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

Wednesday 22 August 2007, by Webmaster

“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.”

The quote above, from Joss Whedon (from the introduction in the special features) is both a truth and an indication of his ability to laugh at himself. Firefly was the third project that Joss Whedon had on television in 2002 alongside the seventh season of the immensely popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the fourth season of that show’s spin-off, Angel. Firefly was unlike either of those programs. It was a genre-crossing sci-fi/western set in space hundreds of years in the future following the crew of a spaceship that was on the losing side of a civil war. Eleven episodes were broadcast; most of the time out of order, with the first episode being broadcast last and three of them not broadcast at all. Advertising was abysmal. I watched Buffy religiously at the time and although I had heard of Firefly, I didn’t realize it was even being aired – and I was this show’s target market. In short, the program, content notwithstanding, was doomed, and it never finished out its first season. Plot threads were left unresolved and the fans that did catch the show were not happy.

But something interesting also happened. In late 2003, Fox put out a “Complete Series” box set for Firefly, containing the remaining three episodes and it sold like crazy, created resurgence in Internet buzz and Whedon fans started demanding more. All sorts of campaigns were being created to get Firefly back on the air. People wrote letters and the whole thing seemed to resonate. Universal answered the call and picked up the rights for a feature film. Rightfully so, Joss Whedon wrote and directed it (his feature film directing debut) and the complete cast came back. Serenity is as close a continuation of Firefly as could have possibly been done.

Serenity takes place something like a year or two after the events of Firefly. The Alliance, the ruling centralized government has been hunting down the Serenity’s crew ever since Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his beyond mysterious younger sister River (Summer Glau, soon to star in The Sarah Connor Chronicles) came on board. River is mentally traumatized, completely unstable and, as a result, a liability to the ship and the rest of its crew. Not being able to find any jobs, Captain Reynolds (a.k.a. Mal) (Nathan Fillion, Slither) decides that it’s time to get rid of Simon and River. At their next stop, though, River is affected somehow by a subliminal message in a commercial and goes into full-on ass-kicking mode. Mal now realizes that the Alliance is looking for her for a reason, and offers the two of them sanctuary back on the ship so they can find out what’s going on.

Trying to prevent them from accomplishing their goal is an Alliance employee known exclusively as The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Inside Man). He’s a ruthless assassin who does everything in his power to get River back, including holding Mal’s one-time passenger/love interest Inara (Morena Baccarin, Stargate SG-1) hostage and killing others. In addition to The Operative, the Serenity also finds itself having to fight Reavers. Reavers are a zombie-like clan of mindlessly aggressive humans that murder, rape and cannibalize heartlessly and without explanation. Needless to say, the crew has their work cut out for them, particularly since they aren’t exactly sure what their mission really is.

Joss Whedon is an excellent writer. I’m a big fan. He creates wonderful worlds and characters that have tons of nuances that make even the most evil more endearing. He’s a perfect writer for television where week after week we have time to spend with these characters and grow into their relationships. This is why Buffy and Angel were successful shows to begin with – great characters. Firefly was no exception; it just wasn’t given enough time. Serenity is fortunate that it has the television series as an established background, because the two hours it has to work with is simply not enough to do it on its own. The central four characters of Serenity (Mal/The Operative/Simon/River) work exceptionally well in the flow of the movie. The story wraps up nicely and you get a good feel of resolution at the end. But as a result, the supplementary characters don’t get enough screen time and they feel a bit wasted.

Inara felt thrown in for completion sake, although it’s evident the love between her and Mal is still stong and obvious, it doesn’t really fit in with the story so it gets dropped to the wayside (deleted scenes show a lot of this). Jayne (Adam Baldwin) was an excellent “is he or isn’t he a bad guy” crew member in the series, but here is essentially reduced to the wisecracking-muscle-who-likes-guns type. Most criminally underused are Wash (Alan Tudyk, A Knight’s Tale) and Zoe (Gina Torres, Cleopatra 2525), the husband and wife navigator and soldier who were hugely vital in creating the family vibe of the show. They are present on the ship in the film, but until the end act, don’t really get to make much impact. However, when they do, it does change the feel of the film and rest of the crew.

This isn’t entirely the fault of the film or any person involved in it, though. The nature of the two mediums is entirely different, and the writing involved is no exception. I can imagine detractors of Serenity pointing at the Star Trek movies and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me as examples of well-written films that were spun off from cancelled shows, but the Star Trek series didn’t have many loose plot threads, and Twin Peaks’ ending (which did) was avoided completely by making a prequel. Serenity was faced with the challenge of telling a new story for an unfamiliar audience while completing a pre-established but unfinished story, all the while keeping the fans that made the whole project possible, happy. It does this, and that is impressive in its own right. Even if I didn’t like Serenity, I would still admire it as a successful project.

I don’t find any problems with the film as a product. The musical score is fitting. The fight scenes are exceptionally well choreographed. The direction is really good, and comparable to similar sci-fi fare, while the acting from the “no-name” actors is on par with what they delivered on the TV series. Serenity works equally as either a fun science fiction film or as episode 15 of Firefly. I imagine that this was Joss’ intention, and it’s a success. Sadly, the film made for a small army of fans was only seen by a slightly-larger army of fans. Serenity didn’t make back much more than half of its small budget, hereby making the franchise stall a second time. Chances are, we will never get to see any more adventures of Mal and his crew on television or in the cinema, but at least we got one great big story that gave us some closure, and with everything related to Firefly now on DVD, we can revisit it as often as we like.

Not a bad run for a show axed during its first season.

The DVD Presentation

Never having expected the honor of reviewing this new version of Serenity, and nevertheless expecting to purchase it, I sold my original one-disc release earlier this year. I regret doing that so I couldn’t do a better comparison for you. Needless to say, Serenity looks excellent here in this set, but it looks more-or-less as I recall the last DVD appearing. Audio gets an extra boost for the inclusion of a DTS track. This track is awesomely good, particularly with the space dog fighting (even though there’s no sound in… oh, whatever), but it only sounds slightly better than the DD 5.1. Regardless of whatever mix you choose, it’s gonna rumble the house. 2.0 stereo mixes are also available in French and Spanish languages, and subtitles are considerately available in all three languages as well. This is probably the best that standard DVD can achieve.

Note: This DVD does lose the French 5.1 track found on the previous release.

And the Extras Are? Here is what you’re probably dying to hear about, since most fans already purchased Serenity during its first single-disc DVD release. You’re more than welcome to continue reading. It took me a while to go through it all so I certainly appreciate you’re time. That said, if you want to get your ass in the car RIGHT NOW to go pick up this set, by all means – don’t let me stop you. I’ve made an obvious note of the new features for those interested. All of the previous features have been ported over and all of the new ones are worth your time.

Audio Commentary with writer/director Joss Whedon and cast members Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, Summer Glau and Ron Glass – NEW FEATURE!

This commentary was recently recorded, so it is on no region’s version of Serenity released previously. It’s a really fun track, but it isn’t very deep. It’s interesting to hear the actors talk about the characters, what it was like coming back to something they never imagined they would come back to, etc. Joss Whedon interacts with all of them, and the general vibe is that this was Disneyland and everyone had a good time, all the time. Like most cast commentaries, it’s a blast to listen to, just not as informative.

Audio Commentary with writer/director Joss Whedon

This commentary was on the prior release, and it is still an excellent commentary track. Joss Whedon might not be the most experienced director, which he freely admits, but he’s a 100% likeable guy who has a lot to say about Serenity. The talk, despite being unmoderated, is constant, going throughout the length of the film and he’s not afraid to give credit to the people who did things that he didn’t even think of when writing the film. If you’re a fan of Serenity and never listened to this the first go-round, do it this time.

Nine Deleted Scenes with optional Audio Commentary by Joss Whedon – (14:39)

Also rolled over from the previous DVD, these deleted scenes are unchanged – a damned shame since they are non-anamorphic. Nevertheless, each and every one of these are vital for fans of the film to watch as some of these moments were obviously cut only to keep the running time under two hours. My favorite is the final exchange between Mal and the Operative. The optional commentary is also great to listen to. I wish more directors did commentary for their deleted scenes. It always puts them in a better perspective.

Four Extended Scenes – (6:45) – NEW FEATURE!

The four extended scenes here will be of interest to hardcore fans, but they don’t add much to the overall movie, so editing and removing material from the feature was understandable. “Extended Fanty and Mingo” has a little more conversation with Mal and the criminals who hired them. “Extended Mal and Inara Wave” is probably the most interesting of the four. It has additional dialog than what is seen in the film. “Extended Mal and Operative in Companion Training House” has a very different dialog than the final product, and “Mal and Inara Shuttle Improve” is an unfinished, improved scene following Mal and Inara’s escape. My only complaint is that these, like the deleted scenes, are non-anamorphic and I would have rather they been blown up properly on my 16x9 set.

Outtakes – (6:05)

These are some VERY funny outtakes which prove that the cast of Serenity know how to fuck up well and swear and laugh about it afterwards. I found myself rewatching them several times on the original DVD, and I still get a kick of them now.

“Take a Walk on Serenity” Featurette – (4:07) – NEW FEATURE!

A short tour of the Serenity ship with Joss and the cast. It does a good job of pointing out the differences from the dismantled Firefly set to the new one built for the Serenity film. It’s a fun feature, if too brief.

“The Green Clan” Featurette – (3:08) – NEW FEATURE!

A mini-featurette on Jack Green and his family of camera operators who worked on Serenity. It’s pretty short, and there is little more to say than praise.

Joss Whedon Introduction – (3:55)

This is the video introduction that Joss recorded for the original preview screening of Serenity. It has to be the most honest and thankful introductions ever recorded. It is a love letter to Firefly’s fans and thanks them for their support, which enabled him to make the film.

We’ll Have a Fruity Oaty Good Time! – (1:39) – KINDA NEW FEATURE!

On the original DVD as an Easter egg, this is a short featurette about the conceptualizing and making of the Fruity Oaty Bar commercial that, while extremely brief, plays a pivotal moment in River’s changing. The commercial itself Joss describes as a “Japanese commercial on steroids” and the unedited commercial shown here certainly fits that description.

Plenty of additional features are available on the second disc.

A Filmmaker’s Journey – (19:54) – NEW FEATURE!

One of the meatiest documentaries on this set, this “Making of” style featurette is pretty comprehensive without getting overly wrapped up in the sadness over Firefly’s cancellation. I particularly enjoyed the bits on the fight choreography, which was exceptionally well done in the film.

Future History – The Story of Earth That Was – (4:33)

Too brief to be enlightening, Future History attempts to explain both the creative origins of the universe Serenity is set in as well as what has happened between our current time and the time during which the film is set. What is here is a nice base, but this is a discussion that I really wish would have gone on for much longer.

Re-lighting the Firefly – (9:41)

This is the romanticized story of how the premature cancellation of Firefly set the wheels in motion for Serenity to be made. This, like Whedon’s introduction, is a love letter to his fans by showing the journey of the Firefly cast discovering what its like to have a small army in their corner, pushing for their stories to be completed. It’s sappy, but yes, it’s undeniably awesome, as watching the nerds win a round always is.

What’s in a Firefly? – (6:33)

This is your computer and visual effects featurette. I enjoy these because they show off the true stars of these types of films. “What’s in a Firefly?” is no exception. It’s brief, but it’s an inside look at some key scenes and clearly shows how the inspiration for these came from the effects wizards at ZOIC and not so much the director.

Session 416 – (8:01) – NEW FEATURE!

Fans are going to dig this series of videos that show more of River’s backstory. I won’t go into any more details to avoid spoilers for the two of you who haven’t seen Serenity yet.

Sci-Fi Inside: Serenity – (21:46) – NEW FEATURE!

This is a typical promo piece that the Sci-Fi Channel broadcasts to promote certain films. It has some great candid bits and interviews, but nothing that the other features in this set don’t already reveal. Still, it goes deeper than the usual fluff by talking a great deal about the television program and what brought about the live-action film. The “exclusive clip,” of course, loses something when you’ve seen the film 100 times.

I want to take a moment to mention the kick-ass packaging: It’s a box set with a transparent cover that overlays images to create a three-dimensional effect. It’s not entirely original, because Paramount awarded the exact same treatment to their 50th Anniversary Edition release of The Ten Commandments, but it’s still an awesome package that fans are sure to dig. This “Collector’s Edition” of Serenity will certainly stand out from the rest of the DVDs on your shelf (and the stores’ shelves) too.

So yep, Serenity is finally here in an awesome set, however, it does miss one thing: On the Region 4 release of the film, there was a 56-minute Q&A session at Fox Studios, Sydney. I would love to have been able to see this and it’s a damn shame that it isn’t included on this DVD set. If you imported last time you will probably want to hold on to the R4. You’ll still want to pick this up, though, for the new commentary track.

The Bottom Line

I really, really, really enjoyed Serenity. I do not think it is the masterpiece of science fiction that some superfans make it out to be, but I do think it is by far one of the better sci-fi films to come out in the past few years. If you’re a fan of Firefly or Serenity, this is a DVD that you need to get, regardless of whether you already own the original release. It’s a great presentation, it’s packed with tons of features worthy of your time, and the film simply deserves to be in every genre fan’s collection.

However, if you haven’t watched Firefly yet, do so. Despite the well-introduced exposition, I really feel you won’t be able to experience Serenity correctly without having watched the TV series.