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Universal Releases "Serenity" HD-DVD

Greg Robinson

Tuesday 18 April 2006, by Webmaster

If you follow DVD, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the brewing HD format war, which is now finally upon us. After glimmers of hope that Toshiba’s HD-DVD camp and Sony’s Blu-ray team would set aside their petty differences and just get along, the mighty dollar had the final say and both sides are this summer bringing their competing wares to market. This week marks the debut of the first HD-DVD software, including one lone title from Universal Pictures: "Serenity."

Universal’s film canon includes such spectacles as "Jaws," "Back to the Future," "E.T.," "Jurassic Park" and the recent FX-rich hit "King Kong." So why start with "Serenity?" I’d like to think it’s because Universal considers it to be the finest film it’s had the privilege to release in recent years. That may not be true, but once you’ve seen the film, I think you’ll understand where I’m coming from. If you haven’t seen "Serenity," I’m here to say you should remedy that situation as soon as humanly possible.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, some history is in order. It all started with a little show called "Firefly." Created by Joss Whedon, the mastermind behind television’s "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel," "Firefly" was a bizarre mixture of sci-fi meets western. It was also funnier than most "comedies" and more moving than most "dramas" It was, in this writer’s opinion, the greatest series to ever grace primetime television. That being the case, I was completely unsurprised when the Fox network mishandled, pre-empted, under-promoted and completely botched "Firefly’s" run in the fall of 2002. Fourteen episodes were filmed (including a two-part pilot) but only 11 saw the light of day. Those that aired did so out of sequence and the pilot aired last (not first) before its cancellation. All seemed lost. Then something amazing happened. They released "Firefly" on DVD — all 14 episodes in the correct sequence. And it sold. And sold. And sold.

With a rabid fan base, critical praise and incredible DVD sales figures behind him, Whedon pitched Universal Pictures on "Serenity" — a big-screen adaptation of his near and dear "Firefly." They went for it. Whedon wasn’t done with these characters just yet. While promoting the film, Whedon said, "We had nine actors who were born to play the roles...When the show was canceled, it was very clear to me that the story was not done being told." With a $40-million budget, Whedon and company built bigger sets, improved upon the show’s already stellar visual effects, and all nine of the principal cast members happily agreed to come back for more.

"More of what?" you might be asking. I still haven’t mentioned what "Firefly" and "Serenity" are about, but there’s good reason for that. If you’ve never watched "Firefly," but your interest is piqued, stop reading now and go buy the DVDs — you won’t regret it. I envy my friends and family members just coming into the fold. I would love to go back and watch "Firefly’s" pilot for the first time.

For the skeptics still looking for details, I’ll simply say that "Firefly" (and "Serenity") follows the lives of nine mismatched travelers thrown together on board a ship named "Serenity." Her captain is Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds, a hardened Han Solo-type who, along with his fellow "Browncoats," fought on the losing side of a galactic civil war. Mal wants only to quietly go his own way in the world, carving out a living any way he can. Making that difficult is the Alliance, a government coalition seeking to impose its rule on any and everything. Complicating matters further is a mysterious passenger who quickly makes Serenity a larger blip on Alliance radar than Mal generally likes. Adventure ensues.

What makes the "Firefly"/"Serenity" universe so unique is that although it’s set a few hundred years in the future, things haven’t changed that much. There are space ships and humans have colonized other planets, but there are also horses, frontier towns reminiscent of the Old West, rusty sinks, folding beach chairs and six-shooters. Perhaps the show’s most unique touch is the Chinese influence coursing through its language and set decoration; considering the fact that the Chinese outnumber all other cultures on Earth today, it makes for a logical and plausible facet of futuristic life. And did I mention there are no aliens? There are no little green men and no one "beams down" from the mother ship. Instead, the world of "Firefly" is the most believable portrait I’ve seen yet of where we humans are likely headed in the not-too-distant future.

If nothing else, the fact that "Serenity" got made at all is a testament to its fans. Once again, Whedon says it best: "This movie...should not exist. Failed TV shows don’t get made into major motion pictures...It is, in an unprecedented sense your movie, which means, if it sucks it’s your fault. Just remember, they tried to kill us. They did kill us. And here we are. We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty."

Although "Serenity" is accessible to those who’ve never heard of "Firefly," it is infinitely more rewarding (and less confusing) to bring that backstory with you. Having seen "Serenity" twice in theaters and once on DVD, I assure you it’s an amazing film. It’s a film I cannot wait to see again. It’s also a daring dose of intelligent sci-fi that has the staying power and franchise potential to thrill fans and create new Browncoats for years to come.

Who will win the battle for high-definition DVD is anyone’s guess, but as the "Highlander" might say, “There can be only one.” In the end, it will come down to content. The format with the best movies will win — end of story. And if quality films are going to decide this race, HD-DVD is off to a smashing start.

Just the Facts

* $34.98
* HD-30 (single side) HD-DVD
* Audio: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1