Thursday, February 16, 2006

DVD Review: Serenity

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I first found out about the short lived “Firefly” TV series from reading the recaps that they put up on the TelevisionWithoutPity website for the show. From what was written about it, it sounded like a fairly novel approach to the sci-fi genre on television since the show combined sci-fi with western elements set in the future. The last time that I think we saw something like this was the “pioneer wagon trail” feel of the original “Battlestar Galactica” TV series so it has been missing from the sci-fi TV shows for quite some time. Despite the growing legion of fans tuning into the show in the US, the rating was never good enough for the powers that be to continue the show beyond the 12 weeks that have already been aired.

Fueled by fan demand, the show returned to the limelight in the form of a complete series DVD set that was released in 2002. Brisk sales and word of mouth recommendation helped the series to reach audiences that missed this gem when it was first aired. The renewed response to the series prompted Universal to recall the old cast and creative team to return to the universe of “Firefly” albeit in a feature film form instead of the small screen. With a budget of USD $50 million, “Serenity” gathered together all the principle cast and crew of the series to continue their adventures much to the delight of the fans of the series.

“Serenity” was released in cinemas in September 2005 to critical acclaim from critics and fans alike but was not a big commercial success that the fans had hoped for. I can’t even recall if it played in the local cinemas here in Malaysia since I would have definitely remembered it if I watched it in my local cinema. It is a pity that this movie didn’t get released locally as I honestly think that this was a very well made movie with interesting characters that are unlike the characters found in the other sci-fi films of recent years. After a quiet run in the US, the film was released on DVD in December 2005.

Continuing where the “Firefly” series left off, “Serenity” chronicled the story of the rag tag crew of a decrepit spaceship called “Serenity” set 500 years in the future where human beings had to leave Earth after an ecological disaster and live on other terraformed planets in the universe. Captained by Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), the Serenity crew included Wash (Alan Tudyk) as the ship’s pilot, Zoe (Gina Torres) who was Wash’s wife and Mal’s first mate, Kaylee (Jewel Staite) who is the ever-horny ship’s engineer, and Jayne (Adam Baldwin) who just seems to be a rough and tumble crewmember who can’t wait to start cracking heads. When Mal agreed to provide passage to a closed lipped doctor Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his catatonic sister River (Summer Glau) in exchange for his medical assistance, the crew of Serenity had little idea of how much their lives would change from that point on.

Unbeknownst to the crew, River was an escapee from a secret training facility where she was being forcibly conditioned to use her burgeoning psychic powers to be a super-assassin for the Alliance who controlled most of the inhabited planets. Exposure to the members of the Alliance parliament that came to observe her progressed allowed her mind to glean buried secrets from the parliament members who had counted on her conditioning to keep the secret for them. When River was eventually rescued from the facility by her brother, she suddenly became the object that the Alliance desperately need to recover in fear that their hidden secrets would be exposed.

As River began to piece together her shattered mind, the direct result of her forced conditioning, the Alliance dispatched their best Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to recover River before she figured out the secret that was driving her insane. The crew of Serenity was also in dire financial state after their last heist was interrupted by the band of space-faring cannibals feared through out their sector of space known collectively as the Reavers. On the run from both relentless adversaries, the crew of the Serenity found little option other than to help River figure out the secret that was at the heart of their dilemma.

The Serenity crew may be a collection of bounty hungry mercenaries, but in their souls, they remain rebels fighting against the Alliance. And when a deep dark Alliance secret is finally made clear, they become willing to sacrifice their lives to expose the amoral government. This set up the exciting climax as they race to make sure that the inhabited universe knew what they now know in hopes that past mistakes could finally be admitted and corrected. The crew was ultimately successful in their endeavors but not without a high price for their victory against the oppressive Alliance.

The character concepts in this film were clever and the interpersonal relationships intriguing. Mal put on a rough and gruff exterior to hide the emotional pain of the loss both of his personal freedom and his love interest. River was tortured by the person she’s become as a product of her involuntary conditioning. The Operative was a compelling villain, someone who projects empathy, seemingly invulnerable to anger, and yet remained unapologetically lethal. The interplay between the rest of the characters were no less fresh and humorous to watch given the nature of the events that was unfolding around them.

The DVD release for “Serenity” was for the widescreen version of this film which, much like other sci-fi films of this scope, benefited greatly from the transition into the big screen compared to the shows humble beginnings on TV. The picture quality on this DVD release was wonderfully crisp especially in scenes where the action was filmed in low light or pitch darkness environment which happens quite frequently. The audio quality of this transfer was also fairly balance with the appropriate channels given to the action sound and the dialogue. I was also pleased at how the quality of the CGI effects for a movie of this budget was transferred beautifully to the DVD.

There was also a wealth of supplementary features that accompanied the film on the DVD release. Most of the features like the deleted scenes and featurettes about the making of several scenes in the movie would greatly satisfied the fans of this movie. I particularly like the “Re-igniting Firefly” featurettes that told of what the cast and crew went through after the end of the original TV series and how the fans support helped them to make this movie that we were now seeing on DVD. The gag reel that they include in the special features menu was also a welcomed addition to the list as it was really funny to see the way the actors screw up their lines.

Writer/director Joss Whedon may also be heard in a feature-length commentary available on the other audio track on the DVD. He was fairly engaging in his commentary where he emphasized the technical aspects of the show, describing lighting, editing, special effects, practical effects, how his cast almost universally does its own stunts, and other aspects of the show. He talks almost non stop for the duration of the film and it was clear that he was as passionate about the film and it’s characters as the fans were. The film was made for only an estimated $40 million; all that money looks like money well spent based on what was up on the screen and I enjoyed listening to his description of how that was done.

Although “Serenity” came out of a cancelled TV show, it had a self-contained story that would satisfy even those who never seen an episode of “Firefly” before. For a supposedly small fan film, it had good special effects, an intriguing plot, interesting characters, droll dialog, and sufficient action should satisfy the casual viewer. Fans of the original series would be excited to see some of the questions and storylines from the original show finally got tied together into a satisfying resolution. The DVD transfer is pretty good, the audio track is excellent, and the generous supplements of value making it an easy DVD selection to recommend for your consideration.


akihisa said...

Serenity was great ! A fine example of Joss Whedon's genius. Even if you haven't watched the Firely series before, you'd be able to enjoy the movie. I always like how he can make the most emotional and saddest scene into something funny and even poetic.

Have you watched the Firefly series ? If you have, does the series explain more into the history of Summer Glau's River character ? I'm really fascinated with stories of humans with extraodinary abilities.

Is the Firely DVD boxset available in Malaysia ? I, of course, am referring to the pirated version. ;p

Banyaknye lah soalan, kan. Hope you don't mind. :D

Nickxandar said...

I've seen the whole season "Firefly" on DVD actually. I bought a set from but I've seen some stores selling bootleg copies in KL.

In the series, River's character was revealed very slowly across several characters. We never really know what happened to her and what she could actually do in the series. "Serenity" had more info about River than in the series.

akihisa said...

Man, why do great series never last ?! I mean, if the series was to continue, I can already imagine great stories from Joss Whedon. I think the series could have benefited if there's at least one big name actor among the cast. That's just wishful thinking though. When you look at his other series like Angel and Buffy, there's no big name actors at all.

Nickxandar said...

Although all of Joss Whedon's series start off without having big names attached to them, "Firefly" had the additional obstacle of a bad time slot and programming errors to contend.

When it first aired in the US, the sequence of episode shown didn't follow the story arch that Whedon was creating. It was also pre-empted for other show several time making it almost impossible to follow. In the end it was too confusing for the audience in the US to get behind it and when the ratings plummeted, it was canceled before it's time.

Zack said...

“I've seen some stores selling bootleg copies in KL.”

Err, Nick, can u tell me where in KL can i find this gem ? I’ve been looking all over Sg Wang/ BB Plaza for this one, and even going as far as my hometown down south, but still couldn’t find it. Pls tell me kalau terjumpa, sbb I’m pretty tired of seeing Capt Mal Reynolds on Serenity (which means, I want more,lah)

PS: I bloghopped from Fadz's tontonfilem.

Nickxandar said...

Zack ... I saw copies of Firefly available at the DVD shop on the 3rd floor of Low Yat Plaza.