"Serenity" Blu-ray Review
December 12, 2008 by Zach Demeter
Well, I certainly didn’t think I’d be writing this review anytime soon! When the announcement of a new Region 1 two-disc edition of Serenity was announced, I was extremely excited. We hadn’t heard anything about the film since its two-disc DVD release over a year ago, but now Universal is sending the film out on a second hi-definition outing, this time on Blu-ray with most of the goodies from the previous two-disc collector’s edition included.
Serenity comes from the mind of Joss Whedon who first unveiled this western sci-fi in episodic format on the Fox network. A muddled airing schedule only proved to confuse viewers watching Firefly an d it wasn’t until the show was cancelled did it seem to pick up momentum. The full-series DVD release sold exceedingly well for the Fox network and seeing the popularity growing and remaining undeveloped, Universal Studios optioned the rights for a feature film of Whedon’s little show. Firefly alumni eagerly awaited word on the movie and its production and while its worldwide intake was a couple hundred thousand short of the film’s production budget, as this Blu-ray release showcases, like the show, the film found it’s home on the home video format.
With this film, originally written by Whedon to be the ending to the shows second season, we pick up right where the show left off, with a few of our main characters dispersed across the ‘verse and the crew of Serenity continuing what to do best: stealing from the Alliance. Their exploit quickly turns bad when Reavers, creatures who were once mad but were driven into mindless creatures, show up and the crew has to head away with their bounty.
This opening sets the tone for the film and while the introduction of Simon and River in the beginning of the film and Mal’s trek through the bowels of his boat introduce to our characters, the bank robbing/Reaver sequence tells us who these characters are and just what it is in the universe they fear, as it obviously isn’t the all-mighty Alliance. I also noticed, upon viewing the film on DVD, that Whedon seamlessly shows the audience the characters in a way that doesn’t make those of us who were introduced to them in the show bored with the re-telling for the new audience members. For fans (affectionately called “Browncoats” after the resistance that fought against the Alliance in the Firefly series), the introduction of the crew is more like seeing old friends again and there’s no doubt that fans smiled from ear to ear in the theater while their fellow theater goers were just settling in for what would be an awesome ride.
If I sound overly excited about the film it’s likely because, while I arrived late to the Firefly fan base (I was one of the ones who was introduced to it with the DVDs), I was there at the theater on opening weekend and watching the film on DVD is a joyous experience each and every time. Just now, while I sat down to write this review, I decided to let the film play in the background and before I knew it two hours had passed and I’d only written one sentence of the review. The film, and series, is the type of show you can plan to casually watch and then you end up spending the full run time glued to the television.
With this film we’re given a wealth of knowledge into the character of River Tam. While we had merely scratched the surface of what the Alliance had done to her while she was held prisoner, the actual secret she held in her brain, although she didn’t know exactly what she was seeing, as certainly a terrifying one. All through the movie we’re given hints of what River sees and is experiencing and her interaction with her brother, Simon, is hard to watch at times because it gets so emotional.
That was another thing the film amped up over the television series—while there were segments in the series that made one’s eyes well up, there were at least three in this film that are hard to watch from an emotional standpoint. It really seems like Whedon gave it his all in this film, not only dialing up the drama, but the characters interactions with one another were so pitch-perfect that the introduction of the new Operative in the film meshed perfectly with the rest of the film as well.
Along with the beautiful set locations and set pieces (including a new Serenity that has a few newer looking pieces built into it), the CGI got a big boost in this film as well. While it may not be evident until the third act with the Alliance/Reaver battle, what CGI we get prior to that is clean and professional looking as well. For a film that was working on a relatively low budget for a sci-fi adventure, the CGI doesn’t show any areas of weakness—although I don’t doubt that the films budget was kept low due to all of the original actors returning to the roles from the Firefly series.
On top of even green lighting a new Firefly project, Universal also pleased fans by not insisting on anything that would ruin the already established brilliance of the show and this, of course, included not recasting the roles. Without any big names to be seen in the series (though Gina Torres and Nathan Fillion have since starred in a few more feature films and television series since Serenity hit theaters), it’s no wonder that the film didn’t do as well as it could have in theaters. Regardless, the actors return to their characters flawlessly. It’s a shame we saw so little of Shepherd Book and Inara in the film (and Kaylee for that matter), but with a crew of nine, showcasing them all would be impossible. To Whedon’s credit, all of the characters got to show off all of their trademark attitudes and it’s the little character moments that often stick out in one’s mind, rather than a sprawling diatribe between groups.
It’s clear from the extras on this release that it was a ton of fun to work on and it’s easy to see why. The actors are so engrossed with their characters and it’s in Serenity that Nathan Fillion and Summer Glau really bring out the best in Malcolm Reynolds and River Tam. The focus of the film remains on these two throughout and the actors have no problem with the extra spotlight thrown on them. Fillion in particular relishes the role and even says as much in the extras (he even goes so far as to state that he gets so into the character at time that he fully believes he is the captain of a space ship—something he’ll later snap out of, of course. Eventually.); a lot of his mannerisms remind you of a slightly more hardened Indiana Jones (likely because he even admits to stealing from Harrison Ford in terms of mannerisms) and Glau’s role as River is truly heartbreaking to watch at times.
Overall, while the film offers so much more to those who have seen the series that preceded it, there’s no doubt that the film isn’t a ton of fun to watch. Familiarity with the characters will no doubt help your viewing, but Whedon does such a superb job of setting the cast up in the first few minutes that I doubt anyone would have trouble following the antics on screen. The crew of Serenity remains as likable as always and it’s no wonder why. Whedon proved with his Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Angel spin off he could create characters like no other writer before him and with the crew of Serenity he’s proved that he’s still able to create worlds full of exciting characters and visuals without ever being dragged down by poor writing or acting. Serenity is a film that comes Highly Recommended.
So I rambled on for over two pages about the film (and series, admittedly), but the main reason I’m posting this isn’t just because of my love for the series. Universal has opted to bring the film and most of the goodies from the two-disc collector’s edition over to the Blu-ray format and the results have been nothing short of spectacular. Although after the elaborate and fancy case that the previous release came with, it’s a bit of a disappointment to see it so slimmed down into a one disc set, but all of the same goodies are here. Disc art matches the cover an inside the standard Elite Blu-ray case we have an insert advertising the Blu-ray format.
Before we get too caught up in the extras, I’ll tackle the video and audio for this release first. The VC-1 encoded video transfer is as good looking as it was on the original HD-DVD release and although I didn’t own that disc, I did lay eyes on it a few times and this looks about the same. It’s a dark film for the most part, but there are some fantastic areas of detail to lay eyes on. Whether it’s the pre-Reaper invasion discussion aboard Serenity or the actual landing on the white infused planet of Miranda, the entire transfer for this film is pretty solid all around. There is a nice grain level throughout and no real signs of DNR, so it’s very nice transfer all around and definitely one to show off, especially that final aerial dog fight…very nice.
The audio is equally as impressive, with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track being exclusive to this release as the previous releases featured only DTS (DVD) or DD+ (HD-DVD) tracks. It certainly doesn’t disappoint; I was always impressed by the LFE and surround output on the DTS track that accompanied the standard DVD release and the DTS-HD track here is nothing short of amazing. The surround levels have been boosted and everything about this film simply screams through the speakers. Aurally it’s about as a stimulating experience as you can expect from a sci-fi film and I’m certainly not disappointed in the least with this track. Alternatively there are a slew of DTS 5.1 tracks available including: French Canadian, French European, Latin Spanish, Castilian Spanish, German, Italian, and Japanese. Subtitles are available in English SDH, French Canadian, French European, L.A. Spanish, Castilian Spanish, German, Italian, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Japanese, Korean, Traditional Mandarin, Greek, Portuguese.
Moving onto the extras, there is a bit of a mixed boat here. Not all of the extras from the previous DVD releases have been included. The two missing features are the “Sci-Fi: Inside: Serenity” and “We’ll have a Fruity Oaty Good Time” pieces. New to this release, however, is an Alliance Database that takes us through the various elements of the Serenity universe. Also new is a Visual Commentary variant of the director and cast commentary, an array of picture-in-picture goodies to watch during the film, a Digital Tour of Serenity and Mr. Universe’s Compendium. They’re pretty minimal extras and the picture-in-picture pieces are most repeats from the extras on the disc itself, as far as I can tell. The disc also prompted a BD-Live update when I inserted it into my PS3, but selecting BD-Live from the menu states that it’s “Coming Soon.” Perhaps the Fruity Oaty and Sci-Fi pieces will show up there.
Moving onto the commentaries we have Whedon’s thoroughly detailed film commentary that sets itself apart from the Firefly DVD set commentaries by the fact that it was only him on the commentary track, leaving him free to say everything that was on his mind. While this track can get kind of dull at times because it is only him and no one else, he does spout off plenty of cool stuff we didn’t glean from the extras and when paired with the second commentary with Whedon and cast members Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, Summer Glau and Ron Glass, they make for very informative listens.
The cast commentary is great to listen to, especially because Fillion, Baldwin and Whedon are so talkative on it. Glau and Glass rarely talk (I thought Glass had left at one point because I swear he stopped talking for half an hour), but Fillion is constantly bringing up on-set experiences as well as the conditions of certain days that specific scenes were shot during. Some of Whedon’s comments from the other commentary are repeated here, but overall this is a great track to listen to, especially because the cast was so invested in the series and film that they were just as attached to the characters as Whedon was (and no doubt still is). Also of note, apparently the film had a hard time getting a PG-13 rating—odd as the series was never anything above TV-14, so what Whedon had planned was a bit more graphic than what we got, I suppose.
The Deleted Scenes (13:54) with optional Whedon commentary return from the previous release and the extended scenes show up from the Region 4 release. The Extended Scenes (6:15) are a lot of fun to watch and I kind of wish they were integrated into the film as the extra dialogue exchanges were really quite good—obvious why they were cut, but a superfluous two and a half hour cut of the film would do nothing else but make me happy. Outtakes (6:05) return as well and, as always, are fun to watch. Combined with the Firefly series outtakes, these outtakes are some of my favorites out of all the outtake reels I’ve watched, which is saying something.
A series of featurettes, Take a Walk on Serenity (4:07), The Green Clan (3:07) and A Filmmaker's Journey (19:55) come to us from the Region 4 release and they’re all really cool extras. “Take a Walk on Serenity” has Whedon, Fillion and Baldwin goofing around on the various sets that make up the interior of Serenity and “A Filmmaker’s Journey” is a very nice making-of that includes plenty of new footage (including some of the table read—where’s that? I want to watch that entire thing!) for those who didn’t import.
What's in a Firefly (6:33), Re-Lighting the Firefly (9:41) return from the first release as well, “What’s in a Firefly?” details the CGI in the film and “Re-Lighting” talks about the fans and how the process of getting the new film made got started. Future History (4:33) goes over the history of the series and a quick Joss Whedon Introduction (3:55) is included as well to give first time viewers an idea of what this film is all about. The final extra is a set of Session 416 (8:01) videos and I am especially glad to have the “Session 416” sessions on the set as Summer Glau does some incredible acting in these and only shoddy web-streams of them available prior made for poor viewing.
Overall this isn’t an overwhelming release of the film, simply because it drops a few of the extras from the DVD releases. Having said that the 1080p transfer and lossless DTS audio do make for a tempting upgrade for those who are able to take advantage of such things; those who aren’t, however, may want to hold off on this release, as there are no real incentives to upgrade from the two-disc DVD edition right away. Although the visual commentary is a nice bonus (and showed that Glass actually didn’t leave, he’s just very, very quiet). Those with a lot of gift cards post-Christmas, however, may want to blow it on this release, as it certainly wouldn’t hurt to show the series more love.
Serenity arrives on Blu-ray on December 30th.
Images in this review are taken from the DVD and are not indicative of the Blu-ray transfer.