The story behind the creation of Serenity is remarkable. A follow-up to the canceled Fox sci-fi TV series Firefly, the small group of hardcore fans pushed and fought along with creator Joss Whedon to get the film made. Amazingly, it happened, with Universal’s backing.
With $40 million in tow, the film’s sharp eye for foreign planets serve as a gorgeous backdrop to space drama undoubtedly heavily influenced by Star Wars. Serenity looks well beyond its budget, with CG effects that rival films that cost twice as much. It is an engrossing visual masterpiece, and thankfully has a story to keep the sights interesting.
Even with no prior knowledge of the TV show, Serenity does a wonderful job of being self-contained. All the characters are fleshed out through nicely woven, natural dialogue and excellent pacing. Exposition is taken care of rapidly, bringing newcomers into the world without fault.
Serenity follows the story of River, a “Reader,” a government experiment on the run. On board a slowly crumbling space cruiser, she sticks with her brother and the crew as they make every attempt to save her from the Alliance conglomerate. Her uncontrolled nature creates some impressive action sequences in the final half hour, and another fantastic bar brawl earlier in the film.
Nathan Fillion leads and plays Mal, a direct descendant (or knock-off) of Han Solo from Star Wars. His banter and tirades are enormously entertaining. Serenity has a fantastic balance though, able to make his transformation from goofy, care-free ship captain to serious leader convincingly. His speech on board his ship as they make the decision to fight to let the galaxy know the wrongs of the Alliance is a superb moment, and shot beautifully.
While trailers portray nothing but action sequences, this is a story driven tale. Action is widely spread thin to focus on the storyline first. It’s beneficial to the overall production and to allow time for newcomers to the universe to understand what occurred before they arrived.
Serenity has all the makings of a summer blockbuster (despite being released in September originally), but handles the material with care. Action serves a purpose instead of existing to blow things up. Comedic dialogue has timing, and doesn’t clash with the serious tone shifts late into the film. That’s what determines quality, and Serenity is oozing with it.
Serenity appeared on HD DVD as an exclusive until the format war, and Universal dropped it onto Blu-ray as one of their earliest releases following Blu-ray’s victory. The difference between the two is the VC-1 bitrate. The Blu-ray carries a substantially higher one, nearly double that of the HD DVD. What difference that makes in actual execution is debatable. For nearly every scene, finding differences is a waste of time.
There’s no question the film looks wonderful though. Detail is startling, and sharpness is excellent. Colors burst off the screen, and long shots of the various landscapes are stunning in their beauty. Black levels are deep, faltering in a few shots however, including the bar before the fight. Intentional black crush is noted, although shadow delineation is excellent otherwise.
Noise is an inconsistent problem, noted against the blue backdrop of the opening scene, and popping up at random in various points during the film. As with the HD DVD, contrast can run amazingly hot. It is for effect and intentional, but the sharp increase in brightness can be blinding, if not uncomfortable to see in a dark room.
The true jump in quality from the format shift is audio, upgraded from Dolby Digital Plus to a powerful DTS-HD encode. Bass is simply awe-inspiring, from the first time the ships take off to the insides when they’re falling apart. A chase sequence on the ground after a robbery is spectacular in its clarity.
Surrounds are consistently used, both for atmosphere and hard action. Gunfire is captured in all channels, and a space battle late in the film is worthy demo material. There is a notable increase in volume from dialogue sequences to action, so those in sensitive audio situations may need to play with the volume.
Thankfully, unlike some studios (*Fox*), Universal has ported over all extra features and added some as well. The commentary by Joss Whedon is the first stop for fans as he covers all aspects of the production, including his never-ending fight to keep this franchise alive. Outtakes provide some great laughs in a separate feature.
Nine deleted scenes total over 14 minutes and are wise cuts to keep the running time below the two-hour mark. These also feature an optional Whedon commentary. Future History explores the story and its inspirations. What’s in a Firefly? is a standard behind-the-scenes feature along with a focus on the special effects.
Whedon returns for a four-minute speech to the fans. It’s a clip from the early showings of the film Universal hosted to guests. He explains his love for the concept and thanks the fans endlessly for their support. Relighting the Firefly is a ten-minute look at that support and how Firefly wouldn’t go away quietly.
New to this disc are four featurettes, the longest being the 19 minute A Filmmakers Journey, detailing the comeback of the franchise and the cast surprised at returning to these roles. Four extended scenes fall in line with the deleted ones.
Universal’s pop-up U-Control feature has a positive in a picture commentary with Whedon and cast discussing the film. Three other U-Control features include a making-of (filled with new and old footage), ship details, and further schematics for the ships. The disc is BD-Live enabled with nothing to date of interest to Serenity fans.