Serenity in a Star Wars Universe

The DVD of Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith hits the video stores this week. Fox didn't send us an advanced screener. Perhaps they read the rather negative review I wrote last summer during the film's theatrical release! I'll have more to say about the movie, and about the DVD release, in the upcoming November 2005 UAV eNewsletter, scheduled to be mailed out next week. You do subscribe, don't you? (If not, simply click here to sign up. It's free.)

But my subject here is a very different space opera—one whose box office receipts probably wouldn't pay the catering bill for Star Wars III , despite being (for me) a better film.

It’s tough when a movie you’ve been looking forward to lays an egg at the box office—particularly when it’s a film that deserved better. Serenity, which opened in late September, had dropped out of the top 10 by the end of its second week. By now, it’s probably playing in the $2 theater in Carbon Creek.

I admit I was a big fan of Firefly, the short-lived Fox TV series on which Serenityis based. Cancelled by Fox after just 11 episodes (three more were produced but never aired), the show shocked everyone by being a smash hit on DVD. That success convinced Universal to greenlight a big-screen version.

Serenity is the story of a ragtag bunch of space jockeys who wander around the fringes of a civilization in some distant solar system, trying to scratch out a living by various means, some legal, others not, while avoiding the authoritarian Alliance that rules their particular corner of the universe. Serenity is the name of their ship (it’s a Firefly-class vessel—thus the name of the series). It seems there was a civil war a few years back, and the crew, or at least part of it, was on the losing side. When the crew picks up a strange and troubled young woman and her physician brother who are on the run from the Alliance, their lives become a lot more complicated.

The TV series has often described as a western in space. That, and the fact that there are no weird aliens or monsters of the week should have made it appealing to audiences who normally avoid sci-fi. The movie departs just a little from that template, but is still refreshingly free of the usual space opera clichés and technobabble.

Serenity is drawing fans of the series, but that alone is not enough to fill Universal's coffers. That’s a shame, because Serenity is everything that the overstuffed Star Wars prequels are not. It’s by turns thought-provoking, literate and emotional. It also has a sense of humor without ever turning to camp or parody. Best of all, it isn’t predictable. It has even received surprisingly positive reviews, but they haven’t helped fill the seats.

Filmed in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Serenity is more impressive in both its scope and special effects than its relatively meager, $40 million budget might suggest. It’s no Star Wars or Star Trek (feature film) in the effects department, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s the characters that count. The photography is crisp and clean, the audio as impressive as any but the most expensive productions. In short, this does not look like or feel like a TV movie blown up for the big screen.

If you haven’t seen Serenity and it’s still playing near you, I recommend it. If you’re unfamiliar with the TV show, there’s enough exposition at the beginning to bring you up to speed (though as a fan well-versed in the story, I found the buildup a bit tedious the first time through—yes, I’ve seen it twice). You can enjoy it without having seen the series, but in that case you may find yourself liking it while at the same time wondering what all the fuss was about.

But I do recommend that you first watch the Firefly series on DVD. The box set is fairly priced, has a solid anamorphic transfer, and if you didn't know ahead of time that the sound is just Dolby Surround and not full 5.1 Dolby Digital, you might not notice. Rent it if you must, but don't be surprised if feel an irresistible urge to buy it after watching a few episodes.

Most important, if you've seen the series—or at least a few episodes (particularly the 2-part pilot, “Serenity”)—the end of the film will move you in ways it otherwise will not.

You really should experience a film like this on the big screen the first time you see it—assuming you have a good theater nearby. I saw it at the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood, rated in many local “Best of” newspaper and magazine features as the best theater in LA. I wouldn’t go quite that far, though it certainly ranks in the top 5, and is probably the best multiplex in town.

But a really good home theater system will beat any commercial cinema in sound quality. I’m already looking forward to the Serenity DVD, rumored to be on Universal's schedule for a pre-Christmas release. That may set a record screen-to-DVD time—perhaps the only good thing to come out of this fine film’s poor box office showing. The downside is that a sequel is unlikely unless DVD sales go through the roof. They just might.