You gotta hand it to Joss Whedon. The mastermind behind the cult phenoms 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' 'Angel' and 'Firefly' seems to know exactly what the fanboys (and fangirls) want. With only those three low-rated TV series (none of which, on a good night, garnered even a fifth of the ratings for a 'Lost' or 'Desperate Housewives') this 42-year-old writer-director-producer has inspired the sort of fervent fan worship reserved for cinema mavericks with ten times the credits. Seriously -- read any of the many fan forums and websites devoted to Whedon's creations, and you'd think this guy was the second coming, giving the likes of Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson or Ridley Scott a serious run as Hollywood's top cult auteur.
So considering Whedon's loyal following, perhaps it is no surprise Universal greenlit 'Serenity,' a big-screen spin-off to his cripplingly low-rated but much beloved 'Firefly.' The show only ran for a few episodes on the Fox Network back in 2004, but became a hot seller on DVD. So Universal took the chance of investing $40 million in a movie version, hoping that if even half of the viewers who tuned into 'Firefly' every week showed up at the box office, they might have a cult movie franchise on their hand. Sure, it was kinda crazy, but hey, it worked for 'Star Trek,' right?
Alas, fate was not so kind to 'Serenity.' Despite some good reviews, the film came and went last fall in a flicker, grossing a meager $38 million worldwide -- barely enough to cover its production budget. Whedon suffered his first high-profile flop, leaving the industry to snicker and Universal marketing execs to slink away battered by the film's box office failure. Which is all too bad really, because taken on its own terms, 'Serenity' is a nifty little sci-fi potboiler that deserves better than collecting dust on the back shelf of Blockbuster.
The story: Meet the crew of the "Serenity," a junky spaceship filled with bandits, outlaws and smart-alecky Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). Constantly on the run from the Alliance (think 'Star Wars' evil empire), they rob and plunder for profit to pay their way through the universe. But when the ship's new doctor Simon (Sean Maher) brings his his telepathic, traumatized little sister River (Summer Glau) on board, it plunges the crew into their most dangerous adventure yet. Seems River holds a secret the Alliance and its psychotic chief operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) want so badly that they're willing to destroy whole planets and civilizations to get it. Reynolds and his crew may only be mercenaries, but when the true nature of the secret River holds is revealed, it just might transform the universe's greatest misfits into its most unlikely of heroes.
I shouldn't have enjoyed 'Serenity,' having never seen a single episode of 'Firefly' (plus my general knee-jerk reaction against anything even remotely sci-fi and cultish). But that tricky Whedon -- he's crafted 'Serenity's plot and characters cleverly and carefully, so despite knowing absolutely nothing about the universe of 'Firefly,' I was quickly drawn in. Granted, I occasionally felt I was missing a bit of the in-jokes between characters and certain situations, but the story is tight enough it doesn't matter. Whedon is also taking no prisoners, even daring to kill off one of the major characters, which kept me pleasantly off-guard and genuinely surprised by the twists and turns of the plot.
But best of all is 'Serenity's scrappy attitude. It is easy to see why Whedon is such a hero to fanboys -- he may now be a multimillionaire and a big-time TV producer, but in his heart he is Luke Skywalker, dreaming of fantastical worlds and mythic lands populated by Grand Themes and Big Ideas. 'Serenity' is filled wall-to-wall with scrappy archetypes and recycled pulp fiction plot contrivances we've seen a thousand times before, but to Whedon's great credit, he and his cast are so enthusiastic they transcend them by sheer force of will. It may be nowhere near as good (nor influential) as 'Star Wars,' but in one very important way, 'Serenity' genuinely invites comparisons to that George Lucas epic. Like Lucas, Whedon asks us to imagine a galaxy far, far away, one that both looks ahead with its optimistic themes but also harks back to classic genre conventions. And it does it using the vast resources of the Hollywood establishment, yet playing by none of its ground rules. So flop or not, 'Serenity' is something to cheer indeed.
Of all the four initial HD DVD titles released at launch, 'Serenity' may be the least visually impressive. Not that it's the fault of the HD DVD format, but rather indicative of the style of the film itself. A rough, oftentimes grungy-looking movie, 'Serenity' is not supposed to look totally polished, which means it is not quite ideal home theater demo material. Highly stylized with a processed veneer, the look of 'Serenity' sometimes varies wildly, with some shots looking almost crystal clear, and others heavily sprinkled with film grain, pumped-up colors and bleached out whites that make it appear as if the film was left out in the sun too long. Maybe its a bit schizophrenic, but it can sure look cool.
That said, this HD DVD release certainly looks more detailed than its standard DVD counterpart. Despite the all the technical trickery, the overall depth and clarity of the image is considerable, especially during the cleanest-looking sequences in the film. Colors are also a bit more stable than the standard DVD, with less apparent noise on the most vibrant hues. I also felt the blacks where a tad bit more robust, and shadow delineation improved -- in some of the darker moments, such as the opening action scene, I could clearly make out fine details in the dimmest areas of the picture that weren't discernible at all on the standard DVD release. However, overall, someone who pops this one in as their first taste of HD DVD may come away wondering what all the fuss is about.
Audio options available on this, Universal's first HD DVD release, include a 5.1 Dolby Digital-Plus track, plus alternate French and Spanish 5.1 dubs.
I hooked up my Toshiba HD-XA1 via its dedicated analog outs, so I could benefit from the increased bitrate of the DD+ track (note: connecting either of the first two Toshiba HD DVD players to your receiver via coaxial or optical outs will deliver only the core Dolby 5.1 bitstream). Overall, I detected a bit of an improvement on the DD+ over the standard DVD's 5.1 Dolby track when doing a straight comparison between select scenes. Bass was a tad bit deeper, with the subwoofer sending some serious vibrations to my couch on the DD+. I also could sense a slightly heightened sense of separation in the surrounds, with fuller dynamic range. I also heard more distinct separation across the front channels, especially the center channel dialogue, which always feels a bit lost to me on big action soundtracks in standard 5.1 Dolby Digital.
Still, is this DD+ a quantum leap over what you get on the standard DVD? No -- I'd rate it maybe a 5 percent to 10 percent improvement, depending on the scene. But 'Serenity' boasts an aggressive, highly enjoyable mix any way you slice it, so it is hard to imagine any fan coming away disappointed.
Another batch of supplements ported directly from the standard DVD release of the film, but hey, it's still better than nothing being included at all.
First up is an audio commentary by Joss Whedon. I was looking forward to this one, because if you've heard him speak, you know Whedon is anything but dry. However, I was perhaps a tad disappointed, as he spends the majority of the track discussing the technical aspects of the film, and how to eke out blockbuster effects and action sequences on a $40 million dollar budget (which doesn't seem to shabby an amount, but what do I know?) He does weigh in on his terrific cast from time to time, but it wasn't enough for me. Too bad they didn't spring to bring the cast in with Whedon, or better yet, a separate cast track.
Also included are nine rough-looking deleted scenes running about 15 minutes. Not much exciting here, with mostly background character and plot info, though diehard 'Firefly' fans may find this more intriguing than I did. All nine scenes also sport optional Whedon commentary.
Up next are three short featurettes: "What's in a Firefly" (6:33) gives us a rundown of the "Mule Chase" effects sequence, but once you've seen one how'd-they-do-that blue screen demo, you've seen them all. "Future History: The Story of Earth That Was" (4:33) is a bit more interesting, with Whedon dissecting his inspirations for the basic story concept behind 'Firefly.' Too bad this one is so short. Last but not least is "ReLighting the Firefly" (9:41), which is the best of the bunch, as it showcases Whedon and cast reactions to the news that 'Firefly' was cancelled. And if it wasn't for one Universal exec who was a fan of the show, 'Serenity' never would have happened.
Rounding out the package is the film's theatrical trailer, plus a rather funny 6-minute reel of Outtakes, which proves the cast loved to swear when they fucked up.
'Serenity' is a fun flick, and it certainly looks better on HD DVD than on any other format currently available. Still, given the grungy look of the film, it is not really prime demo material. It also doesn't offer much more than improved video over the standard DVD release, so unless you haven't already picked up the flick on disc, this may not be one you have to run out and upgrade to show off your new HD DVD player.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.