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

Joshua Zyber

Monday 24 April 2006, by Webmaster

Universal // PG-13 // $34.98 // April 18, 2006 // Region 0

"You know what the first rule of flying is?... Love. You can learn all the math in the ’verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turn of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she ought to fall down, tells you she’s hurting before she keens. Makes her a home."

The Movie: You’ve got to give him credit for this: Joss Whedon does not take easily to failure. When his script for a movie titled Buffy the Vampire Slayer was mishandled by the studio and an incompetent director who turned it into a forgettable comedy spoof, Whedon resurrected the concept as an extremely popular and critically acclaimed TV series that ran for seven years and spawned an equally successful spin-off series. That kind of faith, determination, and yes love are rare and valuable traits in Hollywood. When he attempted to launch a new science fiction franchise under the title Firefly, he had nearly the opposite journey. Starting with a TV series that the Fox network ungraciously cancelled after just 11 episodes, most of them aired out of their proper order and context, Whedon’s unbridled love for the project eventually brought it back to life as the feature film Serenity, a heavily-promoted big screen release from Universal Studios in the Fall of 2005. Unfortunately, despite strong reviews and fawning devotion from the TV show’s small (very small) fan base, the movie was a tremendous box office flop. I doubt he’s quite given up on it yet, but even Joss Whedon will have trouble turning this one around.

Its financial failure shouldn’t be taken as any sort of indication of the movie’s quality. In fact, the tiny handful of people who actually saw it in the theater mostly liked it. Picking up a few months after the point where the TV series ended (or just stopped, really, since there wasn’t any sort of proper ending), the movie brings us back into the adventures of charming scoundrel Capt. Malcolm Reynolds and his ragtag band of rebels as they carouse through outer space like old fashioned Western outlaws, always on the run from the oppressive Alliance authorities. Still harboring the fugitive Dr. Simon Tam and his mysterious, mentally unbalanced sister River, the crew of the ship Serenity must now face a new threat, a relentless Alliance agent known only as The Operative, whose pursuit will finally drive them to discover the dark secrets held in River’s scrambled brain.

Opening with a short prologue sequence that recaps the bare essentials of the concept and then immediately jumping ahead past the end of the TV series, the movie is adeptly structured to function equally well for viewers who’ve seen the show and those who haven’t. Knowledge of the series will help to flesh out some of the character development, but it really isn’t essential to follow the plot. Unfortunately, this was probably the weak point in Universal’s marketing campaign. Lacking any major stars (when Chiwetel Ejiofor is the biggest name in your cast, you’ve got a tough sell ahead), the movie was pushed heavily on Whedon’s reputation alone, and clearly the trailers and TV spots didn’t appeal to anyone other than existing Firefly fans, who were just not a large enough group to make the film a financial success.

To be honest, I had mixed feelings about Firefly when it aired, and most of those carried over to the Serenity movie. As a huge fan of Whedon’s Buffy and Angel TV series, I had high hopes for Firefly but wound up feeling that its uneasy mix of sci-fi and Western genres was a little undercooked. Maybe it just needed time to grow (Whedon’s strength is in long-form storytelling), but at the time it was cancelled I didn’t miss it all that much. Giving it a second chance, I thought the show played a lot better on DVD than on broadcast. I liked the characters and dialogue, yet I still never felt it was the groundbreaking masterwork that will forever change the direction of science fiction the way many of its ardent fans (so-called "Browncoats") did. By the same token, I liked the Serenity movie but just wasn’t overwhelmed by it. It has a nice mix of humor, action, and deeper character moments, but plays more like a very good TV series finale than like a true feature film. That certainly didn’t help its theatrical prospects, though I have to admit that it’s nice to finally bring some closure to the storylines left hanging in the series. I can’t think of anything specific that I disliked or wish had been handled differently, but I just didn’t love the movie, and I really wanted to.

The HD-DVD: Serenity debuts on the HD-DVD format as the premiere launch title from Universal Studios Home Entertainment, a piece of trivia that may come in handy some day. To distinguish the new format from normal DVDs, HD-DVD discs come packaged in red plastic keepcases that are slightly shorter, wider, and thinner than typical DVD packaging. Universal has chosen to recycle the same DVD cover art (in Serenity’s case a terribly cheesy Photoshop montage), partially obscured by ugly silver borders more than a bit reminiscent of Sony’s Superbit DVD line. (The comparison photo in this review shows the Region 4 DVD release, which uses different cover art.)

HD-DVD discs will only play in a compatible HD-DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc specifically contains an optional DVD layer for Standard Definition playback) or in a Blu-Ray player. Nor will they work in a CD player, a VCR, an LP turntable, or your kitchen toaster, so don’t even try.

Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD. If a movie were to receive a higher score on the DVD scale than the HD scale, that does not necessarily mean that the DVD disc looks better than the HD disc. It just means that the DVD compares better in relation to other DVDs than the HD disc compares to other HD discs.

Video: The Serenity HD-DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame, just as it should be. Since HD is natively 16:9 in shape, the HD-DVD format does not require anamorphic enhancement as used on DVD (front projection owners might have appreciated a provision for 20:9 enhancement, but that’s an argument for another day).

In comparison to the DVD release of the same movie, the picture is quite clearly more detailed and pleasing. Close-up shots are eye-opening, while medium and long shots avoid the soft and filtered appearance typical of DVD transfers. Fine object details such as the pores on the actors’ skin and the fabric weave of their clothes are resolved to a much greater degree than possible in Standard Definition. Shadow detail in dark parts of the frame is also better defined, as are subtle color gradients like variations in facial complexion. The image has absolutely no noise, edge halo ringing, compression artifacts, color banding, pixelation, or other digital artifacts that I could see. Film grain in the original photography is preserved, resolved clearly enough to look like grain rather than video noise, as happens on too many DVDs.

Essentially, the Serenity HD-DVD avoids all of the pitfalls of digital compression usually found on DVD, and delivers a significantly higher resolution picture in the process. Any shortcomings in its appearance are reproduced exactly from the original HD master. To that end, I complained in my DVD review of the movie that the transfer was just too damn dark, and since this disc is from the same master I find the same problem. The movie has intentionally contrasty photography, and mention is made in the audio commentary of a couple of shots where the actors were deliberately underlit, but even so the transfer goes too far. Bright outdoor scenes look fine, but dark scenes (and there are many) look murkier than I remember from the theatrical presentation. Shadow detail on the HD-DVD is better than the DVD, which helps quite a bit, but I still feel that the transfer isn’t quite accurate in this respect.

Nonetheless, the movie has a stylized photographic style that plays around with manipulated colors and some intentionally blown out contrasts in a few scenes, all of which are faithfully replicated. In other words, it doesn’t necessarily look like a crisp and antiseptic Star Trek movie, which may disappoint some viewers expecting otherwise. The HD-DVD has a terrific, film-like texture, and looks noticeably better than the DVD.

Given that this is a launch title, I hesitate to rate the disc too highly. Future releases will only improve as the mastering process advances. I remember how impressive DVD seemed in 1997, but judging some of those early releases by today’s standards is almost embarrassing. Still, if this disc is some day considered at the low end of HD-DVD quality, the format is off to a very good start.

Audio: Bass junkies take note: the LFE in this movie will shake the foundation of your house. This soundtrack has deep, deep bass and highly aggressive surround activity. It’s exactly what you want from a sci-fi adventure movie.

The audio is encoded in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. DD+ offers higher bit rates than available with traditional Dolby Digital audio found on DVD. In these early stages, the hardware requirements for HD-DVD’s new sound formats are still under much scrutiny and debate, and to be honest I’m not sure that I’m getting the most out of the DD+ format yet. At the very least, I can say that the audio sounds just as good as the DVD’s soundtrack. It seemed to me to have slightly better fidelity and clarity, though I’m not ready to make that argument definitively yet. The possibility of placebo effect is still high. If you listen to two audio clips with the expectation that one is better than the other, your brain has a tendency to perceive a difference whether one is really there or not. At the very least, I will say that we aren’t losing anything in regard to audio quality on the HD-DVD, and may be gaining an improvement. Future hardware will likely better exploit the format’s capabilities and clarify any distinctions it has.

Note that although the initial HD-DVD launch titles from Warner Bros. have a mastering error that lowered the volume and siphoned out bass, the Serenity disc from Universal does not have this problem.

French and Spanish dub tracks are also available in DD+ 5.1. Subtitle options include English captions for the hearing impaired, Spanish, or French. HD-DVD subtitles are presented in a smoother, more aesthetically pleasing font than those usually found on DVD.

Extras: All of the bonus features on this HD-DVD launch title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video. Future releases may offer more advanced features.

The highlight of the disc, as expected, is the audio commentary by Joss Whedon. Fans of his previous works know how good Whedon’s commentaries are, and this is no exception. Topics covered include his Mission Statement for the film and how his vision of the future was conceptualized. The talk is technical at times but never boring.

Six minutes of outtakes feature lots of cursing by the cast. Nine deleted scenes include optional commentary by Whedon. The majority are scene extensions rather than whole new scenes. Much footage of Inara was excised from the film. A few of these scenes would have worked had they been retained.

Next we have a few featurettes. Future History: The Story of Earth That Was is a 5-minute recap of the Firefly TV series backstory. What’s in a Firefly is a 7-minute look at the visual effects. The 10-minute Re-Lighting the Firefly talks about how a cancelled TV series could spawn a feature film, and lavishes much praise on the fan-base for supporting the project.

The 4-minute Joss Whedon Introduction was filmed for one of the movie’s advance test screenings and lets the director explain his passion for the project.

Disappointingly, I couldn’t find the Fruity Oaty Good Time easter egg from the DVD anywhere. Perhaps this should be a clue to disc authors that hiding your content was a stupid idea whose time has passed. I would be very pleased if the whole easter egg fad ended today. If something is worth watching, it should be put where people can find it without playing annoying games.

No interactive features have been included.

Final Thoughts: When Firefly got lousy ratings and was cancelled after just 11 episodes, it seemed like the end of the road. Somehow, through Joss Whedon’s perseverance, it was reborn as a feature film... that bombed. Its biggest fans proclaimed that it would be a Star Wars franchise killer, but the movie’s theatrical grosses didn’t even cover its modest $40 million budget. Some of those fans are still holding out hope for a sequel, but I honestly can’t imagine that will ever happen. That the movie exists in the first place is something of a miracle. We should be happy that the major story threads from the series were finally resolved, and leave it at that. Do we really need to ask for more?

Although I didn’t love Serenity as much as I’d hoped, the movie is still a fine, very entertaining sci-fi adventure and makes for a nice introduction into the High Definition videodisc era. With video quality far surpassing its DVD equivalent, this HD-DVD release of Serenity is a must-have for both fans of the movie and HD-DVD owners looking for something fun to show off their new electronic toys. Highly Recommended.