Sunday 9 July 2006

Sunday 9 July 2006
DIRECTOR: Joss Whedon WRITER: Joss Whedon
CAST: Nathan Fillion (Capt. Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds), Gina Torres (Zoe), Adam Baldwin (Jayne), Alan Tudyk (Wash), Chiwetel Eljiofor (The Operative), Summer Glau (River), more...

Writer-director Joss Whedon is an acquired taste. His first foray into movies was the trite Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992), with Kristy Swanson; a failure that evolved into the spunkier TV series with Sarah Michelle Gellar in 1997. Whedon spent the interim working as a "script doctor", anonymously polishing the screenplays to movies such as Speed and Toy Story.

After Whedon's career skyrocketed with Buffy, he returned to movies by writing Alien Resurrection (1997) -– but the film was also a resounding failure. So it was back to TV with Buffy, and later its spin-off show Angel (1999), which only lasted a few years before cancellation. Whedon stayed with TV for his next project, a sci-fi western called Firefly (2002), but that show lasted a mere 11 episodes before being canned. However, strong DVD sales of the Firefly box-set gave impetus for a retry -– with Whedon asked to retool the series for movie screens as Serenity…

Serenity focuses on Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds, a war veteran (on the losing side, interestingly) who now makes a living with a motley crew of criminals aboard the eponymous spaceship. But the crew's lives are complicated when Mal takes on two new passengers -- a young doctor and his telepathic sister, who are actually fugitives from a sinister coalition dominating the universe...

I've never seen Firefly and wasn't sure if that would influence my enjoyment of Serenity. Unfamiliarity with the TV show could be used as an excuse, but all movies have to be enjoyed by fans and newcomers alike. It's a balance that's very difficult to get right, just take a look at Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) or The X-Files Movie (1998).

So without the deeper knowledge of a fan (or "Browncoat"), I have to declare that I found Serenity to be enjoyable, but wholly forgettable. Fans of the TV series will champion Serenity outright (it was their support that gave rise to the movie, after all), so they clearly don't want to be bored with too much scene-setting.

Whedon did an admirable job in countering these inherent problems, and it helps that spaceship adventures tend to follow a basic formula. Audiences unfamiliar with Firefly are aware of Star Trek, so it's not too difficult to settle into Serenity's basic groove. This is effectively a variant on Trek, with the crew petty criminals and the universe given an Old West aesthetic (grimy brown uniforms, sun-bleached desert planets, rusting machinery and old-fashioned guns with bullets, etc.)

The plot is fun, yet ultimately quite laborious; despite a punchy start and some intriguing scenes in the first half. There are plenty of well-staged stunts and Whedon's trademark smart-ass dialogue comes intact from TV -- whether that causes smirks or winces depends on your tolerance for his tangled wordplay. The characters are broad enough to make them relatable to people acquainting themselves to these new faces, but they're also mostly two-dimensional. Only Nathan Fillion and Chiwetel Eljiofor get more rounded characterisation, and thus dominate every scene they're in.

The universe Serenity inhabits remains somewhat sketchy throughout and the diversions to other planets and characters in Act II often seem superfluous to the main plot at times. It's a problem The Chronicles Of Riddick also suffered from, introducing the audience to so many new characters, concepts, planets and relationships that it becomes a little distracting and, ultimately, distancing.

At heart, Serenity is too much like a TV episode to really be successful on the silver screen. It has moments that deliver a cinematic experience, mainly from some cooler-than-TV effects sequences, but little else. There are imaginative scenes that hint at greater things, but the fact remains that the story is difficult to invest in or care about. Perhaps familiarity with Firefly helps matters, but... I've already said that's no excuse.

By the time the credits rolled, a few things were obvious to me: Nathan Fillion was the movie's shining light (a Han Solo/Kirk hybrid that works brilliantly), the special-effects were unexpectedly strong, Eljiofor (the "woman" in Kinky Boots!) made a brilliant villain, but... I didn't particularly care about any of the death scenes, the mythology with the war and Reavers made little sense to me, and overall this seemed more like half-decent television episode...

I'm not hungry to play catch-up with the Firefly DVD box-set after seeing this movie, nor do I think a sequel is warranted, but I'd definitely have given the series a whirl on TV if this was its first episode. If that's faint praise, then so be it...


Serenity may have bombed at the box-office (budget $40m, box-office $25 in the US), but DVD is where the TV show was embraced by fans, so it's no surprise that the Serenity DVD release is given a fairly extensive package and great transfer.

PICTURE: The 1.85:1 widescreen anamorphic picture is very good, with decent levels of details throughout and some well presented campfire scenes without much smearing of the image. The best moments of the disc are undoubtedly with the dazzling exterior landscapes, with brilliant sharpness and clarity.

SOUND: Strong DD5.1 sound work, particularly with the Reaver chase sequence. There are lots of directional sound effects thrown around the speakers and sharp gunfire. The dialogue occasionally seems lost, but that's probably not due to any fault with the audio transfer. The music is also impressively balanced with the effects mix.


Director's Commentary: Joss Whedon gives a fantastic commentary to the movie, quite essential for fans and refreshingly frank about the aspects of the movie. A real highlight of the extra's and Commentary tracks in general.

Deleted Scenes: 9 scenes are scooped up from the cutting room floor; ‘Extended Lilac Entrance’ (a few seconds of talk from River), ‘Extended Kaylee and Jayne’ (1 minute of extra exchange between the pair), ‘Inara and Sheydra’ (2 minutes of Inara teaching companions and denying the rumours that she had an affair with a pirate), ‘Operative Tracks Mal’ (2 minutes of the Operative learning more about Mal and Serenity), ‘Extended River and Simon/Haven Opening’ (also includes some more of Shepherd Book), ‘Escape from Companion Training House’ (Mal and Inara fool Alliance soldiers on their way back to her shuttle), ‘Mal and Inara Shuttle Chase’ (a few seconds of humour), ‘Mal and Inara Quiet Moment’ (a touching couple of minutes between them) and ‘Extended Mal and Operative Coda’ (just a few extra words).

Outtakes: 6 minutes of goofs, with the cast clearly enjoying the experience of making this movie.

'Future History: The Story Of Earth That Was' Featurette: a 4 minute piece with Whedon explaining the backstory to the sci-fi universe.

'What's In A Firefly?': a 10 minute featurettes with Whedon and the cast talking about the original TV show's cancellation and their hopes for the movie.

'Joss Whedon Introduction': a great intro from Whedon himself, made directly to the Firefly fans that made Serenity possible. Perhaps a bit too long at 4 minutes, though.

'A Filmmaker's Journey': a good 20 minute featurettes about the making of the movie, again showing the level of fun the cast had on set.

Overall, this is an essential purchase for fans, and an entertaining distraction for everyone else. The DVD neatly exploring the love and affection for the project in its extra's, while ensuring the visual/audio transfer is top notch.