September 27, 2005

‘Serenity’ Now for Sci-Fi Fans

LOS ANGELES -- As a general rule, television series that tank after less than one season don't translate into successful feature films.

There isn't much demand for movies based on, say, "Supertrain" or "Manimal." Perhaps the only time it has really been attempted was with the three "Naked Gun" flicks that rose from the ashes of the short-lived 1982 ABC comedy "Police Squad!"

So it's highly unusual that Universal Pictures' "Serenity," which hits theaters on Friday, is happening at all, a monument to the perseverance -- and some might say hardheadedness -- of a fellow named Joss Whedon.

Whedon, the creator and executive producer of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel," two prominent recent additions to the annals of cult TV faves, crafted "Serenity" following the failure of a short-lived Fox sci-fi drama from the 2002-03 season (which was something of a Nielsen waterloo period for Fox) called "Firefly." If you remember it, consider yourself a sci-fi geek in good standing. It ran for 11 episodes, out of order, before being axed.

But Whedon didn't let a little thing like a cancellation discourage him. Thanks to "Firefly" DVD sales that exceeded 200,000 units, he got the green light to write and direct the $40 million "Serenity" (named after the creaky ship in "Firefly" that traverses space).

Yes, once you get the sci-fi True Believers on your side, all things are possible, Whedon understands.

"We have a much broader base than just sci-fi people," he says. "That's what I found in our screenings so far. They're a diverse group, fairly well-adjusted socially, and I expect that a lot of them are even having sex. I really think the line between geeks and the rest of the world is blurring."

"Serenity" has been screened nearly 100 times to date, Whedon estimates, many of them designed to stir interest among that fanatical subculture that either embraces you with all of their heart and soul or rejects you with incalculable venom and rage. There isn't a whole lot of middle ground with the "Firefly" group that refers to itself as the "browncoats."

"First off, you can't make the movie for the fans of the TV show because then there will be a lot of people who don't know what's going on," he believes. "Yet it's a fine line because you also can't talk down to the real fans because it's their support that's getting the film made in the first place."

When these browncoats see a filmmaker as having committed blasphemy, "halfway through the screening they light torches and chase you down the street crying 'Monster! Monster! Monster!"' Whedon observes only half-jokingly. "Fortunately, there have been no torches so far."

There has instead been a vibe of massive anticipation for "Serenity" in the sci-fi community, which means, of course, that certain individuals with too much time on their hands -- depicted so memorably in the film "Galaxy Quest," which Whedon jokingly labels "a documentary" -- will be devoting an abundance of energy to "Serenity" worship.

Sean Maher, who portrays Dr. Simon Tam in both "Firefly" and "Serenity," was present at last week's L.A. premiere of the new film and saw one attendee dressed in his character's trademark white button-down shirt and vest.

"It always takes a moment for me to process something like that," Maher admits. "I think I'm prepared for it, but it's like receiving a really generous compliment that leaves you at a loss for words."

That kind of extreme-geek support tells Whedon that he did the right thing in fighting to spin a movie no one expected from a TV series nobody watched and a DVD that captured a momentum no one knew existed. "This is really a classic underdog story in every way," he observes, "and I think I'm safe in saying this is the finest film ever made."

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter