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 DVD release nearly two years ago, which, as it turns out, was extremely successful. Not only was it a surprising success for Universal, but it apparently warranted a new DVD release, complete with ported extras from other regions as well as a few all-new ones.
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 second DVD release showcases, like the show, the film found it’s home on DVD.
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 DVD 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. No, next week Universal will release a new two-disc of Serenity and after only laying my eyes on and holding the final packaging did I realize just how sweet this set is (and how much better it is over the previous release).
From the start you’ll notice that the film is greatly set apart from the previous release. While I had expected a standard two-disc amaray case instead we get a sturdy cardboard package with shiny and foil reflective printing all around. About the thickness of two standard sized amaray DVD cases, the packaging may seem a bit bloated but it looks so nice next to the Firefly box set I don’t even care at it diminishes my DVD shelf space further. The packaging opens to reveal that the image of River on the cover is painted onto a plastic window and underneath is a very nicely done reflective image of Malcom Reynolds over a planet (likely the planet Miranda from the film) with the ship, Serenity, below it. Oddly enough Malcolm is holding a massive gun that I’m pretty sure he never held in the movie (or series for that matter—Jayne, on the other hand, probably has several that look like that). The set unfolds to reveal two trays (really thick digi-pak style—never seen this type of casing before) with the Serenity discs in them. Universal skips the plain disc art this time around and goes for a texture black space-like background on the discs. Say what you will about studios who re-release films for double dips, but Universal has gone all out to make this one as appealing to the consumer as possible.
The interior art is space-like as well with photos of the Operative, Inara, Book, Zoe, Simon, Wash, Kaylee and Jayne adorning the top of the set. The back art of the DVD comes off (it’s just a piece of paper) to reveal an image reminiscent of the Region 4 DVD release cover and the menu system is identical to the Region 1 single-disc release. Also included inside of the DVD is an insert advertising some Serenity merchandise.
Returning from the original region 1 release is the films transfer and the various audio tracks. The film sports a gorgeous video transfer that rarely shows any signs of artifacting or marring and the 5.1 Dolby track sounds wonderful. However if you’re able to decode the DTS 5.1 track, I recommend it over the Dolby Surround track. While both sound wonderful and use the same great surround mix, the DTS one comes through clearer (as it should) and the bass is much more of a thunder-fest. No sooner had the movie started and my windows were already rattling—it really is a wonderful mix. I don’t think I realized just how detailed it was until my most recent viewing; surround effects are used often (especially during the space battle as well as the Reaver showdown) and it’s just a crystal clear mix, allowing the dialogue to come through without any hindrance and special effects sound brilliant when backed by David Newman’s rousing score.
Moving onto the extras, we have a nice array to choose from on this release. All of the extras from the original Region 1 release return (and I do mean all of them—even the “We’ll have a Fruity Oaty Good Time!” easter egg) along with most of the exclusives from the Region 4 release as well as a couple brand-new-to-DVD extras for this release only.
First up on the extras are the film commentaries. Whedon’s thoroughly detailed film commentary set 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 newly recorded and exclusive to this release feature commentary with Whedon and cast members Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, Summer Glau and Ron Glass, they make for very informative listens.
The new 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 return from the previous release and the extended scenes show up from the Region 4 release. The extended scenes 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 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”, “The Green Clan” and “A Filmmaker’s Journey” 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?”, “Re-Lighting the Firefly” and the aforementioned “We’ll have a Fruity Oaty Good Time” return from the first release as well, although “Fruity Oaty” is no longer an easter egg. “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.
The two other extras on this set are the “Session 416” videos and the “Sci-Fi: Inside: Serenity” special. I am especially glad to have the “Session 416” sessions on the DVD as Summer Glau has some incredible acting in these and only shoddy web-streams of them available prior made for poor viewing. The “Sci-Fi Inside” extra, hosted by Adam Baldwin, is a typical TV promo fluff piece, although we do get some behind-the-scenes footage (most of it was seen in other extras on this DVD set though) and the like from cast and crew. It’s odd that there was really no making-of documentary on the original DVD release of Serenity, yet this one technically has two (“Sci-Fi Inside” and “A Filmmaker’s Journey”).
It must be said that at Comic-Con Joss Whedon announced that Universal will be watching the sales of this new Serenity: Collector’s Edition very closely. Should it perform as they desire it to, there’s a possibility they may green light future adventures for the Serenity crew. Whether this means more movies or direct-to-video films (which I’d be entirely fine with—the show and film sell best on DVD, after all), we don’t know, but whatever gives us the chance at getting more of this wonderful show and its characters, I’ll do whatever it takes. It kind of sucks that we have to re-buy the film a second time on DVD just to give us a slim chance of getting more of it in the future, but Universal made sure to give us plenty to warrant the new purchase. The packaging alone obliterates the original releases horrible cover and the extras are a big welcome to someone who nearly imported the Region 4 release several times.
As you can no doubt see above this review, we’ve already put ads on this website in an effort to boost awareness of the DVD and even if our shilling only sells a few more copies, I’ll have done my job. There’s nothing in this film that cannot be enjoyed and I’m sure it will quickly become the most-watched DVD in your collection in short time. Having said that, I’m making this DVD as a Must Own, but don’t let my being a fan of the series blind the rating I just gave—there’s a reason there’s so many Browncoats, after all.
Serenity: Collector’s Edition arrives on DVD on August 21st.