You gotta hand it to Joss Whedon. The mastermind behind the cult phenoms 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' 'Angel' and 'Firefly' seems to know exactly what the fanboys (and fangirls) want. With only those three low-rated TV series (none of which, on a good night, garnered even a fifth of the ratings for a 'Lost' or 'Desperate Housewives') this 44-year-old writer-director-producer has inspired the sort of fervent fan worship reserved for cinema mavericks with ten times the credits. Seriously -- read any of the many fan forums and websites devoted to Whedon's creations, and you'd think this guy was the second coming, giving the likes of Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson or Ridley Scott a serious run as Hollywood's top cult auteur.
So considering Whedon's loyal following, perhaps it's no surprise Universal greenlit 'Serenity,' a big-screen spin-off to his cripplingly low-rated but much beloved 'Firefly.' The show only ran for eleven episodes on the Fox Network back in 2002, but became a hot seller on DVD. So Universal took the chance of investing $40 million in a movie version, hoping that if even half of the viewers who tuned into 'Firefly' every week showed up at the box office, they might have a cult movie franchise on their hand. Sure, it was kinda crazy, but hey, it worked for 'Star Trek,' right?
Alas, fate was not so kind to 'Serenity.' Despite some good reviews, the film came and went in a flicker, grossing a meager $38 million worldwide -- barely enough to cover its production budget. Whedon suffered his first high-profile flop, leaving the industry to snicker and Universal marketing execs to slink away battered by the film's box office failure. However, perhaps owing to 'Serenity's strengths as a nifty little sci-fi potboiler, the film, like the series before it, has gone on to develop its own cult following.
The story: Meet the crew of the "Serenity," a junky spaceship filled with bandits, outlaws and smart-alecky Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). Constantly on the run from the Alliance (think 'Star Wars' evil empire), they rob and plunder for profit to pay their way through the universe. But when the ship's new doctor Simon (Sean Maher) brings his his telepathic, traumatized little sister River (Summer Glau) on board, it plunges the crew into their most dangerous adventure yet. Seems River holds a secret the Alliance and its psychotic chief operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) want so badly that they're willing to destroy whole planets and civilizations to get it. Reynolds and his crew may only be mercenaries, but when the true nature of the secret River holds is revealed, it just might transform the universe's greatest misfits into its most unlikely of heroes.
I shouldn't have enjoyed 'Serenity,' having never seen a single episode of 'Firefly' (plus my general knee-jerk reaction against anything even remotely sci-fi and cultish). But that tricky Whedon -- he's crafted 'Serenity's plot and characters cleverly and carefully, so despite knowing absolutely nothing about the universe of 'Firefly,' I was quickly drawn in. Granted, I occasionally felt I was missing a bit of the in-jokes between characters and certain situations, but the story is tight enough it doesn't matter. Whedon is also taking no prisoners, even daring to kill off one of the major characters, which kept me pleasantly off-guard and genuinely surprised by the twists and turns of the plot.
But best of all is 'Serenity's scrappy attitude. It's easy to see why Whedon is such a hero to fanboys -- he may now be a multimillionaire and a big-time TV producer, but in his heart he is Luke Skywalker, dreaming of fantastical worlds and mythic lands populated by Grand Themes and Big Ideas. 'Serenity' is filled wall-to-wall with scrappy archetypes and recycled pulp fiction plot contrivances we've seen a thousand times before, but to Whedon's great credit, he and his cast are so enthusiastic they transcend them by sheer force of will. It may be nowhere near as good (nor influential) as 'Star Wars,' but in one very important way, 'Serenity' genuinely invites comparisons to that George Lucas epic. Like Lucas, Whedon asks us to imagine a galaxy far, far away, one that both looks ahead with its optimistic themes but also harkens back to classic genre conventions. And it does it using the vast resources of the Hollywood establishment, yet playing by none of its ground rules. So flop or not, 'Serenity' is something to cheer indeed.
'Serenity' was among the first four HD DVD titles that Universal released in early 2006. At the time of my original review of that release, I came under some criticism for lamenting that the look of the film was a bit grungy and rough, which didn't always make for ideal high-def source material. This Blu-ray release, which again provides a 1080p/VC-1 encode (spread across a BD-50 dual-layer disc), is pretty much the same, though despite some jagged edges here or there it holds up as a fine transfer.
The film remains highly stylized, with a processed veneer. Some shots look almost crystal clear, while others are heavily sprinkled with film grain, pumped-up colors, and bleached out whites that make it appear as if the film was left out in the sun too long. Schizophrenic, yes, if still pretty cool. This Blu-ray remains nicely detailed, with a sense of depth and clarity that can be very good at times. The color palette is quite rich and striking (if far from natural), with excellent blacks that help further accentuate the richest hues.
I still found the transfer a bit lacking in terms of shadow detail, with a black crush that can sometimes wipe away the finest textures. Noise can also be noticeable, though there are no major encode problems such as motion artifacts or posterization. Like the previous HD DVD, 'Serenity' on Blu-ray generally looks very good if just short of demo material.
The biggest improvement that Universal offers on the Blu-ray of 'Serenity' is a bump up to full high-res audio. New is an English DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround mix (48kHz/24-bit) that is a clear improvement over the Dolby Digital-Plus track on the original HD DVD.
Even in plain Dolby form, 'Serenity' enjoyed active and engaging sound design. The DTS-MA heightens the experience. I could easily hear more robust rear discrete effects, improved imaging and a deeper sense of separation in the surrounds. Dynamic range is fuller, with superior low bass and a brighter high-end. I also heard more distinct separation across the front channels, especially the center channel dialogue, which here is a bit less overwhelmed by the score and effects. 'Serenity' already sounded good on HD DVD, but it's even better here on Blu-ray in full-blown DTS-MA.
The previous HD DVD of 'Serenity' was a direct port of the DVD, and now this Blu-ray carries that torch. However, Universal has certainly upped the ante in terms of exclusives (see below), so all-around this is an improved package. Video materials are presented in 480i/MPEG-2 only, with the same subtitle options as the main feature.
'Serenity' is a fun flick, and I enjoyed it quite a bit even having never seen the 'Firefly' series upon which it was based. This Blu-ray is a worthy improvement over the HD DVD, with video that's on par, but audio and supplements that are noticeably superior. True 'Serenity' fans may find this worth an upgrade, and all others should definitely give it a look.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.