Appellate Judge Mac McEntire's review of one of 2005's best films is brought to you by Fruity Oaty Bars. Taste the Fruity Oaty goodness!
You can't stop the signal.
The rise and fall of Firefly has been well documented elsewhere. The short version: It was a TV series beloved by critics and viewers, but cancelled prematurely by Fox. Fortunately, that wasn't the end of the story. Thanks to a huge fan base and impressive DVD sales, Universal agreed to let writer/director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) revisit the Firefly universe as his feature debut. Serenity paid off on a lot of what was set up in the series, and also showed off Whedon's trademark witty dialogue and smart plotting. Then, history repeated itself somewhat. The film drew a loyal following, but did not light up the box office. Numerous Firefly fans discovered the series for the first time on DVD. Will the same follow for Serenity's highly-anticipated DVD release?
Facts of the Case
It's the future. River Tam (ballerina Summer Glau) is a young genius experimented on by an oppressive galactic alliance. Doctors there have turned her into a powerful but unpredictable psychic. After she's rescued by her brother Simon (Sean Maher, Party of Five), the two of them are fugitives, hiding out with the crew of the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity.
And what a crew it is: Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, Saving Private Ryan) and first mate Zoe (Gina Torres, Cleopatra 2525) fought on the losing side of the civil war that created the alliance. Zoe's husband Wash (Alan Tudyk, Dodgeball) is the ship's quirky pilot. Tough guy Jayne (Adam Baldwin, The Inside) is good in a fight, but not exactly loyal. Tomboy mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite, Wonderfalls) has a thing for Simon, but can never find the right time to admit it. This ragtag bunch flies from job to job, legal or otherwise, on the outskirts of the galaxy, its only goal to stay out of the alliance's way.
The alliance wants River back, though, and has sent a deadly operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Four Brothers) to retrieve her. While on the run, our heroes reunite with two former crew members, Shepherd Book (Ron Glass, Barney Miller), an unconventional preacher with a mysterious past, and Inara (Morena Baccarin, the voice of Black Canary on Justice League) a professional "companion" and possible love interest for Mal. Finally, there's the Reavers, vicious subhuman savages lurking somewhere out there on the edge of space. Before it's all over, they, too, will have a part to play.
How do you describe Serenity to someone unfamiliar with Firefly? It's not a premise that can easily be summed up in one sentence. Instead of listing character names or reciting background info, I just tell people it's a "crowd pleaser." You've got it all here—big action, high drama, huge laughs, romance, sharp dialogue, and eye-popping special effects, all blended together into just the right mix. It's a hearty meal of a film, one that leaves you full and satisfied.
For Firefly fans, know that some changes had to be made. It's subtle at times, but a few of the characters act slightly different than they did on the TV series. This was a necessary evil for Whedon. In order to tell the story he wanted to tell in a single feature, certain elements of the characters had to be streamlined. With a large cast on his hands, Whedon had to give audiences a sense of each character in short, economic bites. We first get a very quick rundown about the alliance and fringe planets. Next, there's a flashback sequence introducing us to River and Simon, followed by our first look at the villain. Then, we get the movie's celebrated "walk-through," where Mal walks from one end of the ship to another and interacts with every member of the crew one-by-one in a single take. This is meant to introduce the whole cast to newcomers. While it makes a nice first impression, the real introductions come during the movie's first big action scene, in which Mal and company attempt a heist. It's both funny and thrilling, but it also reveals the characters in their element. So are newcomers going to be lost by not having seen the series first? I say no. If you're confused as to who is who after the first 10 minutes, just keep watching, and you'll everyone straightened out in no time.
With that in mind, let's take a look at our cast:
Jewel Staite as Kaylee
Alan Tudyk as Wash
Morena Baccarin as Inara
Ron Glass as the Shepherd
Adam Baldwin as Jayne
Sean Maher as Simon
Gina Torres as Zoe
Chiwetel Ejiofor as the operative
Summer Glau as River
Nathan Fillion as Mal Reynolds
Audio and video on Serenity are superb. The film's earth tones come through deep and rich, and the occasional bright reds are strong and vivid. Colors are washed out in some scenes intentionally to convey a feeling of isolation and loneliness at those times. To see just how good the audio is, check out the above-mentioned "walk-through" shot at the film's opening. It starts out just with music, then combines music and sound effects as the ship experiences some technical difficulties. The two sound elements blend together well, never once competing with each other. Then, as Mal walks from aft to stern talking to the crew, the dialogue and the rumbling of the ship comes through with clarity. This makes the most of all the speakers, providing an immersive experience.
Honesty time: For this review, I received an advance screener with "NOT FINAL PRODUCT" stamped all over it. This matters to you the reader because the disc does not contain Joss Whedon's feature commentary. Whedon has yet to disappoint on any commentaries he's done in the past, so I have no reason not to recommend this one. Keep a lookout on the judges' blog here at DVD Verdict—when I finally do get a chance to hear the commentary, I'll share my thoughts about it there.
As for the other features, the best ones are the deleted scenes, which fill in a few small gaps in the story. Poor Inara, though. A good chunk of these scenes involve her. For anyone who came out of the film wanting more, these should satisfy. A collection of outtakes is amusing and shows off how well the actors got along during filming. The three featurettes discuss the history of the alliance, the film's special effects, and the task of reuniting the cast after the series was cancelled. All three are good, but short. Finally, there is a witty introduction Whedon recorded for fans who got to see the movie at advance screenings six months before the film opened.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Where are the trailers? Where's the short film, The R. Tam Sessions, starring Summer Glau as River? Why isn't there more depth to the featurettes? What's with that cover art? I'm only guessing here, but it seems that a more elaborately-produced special edition might be in the future. Nothing's been announced, but we've seen this pattern before, haven't we?
Does Serenity conclude the story of Mal and his crew, or are there more adventures to come? I could go either way. While the movie does tie up a lot of plot points set up in the series (but not all of them), the possibility for more stories exists. Serenity holds up just fine as both a stand-alone film and as a conclusion to the TV series. If you've heard all the fans' praise but still haven't given it a try, now's your chance. Highly recommended.
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• Feature Commentary with Writer/Director Joss Whedon
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