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From Timesonline.co.uk


Firefly - "Serenity" Movie - Hang on in there

Sunday 14 August 2005, by Webmaster

Serenity may be based on a cancelled TV show, but it’s autumn’s most anticipated film, says John Harlow

Can Joss Whedon save the Hollywood action flick? Right now, as he hobbles about with a damaged knee, it may seem a bit of a tall order, even for the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But, if not Whedon, then who? The old masters of noise and spectacle are in trouble. A billion dollars’ worth of digitally enhanced action films - from Ridley Scott’s crusaders to Michael Bay’s clones - have landed in America with a bored splat. Only releases that have surprised, from the retooled Batman to a documentary about penguins, have made any kind of lasting impact. So here we are, at the end of blockbuster season, and box- office hopes are resting on a low-budget sci-fi tale, based on a little-seen television series made by a man whose track record in big-screenery is, in his own words, an abysmal failure. And it is being premiered, not in LA or Cannes, but next week in Edinburgh. Is Hollywood insane? Usually, but maybe not this time. For, in the two years since Buffy ended, followed last year by its sterner spin-off, Angel, Whe- don’s fans have only grown more devoted, especially in the UK. The proof is in the crush: more than 40,000 of them crashed the website when sales opened for two Edinburgh film festival screenings of his directing debut, Serenity. The organisers arranged two more: the first of them sold out in 60 seconds. Tickets for a public interview with the amiable auteur are selling on eBay for hundreds of pounds. And this for a mere writer.

Back at home in west Los Angeles, the 41-year-old is struggling with more mundane problems. Universal, the studio that bankrolled the film, has sent somebody to get back the Apple computer they loaned him for scoring Serenity. Whedon is having trouble unplugging it. His second child, eight-month-old Squire (sister to Arden), is bellowing in the background. This afternoon, he is preparing for an operation on a knee ligament. He tore it while running - an entirely predictable result of a new midlife health regime. But I shall be ready for Scotland. What’s this about deep-fried Mars bars? And what is this about Serenity? After Angel was prematurely killed, Whedon started with a space-opera, set 500 years in the future, where everyone speaks a mixture of Wild West American and Chinese. They dress and shoot like cowboys. Breaking Star Trek directive number one, there are no aliens, just a dysfunctional group of nine irritable strangers on board a rattling Firefly-class cargo ship called Serenity.

Fans are still outraged that episodes of Firefly, as it was then known, were shown out of order, postponed due to sports events and then cancelled after a handful of episodes. Others were amazed the series went out at all. Firefly was not cheap to make, its wit slyer and darker than Buffy’s or Angel’s, its concerns more humane. Friday-night Americans prefer their genres unblended: none of this pummelling one moment, punning the next. Nobody but Whedon would have got the series made in the first place.

But DVDs have changed the economics of television. Networks can make more money selling unbroadcast programmes than by airing them. As with the cancelled cartoon series Family Guy and Buffy-influenced quirky girl nonhits such as Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me, the Firefly box set, complete with unseen episodes, sold by the truckload. The legend lived. And so Universal put up the money for the film version, Serenity, which starts six months after the conclusion of Firefly, with its ill-assorted ragamuffins being chased around the galaxy by cannibals and a big, bad corporation called Blue Sun that wants its genetically engineered empath back. Making Serenity cost a measly £25m, almost a third of Bay’s budget for The Island, but, judging by the rough-cuts, it looks like a hundred-million bucks on screen. That is the first lesson for Hollywood: get back to value.

Whedon says he insisted on regrouping the original cast, including Nathan Fillion (the mad priest Caleb from Buffy), Gina Torres (mad goddess Jasmine from Angel) and the ravishing Brazilian Monrena Baccarin as the nomadic courtesan Inara. We had 18 months to workshop all this, so when we started shooting, it was like a release. I have never worked on something that was so much fun, he says.

Critics writing in the book of essays Finding Serenity (yes, it is that kind of fandom) fear Whedon has gone backwards: Buffy liberated young women, but Serenity puts the cowboys back in charge. Whedon disagrees: I looked into the history of whores and realised it was only recently the pimps took over. Inara is a powerful women, a geisha, and ZoŽ (a soldier, played by Torres) is a step forward of Buffy. They are sexually active, but neither weak nor ashamed of it, like the men.

And why Chinese-speaking cowboys? I loved westerns as a kid, films such as Stagecoach, but I wanted to show a galaxy created by the descendants of today’s superpowers, America and China, and how they might work together on the next frontier. The Winchester-educated Whedon also uses Mandarin as he did the British slang in Buffy - as a sly way around the US censors. His western-speak is more laconic John Wayne than scatological Deadwood, but about half the Chinese phrases are rude. A family friendly example? Watch out for a line that sounds like da-shian bao-jah-shar duh la-doo-tse - used to compare somebody to the explosive diarrhoea of a once- constipated elephant.

Serenity’s release was postponed until the autumn to avoid the summer crush. In retrospect, Whedon is relieved. There have been some disasters out there this year, he says. But there is still some room for more intelligent entertainment. Batman and Spider-Man have proved that. Something not driven by shock-and-awe marketing, opening and closing in a weekend, but spreading because people actually like it. Cheap and popular - now that is radical.

Whedon hopes Serenity makes money so he can do a trilogy, even see it return to TV. Meanwhile, he is talking to James Marsters about a Spike movie and even a Buffy stage musical if I can find the time. And then there is the big screen. Whedon co-wrote the original Toy Story, but his work on Waterworld, Speed and the first X-Men movie was less successful. His next script is Wonder Woman. He wants to make the star-spangled heroine live again. After the bad breath of Daredevil, The Punisher and Hulk, this could a revolution. But it is what Whedon fans have come to expect.

Serenity opens on October 7, tickets for the last Edinburgh film festival screening on August 28 go on sale on August 22

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