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"Serenity" Movie DVD Collector Edition - Ign.com Review

Tuesday 14 August 2007, by Webmaster

Take up yer browncoat, ready your pistol, and jump onboard for this incredibly entertaining sci-fi western!

Like outer space, Hollywood can be a completely unforgiving place. Just ask writer/director Joss Whedon, whose science-fiction television show, Firefly, was cancelled after just a season, and despite unanimously rave reviews. The series, which married space operas and westerns, chronicled the often misguided travels of a gruff captain and his unlikely crew of thieves. The FOX network aired some 11 (out of order) episodes of Firefly in 2002 before it dismissed the show altogether, but fans couldn’t let it go so easily.

Unfortunately, despite their dedicated efforts, nobody in the cold depths of Hollywood took notice - that is, until the fans put their money where their mouths were and bought up more than 500,000 copies of the show on DVD. Serenity, which can accurately be described as a feature film continuation of the cancelled show, is the result.

Whedon himself prefers to think of Serenity as a standalone movie that anybody can enjoy, regardless of their familiarity with Firefly. And we agree. The budget may be dramatically smaller, but there are more refined story curves and hard-earned emotional ties to characters than in the last three Star Wars movies combined, and it’s topped off with some beautifully orchestrated action scenes. Serenity is very good science fiction with real heart, which is something that can be neither bought nor meticulously rendered; you either have it or you don’t, and any viewer, old or new, can appreciate that.

However, to say that Serenity is not a movie for the fans would be inaccurate, since in our experience watchers who followed Firefly will get much more out of the film than those who haven’t. For fans, Serenity elevates the show into much more than just a robust space opera; it becomes the well-crafted farewell to the characters and universe that Whedon was unable realize on television.

Serenity could be called the ultimate modern western. Although it takes place more than 500 years in the future during a space-traveling era when men have found and terraformed entire planets, its heroes still carry futuristic pistols and live by codes of honor that would make any cowboy proud. It’s not an easy configuration to swallow because these are two genres that don’t seem to have anything in common - and, in fact, directly contrast one another; perhaps needless to say, spaceships and horses simply don’t mix. And yet, the same complaint could be leveled against Star Wars, whose Jedi heroes were inspired by Japanese samurai movies (most notably Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress). It’s a testament to Whedon’s skill that he has overcome any preconceived notions about what does and doesn’t belong and created with Serenity a breathtakingly original universe that defies sci-fi clich┐s.

The movie strikes a successfully careful balance between catering to fans and making sure that newcomers know exactly what’s going on. Whedon covers with a new light material that was implied or glossed over in the television show. The story follows the crew of Serenity as it sneaks through the galaxy, taking menial thief work and avoiding the deadly Alliance government, which is on its tail. The Alliance has enlisted the help of a methodical assassin to find and kill a seemingly helpless 17-year-old girl named River Tam, who has taken refuge on Serenity. We don’t want to give away spoilers, but the film evolves from there.

Serenity’s characters are rich and multifaceted, which makes them both more realistic than the sci-fi norm and in turn easier to identify with. Captain Mal Reynolds is a likable, humorous hero and he is generally good, but he isn’t perfect. There is a scene in which, faced with the task of either rescuing a civilian from certain death or getting away with some stolen money, he chooses the loot. In contrast, the movie’s main villain is anything but the evil caricatures found in so many lesser projects. He is a thoughtful pursuer who genuinely believes that when he kills his enemies he is making "better worlds" for people to live in. Audiences will actually find themselves liking the killer, who has no problems engaging in genocide if he thinks it is for the greater good.

These are characters with more depth and realism than George Lucas could conjure up with a team of 400 digital animators and a limitless budget. In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker changes from all-good to all-bad in the span of a single, completely unrealistic scene. Lucas cannot seem to grasp the idea that real beings are never so cut and dry, and as a result it becomes a struggle in dedication to keep disbelief suspended. Whedon’s heroes and villains by comparison never suffer these conventionalisms or short cuts. They draw and maintain emotion from beginning to end.

The storyline is intensified through smart pacing and Whedon’s unwillingness to pull any punches in order to appease fans. The movie does not provide a happy ending for each of the main characters. This truth is shocking because sci-fi fans have been groomed to believe that their heroes will usually walk out alive and well. When the opposite happens in Serenity, it’s jolting, and it makes the action that follows that much more engrossing simply because viewers really won’t have any idea what to expect.

That’s not to suggest that Whedon has nailed everything. While most of the writing in the movie is witty and may even draw chuckles, it is occasionally overcooked and unrealistic. Meanwhile, Firefly’s "preacher" character has been misused in Serenity, thrown in as a quasi-cameo and without any real story merit. He could have just as easily been cut entirely and it would have made no difference, particularly to new audiences with no emotional ties to him.

Serenity, however, is not all simply about the characters. Those looking to this movie to deliver big action and room-shaking explosions will not be disappointed. The film takes viewers to multiple believable worlds, into intense space battles, through speedy chases, and along for some gorgeously choreographed fights. These sequences are extremely well done, brought to life with both excellent pacing and some very respectable computer graphics - maybe not Star Wars quality, but pretty damned believable all the same. The final 20 minutes of the movie in particular are nothing short of outstanding and we think any action guru will cherish them.

Serenity arrives as a mixed blessing. Not because it falls short of greatness, but because it doesn’t: although it is a fantastic sci-fi work and a fabulous follow-up to the Firefly television show, it bombed at the box office and isn’t likely to see a sequel. And that’s a real shame, because we’d love nothing more than to take another ride on Whedon’s unconventional ship.

Score: 9 out of 10

Video and Presentation

Serenity’s transfer to DVD arrives with few videos issues to report. The movie is presented in its original 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio and there are no noticeable compression problems. That is to say, viewers will not encounter any video artifacts, not even during some of the darker scenes in the movie. We’re happy that Universal has given Serenity a fair treatment, especially since the movie oftentimes takes place to the backdrop of black space.

Whedon’s film takes viewers to a variety of different locations, from the depth of dark space to blooming desert locales. The picture is always sharp and the colors bright. In fact, our only complaint is that colors were occasionally too bright, appearing overly saturated on the high-definition televisions we tested the movie on. Even so, this is a minor gripe and will probably be a non-issue for most.

Score: 8 out of 10

Languages and Audio

It’s unfortunate from a fan boy’s perspective that Whedon opted to drop the television show’s country western-like theme jingle from the movie update. The new orchestrated soundtrack is, however, very well implemented and highly fitting of the material. The songs range from moody to downright epic, and successfully draw on the backgrounds of the material. Some of the tracks, for example, merge Asian and country influences for a sound that is unique to the movie.

Serenity runs in both English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound and effects and dialogue are appropriately separated. Center channel audio may become occasionally muffled in high-action, sound-effect drowned sequences, but that’s really our only criticism. Those with higher-end audio systems will find themselves very impressed with the booming effects that are used for immersive results. Whedon likes to zoom the camera closely toward ships so that audiences are practically shaking with each engine rev. But in contrast, he’s not afraid to use silence to his advantage either, and occasionally does so to emphasize key dramatic moments.

Score: 8 out of 10

Packaging and Extras

This special edition of Serenity gives audiences two discs full of bonus materials - many of which were available on the film’s previous DVD release and handful of extras new to the Firefly party - but there’s enough in place to satisfy fans and give newcomers a good helping of insight into the movie and television series. The gorgeous packaging is designed to open like a book and features a transport cover-flap through which the over-lapping images on the layers below bring all of the cover’s exquisite detail to the surface. Bonus material includes:

* Deleted and extended scenes
* Outtakes
* A Filmmaker’s Journey
* Future history: The Story of Earth That Was
* What’s in a Firefly
* Re-lighting the Firefly
* Joss Whedon Introduction
* Session 416
* Sci-Fi Inside: Serenity
* Take A Walk on Serenity
* The Green Clan
* We’ll Have Fruity Oaty Good Time
* Feature Commentary by Joss Whedon

There are about nine deleted scenes, most of which are short and unnecessary sequences that Whedon was right to remove. Even so, fans will undoubtedly like to see extended "quiet moments" between Mal and Inara, or added sequences between Simon and River. Best of all is that Whedon offers commentary on these snippets and why they did or didn’t work, in his opinion.

Take A Walk on Serenity is exactly what it sounds like - a tour of the Serenity set. Perhaps the funniest extra feature, both Whedon and Fillion take views on a hilarious tour of the film’s namesake vessel. We’ll Have Fruity Oaty Good Time is a quick "making-of" focusing on the bizarre, Japanese commercial in Serenity which feeds River Tam the subliminal signal, kicking-off the first major hand-to-hand combat sequence in the movie.

Documentary-style programs including What’s in a Firefly, The Green Clan and Re-lighting the Firefly offer an inner look at the making of the show and the movie with insight from the cast and the director. The film quality of these documentaries is grainy, but the content itself is still welcomed, particularly since it shows firsthand how the show became a movie. It also provides some good laughs from the stars, including Whedon himself. An outtakes section complements these documentaries nicely with five-plus minutes of good-humored on-film accidents. Finally, A Filmmaker’s Journey represents the longer, behind-the-scenes, EPK-style production and the only thing that saves it from being the most standard item on this Special Edition set is the humor and personality of the people it showcases.

Fans can also check out an introduction from Joss Whedon, which was developed for the initial un-finished screening of Serenity to fans. The piece is short, but heartfelt. Whedon is as well-spoken on camera as he is off it.

"Session 416" is a small bit of a theatre caught on grainy, black-and-white film - prologue footage of Glau’s character, River Tam, in an interview with one of the doctors keeping her at the film’s opening. It’s a dialogue-driven, two-person scene which adds little in the way of new information, but it remains interesting - and interestingly-made - nonetheless. The Sci-Fi Channel "Inside Serenity" special is a twenty-minute recap charting the show’s TV demise and eventual cinematic rebirth - highlighting the fan reactions and efforts to revive the show. All of the material here is put together from longer sequences found elsewhere on these two discs, but it’s a clear, concise and focused mini-doc most useful for fans unaware of the show’s history.

Easily the most valuable feature the DVD has to offer, however, is full-length commentary from Whedon. Oftentimes directors coast through these commentaries as though they recorded them at gunpoint during a quick lunch break, but Whedon optimistically talks about Serenity and offers repeated insight into its making. Watching the movie again with his commentary reveals quite a bit more about the picture and provides for another round of completely entertaining cinema.

Lastly, the second commentary - new to this Special Edition - sees Whedon reunited with Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, Summer Glau and Ron Glass. This is certainly the more hilarious-yet-unfocused of the two and consists largely of an honest and inspired rapport between the director and his cast. Charming and amusing this is as entertaining a commentary as Whedon’s is informative.

Score: 9 out of 10

The Bottom Line

This is a great, wildly entertaining film - accessible to old and new fans alike, to sci-fi fans and western fans and movie fans, in general - represented on a beautifully packaged Special Edition DVD, sporting a top-notch transfer, some strong audio work and a boatload of worthwhile extras. So, the real question is this: What are you waiting for?