Justin Dobbs stood up in front of a packed movie theater and called out, “OK, everybody! ‘The Ballad of Serenity.”’
The crowd burst into the defiant theme song of a failed little TV show called “Firefly,” which burns brightly again through the tenacity of creator Joss Whedon, its cast of unknowns and legions of sci-fi fans like Dobbs who lobbied for its resurrection.
Dobbs was among fans attending advance showings of “Serenity,” the big-screen continuation that follows the exploits of the lovable rabble aboard a rickety spaceship 500 years in the future.
Universal Pictures — which plucked the tale from the heap of beloved, acclaimed (and canceled) TV shows — began preview screenings five months before “Serenity” opened to fire up interest among devotees and let them spread the word on the film.
“Each of us tried to bring new people to screenings we’ve gone to,” said Dobbs, 20, of Los Angeles. “Each of us tried to tell everybody that it’s not just for fans of the show. It’s just a good movie in general.”
Whedon — creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and its spinoff, “Angel” — faced a balancing act to present a film that would satisfy its fan base and an audience that had never seen the TV series.
Could failure spawn success?The back story is reminiscent of “Star Trek,” which went on to become a hit movie franchise and spawned four more TV series after the original show left the air.
“Star Trek” ran for 79 episodes over three seasons in the 1960s, while only 11 of the 14 “Firefly” episodes were broadcast in its original run on Fox in 2002, with episodes aired out of order and occasionally pre-empted for special programs. And “Trek” fervor built up over a decade of syndication before the first movie debuted. “Firefly” had just a couple of years since the series came out on DVD, selling impressively but still clocking in as a cult hit — not necessarily the stuff of mainstream movies.
“‘Star Trek’ was such a phenomenon by the time they made it into a movie,” said Whedon, who makes his feature-film directing debut with “Serenity.” “Fans love ‘Firefly,’ but I still don’t know how many fans there are, whereas ‘Star Trek’ was already part of the vernacular.”
The film reunites the cast of “Firefly,” led by Nathan Fillion as Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds, captain of the stubby transport ship Serenity, whose crew scrapes out a living through petty crimes and questionable cargo runs at the edges of an interstellar human society.
An embittered ex-Browncoat — the name for rebels who fought on the losing side of a galactic civil war — Mal has assembled a motley surrogate family aboard ship: Zoe (Gina Torres), his tough-as-nails second in command; Wash (Alan Tudyk), the ship’s pilot and Zoe’s laid-back husband; mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite); and not-so-trustworthy mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin).
Real people, not superheroesUnlike Capt. Kirk of “Star Trek” or Luke Skywalker of “Star Wars,” the people aboard Serenity are not fighting grand battles to save the universe. They’re blue-collar grunts looking to turn a buck and stick it to The Man whenever they can.
“They’re real people,” Baldwin said. “It’s a look into the future that’s not going to be a perfect utopian future. Joss was able to portray people with flaws, imperfect people, tyrannical people, people who can be both heroic and self-centered.”
Also returning are Ron Glass as Shepherd Book, a preacher with a cloudy past, and Morena Baccarin as Inara, a classy futuristic geisha who shares a love-hate relationship with Mal.
The TV show had languidly unfolded a mystery surrounding two passengers aboard Serenity, a young doctor named Simon (Sean Maher) and his sister, River (Summer Glau), an unstable telepath on the run from the big-government galactic Alliance that Mal loathes.
“It was unique, it was incredibly well-written, it clearly had the potential to reach not just sci-fi fans but fans of good television,” Torres said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t live long enough to realize its full potential.”
Promising to revive the show, Whedon shopped it around to other TV networks. But there were no takers. Whedon, who previously had turned his movie dud “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” into a hit TV series, then hooked up with Universal executive Mary Parent, who had seen “Firefly” on DVD and recognized its big-screen potential.
For the film, Whedon took the broad story arc he had in mind for the TV show and compacted it into a movie plot, taking Serenity on a potential suicide mission to uncover horrifying secrets about the Reavers, human cannibals who live on the outskirts of civilized space.
“Serenity” is packed with gunfights, chases, sci-fi gadgets, bar brawls and dark moments of terror. As with the TV show, the film also is loaded with sharp dialogue, eccentric wit and loving sarcasm among shipmates.
Glass sees similarities between the characters of “Firefly” and the ensemble he was part of in the 1970s sitcom “Barney Miller.”
“One of the things they have in common is these really well-drawn characters that are true to themselves,” Glass said. “Like in life, you get a couple or three, four, five or 10 of those people in a room being true to themselves, it either produces something truly heartfelt and deep on a philosophical level, or humor. So it’s no accident there is a lot of humor involved.”
A tough sell
“Serenity” faces tough hurdles. The cast is generally unknown. Science fiction is a hard sell beyond its genre fans. Broader audiences, hearing that the film is based on a TV show they never saw, may decide it’s too much of an inside story for them.
Still, with a comparatively frugal $40 million budget, “Serenity” could earn its money back with only modest box-office success, plus TV and DVD revenues down the road.
And few movies with a cast of nobodies have a built-in squad of marketers, fans who have been talking up “Serenity” for years on the Internet and introducing friends to the TV show on DVD.
“It’s very Jehovah’s Witness,” Fillion said. “I’m not sure if anyone’s actually going door to door, but it’s not far off.”
“Even now, my friends back in Texas are giving DVDs to other people, and our fan base is still growing and growing and growing,” said co-star Glau, a San Antonio native.
Whedon hopes “Serenity” performs well enough to justify sequels. He remains wistful over losing the chance to tell weekly stories with his characters on the small screen, though.
“I really love ‘Serenity.’ I’m really proud of it and excited to see it my guys on the big screen, bringing something new to it,” Whedon said. “But ‘Firefly’ was a different animal, something I will regret losing until the day they put me in a box, because I did have a lot of good stories I wanted to tell.”