Serenity (2005)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, Outtakes, Introduction

"You all wanna be looking very intently at your own belly buttons. I see a head start to rise… violence is gonna ensue."

In 2002, Joss Whedon brought wit, originality, and adventure to the small screen in a predestined, cult-favorite package called 'Firefly'. To be blunt, the plot of the show is an idea that shouldn't work and is easily one of the most difficult concepts to explain while maintaining a person's faith in your opinion. In short, the show followed a band of rogues and thieves in a futuristic world that combined the quaint civility and twang of a western and the gruff action of a sci-fi shooter. But the show was much more complicated than that: a wonderful cast with scripts that highlighted genuine character development, actual tension and thrills, laugh out loud dialogue and plotlines, an intriguing universe to explore, mature science fiction that didn't rely on alien races or abundant special effects, and a welcome dose of cynical realism. Despite all this, the show never found an audience… and, I'm sad to say, never found me. I discovered 'Firefly' on DVD two years too late to be a part of any possible Nielsen miracle to help save it from abysmal ratings.

Flash forward to 2005. 'Serenity' dropped into theatres and promised to stand as a great introduction to the universe for newcomers and a satisfying conclusion to the cancelled television series for fans. Most films that promise both of these things have a problem even delivering one. Somehow, and with a lot of credit falling to Whedon, this film does both. I really enjoyed the series but the movie is a much richer and fuller experience. Before I launch into what makes the film so amazing, I need to mention the group of people I saw it with in the theatre. There were five altogether, including my wife, and none of them had watched one episode of the series. Each person had a great time and I left the theatre with five requests to borrow my copy of the series. Of course, the wife got first dibs. I bring this up to let you know that having seen the series will make the movie more enjoyable, but an uninitiated dive into the movie can be nearly as good.

Captain Mal Reynolds, played with a dark Han Solo-esque gusto by the brilliant up-and-comer, Nathan Fillion, leads a crew of space smugglers aboard a cargo ship through a dangerous universe where a government Alliance has taken control of most inhabited planets. The Captain's given sanctuary to two fugitives, a doctor and his mysterious sister, who are being pursued by an Alliance assassin who may hold the key to uncovering the girl's strange abilities. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. One of the things that makes 'Serenity' so successful and believable, is the mythology interwoven into the plot. It's far too much to explain here but deals with a post-civil war society, outer rim planets lost in chaos, rebellious drifters, an over-powering military force, a cannibalistic race of humans that attack with vicious surprise, and a government that conceals its intentions behind cover-ups and the "good of the people". It may sound overly complicated but it's handled perfectly. You're constantly being bombarded by new information but you never feel overwhelmed and you never feel like a victim of the exposition slasher. The story is so well paced that you'll be shocked when you reach the end and realize there hasn't been a moment of confusion. This is an impressive display of Whedon's writing and you'll marvel at the level at which you're sucked into the lives of his characters. You feel for these people, you brace yourself in the hope that they survive, and you wince when they bleed.

This is not glossy science fiction – it goes to a darker place than flashier fare and, by the end, makes sure you have no clue as to how far Whedon is going to push Mal and his battered crew. The cast of virtual unknowns turns in top-tier performances all around and each one brings something special to the table. The special effects enhance the film but do not dictate its tone or direction… the space battles are simply a thing of awe. I had flashbacks to The Seven Samurai, the original Star Wars trilogy, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and, most surprisingly, more award winning films like Heat, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Road to Perdition.

Are there problems? Sure, but they're all pretty negligible. Viewers who haven't seen the series will have a bit of a harder time catching on until the end of the first act, there are a few minor unanswered gaps between the series and the film, and the new addition of one particular supporting character may bother fans of the show at first because he feels slightly out of place for the first half of the film. But by the end of the film, most of these problems are distant memories.

The transfer of this film is simply a testament to why you should invest in the latest new toy for your high definition setup. Serenity looks so strikingly better on this high definition disc than it did on standard DVD, that you'll find yourself a true believer if you haven't already converted to the flock. The lower resolution, regular edition is blurry in a side by side comparison and the amount of compression artifacting is extremely distracting in such a dark and gritty film – particularly on a larger screen. To be fair, the original DVD had to cram the movie and all of the special features onto one disc so its compression rate is much higher. But on this high definition disc, quality has no need to suffer and the kids have a lot more room to play. The colors, contrast, and clarity are spot on and the darker areas of the film present deep blacks and easily defined movement in the shadows. The level of increased detail alone would warrant the upgrade to the high definition version, even if you already own a copy on DVD. Dust spits up from the ground, sweat beads on actors' faces, explosions send splintered debris flying, bullets visibly ricochet off of crates, and grime is caked in the crevices of the worn ships drifting in space. Simply put, the transfer alone made the movie a more enjoyable experience – which is exactly what this new high definition format should be providing its consumers.

Presented in Dolby Digital-Plus and DTS, the audio is also very impressive, although not as miraculous as the video upgrade. The first thing I've noticed about the audio transfers for films on HD-DVD is that the higher quality surround mix gives you a much larger range of sound that allows the subtlest of effects to become a part of your viewing pleasure. When our heroes drift out of a nebula to be confronted by the Alliance fleet, you can hear the slightest bridge console sounds as well as the whirring of the individual thrusters and engines. Suddenly, with a surprise attack I won't spoil here, the sound explodes into action from every angle and brings the battle of the next few minutes into your living room. The bass somehow felt more natural and displayed more levels of deep booms that I'm only accustomed to when playing a game on my 360. The sounds of exploding ships expand out and thrust inward, simulating a realistic, initial explosion and resulting implosion into the vacuum of space. To be honest, with this kind of audible detail, I can finally understand why the Oscars have categories for sound design. Simple explosions would've sufficed, but I can tell that the filmmakers took great care in the accuracy of the soundscape in 'Serenity'.

The extras on the Serenity HD-DVD are the lower resolution versions of the standard DVD extras and, as such, look awful in comparison to the transfer of the film. On the standard DVD, the deleted scenes in particular were already compressed to a lower quality so they look absolutely archaic on the HD disc. This will continue to be the main problem and gripe for HD-DVD's of this sort… particularly for movies made before high definition players came to be. But, in contrast, all of the features are extremely entertaining and provide a good bit of value. There's an amusing fanboy commentary from Whedon packed full of great anecdotes, nine character-expounding deleted scenes, and other features that are sure to increase a fan's love of the film. The best feature is more of a theme that runs through all of the features as Whedon and company detail the rise and fall of the original 'Firefly' television series, how Serenity rose from those broadcast ashes, and where the future of Mal and his crew lies.

Of note, early HD-DVD's like Serenity don't have the dual formatted discs which allows them to be played on regular DVD players. This may not matter to some, but to others it does. Myself? I'm a true movie buff and find that passing along a great movie is just as satisfying as watching it. I love to let my circle of friends borrow flicks – saving them a buck and giving them a chance to see something they might not see otherwise. I tend to be the guy with all the new stuff in my group – so people are always raiding my collection and many of them haven't upgraded to HD yet. Some won't for years. So the HD-DVD editions that play in regular DVD players as well are a big plus for me because my friends can still borrow from my collection. That being said, I don't like the early trend of placing all of the special features in lower definition or on the regular DVD side of the disc. The space on an HD-DVD is a cop out on the part of the studios since movies like Mission Impossible 3 are shipped with two HD-DVD discs. Sales of MI:3 have been great and the average consumer doesn't seem to be annoyed by more discs if it means more quality.

But I digress. More and more discs are presenting their special features in high definition now, which is excellent. Most discs are now dual format, which is also a perk for lenders like myself. But these commendable efforts need to be presented in addition to a high quality package before everyone can be happy.

In the end, a movie rental is about the value of your time and an HD-DVD purchase is about the value of your money. If you're lucky enough to have a video store that rents high definition formats this early on in their lifespan, make sure to pick up 'Serenity' because it's breathtaking on your high definition display and also works as an entertaining film. If you use Netflix, throw this to the top of your queue and make sure you have HD-DVD marked in your account settings so they send you this edition. 'Serenity' is well worth your time so a rental is a must.

If you've already seen the movie, then you probably know that it's worth buying. At the moment that this review is being written, you can pick up a copy of 'Serenity' on Amazon for a mere $20 and the standard edition is one of the site's Top 100 DVD sales of 2006. At this price and this much bang for your buck, it's an easy decision. This is sci-fi at its best that I would easily rank in the upper echelon with the new Battlestar Galactica. Give it a try and I can almost guarantee you won't regret your decision.