By SARA STEWART
I'VE done it," Joss Whedon says gleefully. "I've made a movie where there's a discussion about the human condition during a hovercraft chase!"
That movie is "Serenity," out Friday - and it was a true labor of love for Whedon, a prolific screenwriter best known for his hit TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
After that show ended in 2003, Whedon went on to create a new series, "Firefly," which left the world of teen angst and vampires behind for a high-concept combo of space adventure and old-time Western. Despite critical praise, the show had an insect-like life span. But much to his surprise, Whedon then got an opportunity to resurrect "Firefly" on the big screen.
"Serenity," Whedon's directorial debut, aims to introduce a wider audience to the "Firefly" universe: 500 years in the future, it's a place where spaceship pilots speak and dress like frontier settlers and curse in Chinese, the human race is scattered across countless Earth-like planets and prostitutes are revered like royalty.
The show's hero is the captain of the rickety spaceship Serenity, Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) - a character Whedon says owes a debt to the original space renegade, Han Solo.
"If he's not his father, then definitely a weird uncle," the director says with a laugh. "He's obviously an influence on the character. Mal's like a Han Solo who never met a Wookie or found the Force."
Though Mal and his crew (see sidebar) make a living pulling heists, they always end up on the good side, in spite of the captain's best efforts.
Caught between the two sinister forces in the "Firefly" universe - the cold, omnipotent Alliance government and the cannibalistic space pirates known as Reavers - Serenity is under fire for harboring a fugitive 17-year-old named River (Summer Glau), who's escaped from a government experiment.
Not so shockingly, the preternaturally smart River turns out to be a terrific fighter; if Mal's ancestor is Han Solo, then hers is undoubtedly Buffy Summers.
"This was supposed to be the point where I got over it," says Whedon of his obsession with superhero-like teen girls. "But I guess not."
With Whedon's trademark strong female characters, rapid-fire dialogue and intricate storylines, "Firefly" garnered a fiercely loyal following of fans who call themselves Browncoats (in homage to the show's Western attire) - and they've been mobilizing to get the word out about the film.
But while their passion is strong, the Browncoats' numbers are small. The crucial question is: will the uninitiated go for it?
"I have no confidence of any kind," admits Whedon. "I'm not a marketing guy. I have no idea if people who don't know me will see this.
"But," he continues, "I believe firmly that if they do go, they'll have a good time."
The director says he's satisfied that the movie tells its own story, apart from the show.
"It's not the last episode of something else - it exists in and of itself," he says. "I like to feel a sense of closure."
So, then, what would he say if there was demand for a sequel?
"Could I do more of these?" he says. "Hells, yeah!"