields. Enable EX decoding to enjoy more stable surround effects with better imaging. Exceptionally deep bass is present with sounds that can be felt as well as heard. Sound effects have fast attack times and a great dynamic range. Very visceral. The score is well rendered and the dialog is always distortion-free. Nicely done, and even more involving than the DVD, a track that exceeding my expectations. And I must comment that, so far, this is the only HD DVD audio track in which the dialog level is approximately the same as a typical DVD. I found that I did not have to kick up the audio gain to enjoy this very satisfying mix.

The alternate languages are in French and Spanish, presented in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1. Optional subtitles are in French, Spanish, and English SDH.

Supplements: What Goodies Are There?

Considering the origins of the film I found the extras to be surprisingly generous on DVD and, essentially, they have been ported to this HD DVD. In Joss Whedon Introduction, we get to see not an introduction to the film on this HD DVD, but to an unfinished product with placeholders, shown to measure audience reactions and receptivity at test screenings. Whedon is amusingly self-deprecating, a rather consistent style that is somewhat endearing in modest doses.

Now we come to the featurettes. First is Future History: The Story of Earth That Was (4:33). Whedon explains his inspirations for this history-influenced Sci-Fi universe. He describes resolving the cultural and economic differences between today’s United States and China as the basis of the Alliance. He draws sociological inspiration from Civil War reconstruction and gritty technological inspiration from the Millennium Falcon. And he addresses the pitfalls of trying to create a utopia.

What’s in a Firefly (6:33) is the special effects featurette. It reveals how the Mule chase scene, Mr. Universe’s facility, and the climactic space battle were accomplished as a blend of practical and CGI. We learn that pre-visualization was used extensively for both the live action filming and the CGI. I liked how the CGI contractors used the same camera unsteadiness and rough zooming as found in the new Battlestar Galactica series. It adds a touch of simulated realism, a documentary feel that adds credibility and emotional impact.

Re-lighting the Firefly (9:41) is the interesting tale of the cancellation of the television series, the reactions of the cast, and Whedon’s determined pursuit of resurrecting the show in a different venue. As happened when the original Star Trek television series was cancelled after two seasons, a cadre of dedicated fans pushed for the story to continue. We follow the series makers and crew to ComicCon where they’re overwhelmed by a standing ovation from 5,000 fans. But as tenacious as Whedon may have been, and as vociferous as fans may have been, if an executive at Universal hadn’t been a fan of the show, the film would never have happened.

Next, writer/director Joss Whedon may be heard in a feature-length commentary track. He emphasizes the technical aspects of the show, describing lighting, editing, special effects, practical effects, how his cast almost universally does its own stunts, and other aspects of the show. This is my kind of track; I prefer it to a track that discusses character motivation or the rationalization of plot points. The film was made for only an estimated $40 million; all that money looks like it’s up on the screen and I enjoyed his description of how that was done.

There are nine non-anamorphic widescreen deleted scenes (14:39) presented with an optional Whedon commentary. Much of this is exposition that had to affect the pace of the film (which is somewhat brisk). Many, however, filled in blanks; I might not have needed the help to fill those holes if I had watched the original series, but I did not. It’s unfortunate that the exposition that clarified the background material couldn’t have been offered in a director’s cut.

Outtakes (6:05) is the gag reel. It’s worth a look for a few smiles and giggles. The cast loves to swear whenever they screw up.

Final Thoughts

I’m not qualified to comment on the original series or the continuity between the television episodes and the theatrical film. I can say that this is a self-contained story that satisfies. Good special effects, an intriguing plot, interesting characters, droll dialog, and sufficient action should satisfy the casual viewer. Although it’s not perfect, the high definition transfer is a huge step up from the standard definition DVD, the audio track is excellent, and the generous supplements are of value. This one is definitely worth your consideration.

ImageHere’s a note about the apparent duplicate Buy Guide. Our I.T. people are hard at work on a large project and have not yet had the time to modify the underlying site database formatting code to accommodate the new 0-to-10 rating scales. So until they do, for HD on disc, I’ll insert this note and a Buy Guide at the end of the review text and leave the conventional 0-to-5 Buy Guide blank.