|HD DVD Sci-Fi-Fantasy|
|Written by Darren Gross|
|Tuesday, 01 August 2006|
Based on the short-lived 2002 Fox TV series “Firefly,” this miraculous spin-off feature tells the tale of a small rag-tag group of outlaws and lost souls aboard the rust bucket space ship Serenity. After rescuing one of their crew, a psychic named River (Glau), from a security facility, the crew finds her emotionally unstable and discovers that she has been programmed to let loose in violent, room flattening outbursts when a subliminal message is broadcast in her vicinity. As Captain Mal Reynolds (Fillion) flees the coldly lethal government operative (Ejiofor) sent against them, he endeavors to decipher the federation-shattering secret that River carries buried in her head.
This extremely likeable and original science-fiction adventure plays like a thinking man’s underdog version of “Star Trek.” Serenity’s crew is a morally grey but honorable and ultimately justified bunch and one roots for them passionately and feels their shocking losses strongly. Thematically and iconically it’s somewhat reminiscent of the anime “Cowboy Bebop” (impoverished mercenaries in a junky ship) meets “Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone” (corrupt empire, desert planets and cannibal mutants) but its approach is so fresh and the characters so atypical for this kind of film, that it comes across as its own thing. In one of the featurettes it’s mentioned that the characters are not the crew of the Starship Enterprise and that that ship would leave these guys in the dust. It’s an accurate assessment, and part of what makes the story more involving. These aren’t big heroes with big armaments on a big journey. These are little guys, whose seemingly small actions will ultimately have huge galactic consequences.
Technically it’s a fine film, though it doesn’t boast the degree of polish of much more expensive big summer pictures. It’s well-produced, but you feel every cent is on the screen and has been squeezed to screaming. Refreshingly, in “Serenity,” space is as silent as in reality, not standard procedure for science-fiction films. Director Whedon wisely uses the silence to enhance the suspense, giving the sequence the kind of tension typical of the “silent running submarine sequence” typical to deep sea war films.
I’ve never seen “Firefly” and approached this solely as a stand-alone film, and it’s completely satisfying in that regard. There are plenty of extra details to be gleaned by those familiar with the TV series (as well as the death of some well-beloved characters) and the success of “Serenity” is that it makes one want to spend more time with these characters. I can foresee putting “Firefly” in my shopping basket before long…
The HD DVD is a richly colored and detailed rendition of the film. It’s crystal clear with rich deep blacks and intense highlights. There are a few sequences in the film where the screen is bathed in bright, diffuse sunlight and the disc replicates them with such intensity, that one squints at the extreme level of brightness. In the theater, I call them “Jujyfruit scenes” since the screen is so bright one can tell the flavor of a Jujyfruit by holding it up to the screen. This is the first time I’ve noticed this phenomenon in a home theater setting and it’s impressive. “Serenity” has a challenging visual style—the photography is intentionally saturated and is designed with more heightened contrast, giving facial details an almost sweaty appearance. The HD DVD conveys this look perfectly. Spaceship interiors reveal a multitude of sharp details from control panels and lighted displays and the digital effects for the spaceship and futuristic exteriors are replicated with a near 3-Dimensional look and a pin sharp level of detail. A few early shots early are grainier image, the natural image structure in the low light photography, and is not authoring noise.
The Dolby Digital Plus Sound (via Analog inputs) is thrilling and fully enveloping, though the mix is a bit on the hot side and the level needs to be set a couple notches higher to hear softer dialogue. The mix has a lot of bass punch and it fully utilizes the surround channels in the action sequences. Dialogue is a bit low at times, but as long as the volume is kept a few notches up, it’s all coherent. There’s a nice use of quiet surrounds during some of the softer scenes, which give the film an added level of detail and atmosphere as the rear channels let out with the light metallic creaks, pings and groans of the surrounding rust bucket of a ship.
The Universal Studios HD DVD template is designed like a standard DVD and it defaults to a menu on load-up instead of auto-playing and has the standard menu options for extras and settings, unlike Warner’s pop-up menus. Personally, I prefer this design, as I find the load-up times are too long on HD DVD (never mind the long HD DVD promo trailer on the Warner’s discs) for comfortable auto-play. Once the feature is playing, though, hitting the menu button gives you access to the setup options as pop-up menus.
The disc has a nice package of extras, starting with a batch of deleted scenes which include wry commentary by director Whedon. They’re interesting to watch, and there are a few nice character scenes that will be of particular interest to fans of the TV series, but overall, it’s easy to see why these tangents and sidebars were removed. The “Joss Whedon Introduction” (4mins) is an on-camera monologue by Whedon, apparently designed to precede a workprint test screening for fans. The three additional featurettes (“Re-Lighting the Firefly” (10m), “What’s in a Firefly” (7m) and “Future History- the Story of Earth That Was” (5m)) tell the interesting story of how the feature film came to be, and the production team’s disappointment on the TV series’ cancellation. How a cancelled TV series (that didn’t even last one season!) managed to find a strong enough following to inspire a big budget feature movie is a mini-miracle and Whedon’s feature length commentary relates more of the story. Whedon makes a revealing, informative commentator. Occasionally there’s an odd smugness to his tone, but he’s fairly self-deprecating overall and is brutally honest about what he feels works and doesn’t work and how things came to be. The lousy theatrical trailers (which made the film seem like incredibly generic) are not included which may irk completists. Unfortunately the HD DVD doesn’t include the 20 minute “A Filmmaker’s Journey” featurette that was a Region 2 DVD exclusive.