Get the Think newsletter.
By Ani Bundel
One of the stories Hollywood seems obsessed with at the moment is how the growing ability to depict a realistic fantasy world has blurred the lines between what is real and what is programming. Most recently the subject of “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” characters in both TV and film are increasingly questioning their creators. What happens when those characters we build out of our imagination when they begin to realize they are merely avatars of a deeply flawed human god? There are brilliant ways to tell this story. And then there’s “Serenity.”
To be fair, this weekend’s big-screen release seems to have been doomed from the start. While the first three months of the year are no longer the Hollywood dead zone they once were, it’s also not known as a staging ground for the coming year’s top hits. A film starring Academy-Award winner Matthew McConaughey and Academy-Award winner Anne Hathaway opening the weekend after the Oscars nominations were announced suggests something has gone deeply wrong — even if you weren’t aware the movie was originally slated for a September 2018 release (right in time for awards season) before being unceremoniously moved.
A film starring Academy-Award winner Matthew McConaughey and Academy-Award winner Anne Hathaway opening the weekend after the Oscars nominations suggests something has gone wrong.
Then there’s the film’s premise. McConaughey plays Baker Dill, a fishing boat captain who lives on “Plymouth Island,” a region vaguely off the Florida coast where the flora is oddly equatorial, and the cars drive on the wrong side of the road. Baker, an Iraq war veteran, spends his time obsessed with reeling in a giant tuna called “Justice,” sleeping with Constance (Diane Lane), swimming naked, and being vaguely stalked by a man name of Miller in an incongruous three-piece suit (Jeremy Strong).
His life takes a turn, however, when his ex-wife and mother of his child suddenly turns up. A femme fatale with unfortunate blonde hair, Karen (Hathaway) is here to offer Baker $10 million to kill her current husband, the abusive Frank (Jason Clarke). The proceedings are supposed to have a “beach noir” haze, but it all comes off weirdly stilted, with McConaughey and Hathaway smoldering right past each. It feels more like a high-end YouTube fanfiction video than a Hollywood blockbuster.
Meanwhile, Baker seems to have some sort of telepathic link to his son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh), experiencing glimpses of the horror the family lives with due to Frank the stepfather. When Frank shows up on the island, badmouthing his computer-game playing stepson and looking for a little underage action, Baker decides to take Karen up on her offer.
Or at least that’s what the movie wants you to think. And if it were better at hiding its own twist it might work.
The problem is movie twists aren’t new and haven’t been since Keyser Söze was found at the bottom of a coffee cup in 1995. Neither is the character who believes himself to be a real boy, only to discover later that he is not — just look at “Pinocchio.” Anyone familiar with these tropes will likely be able to put two and two together before “Serenity’s” bizarre third act.
Without spoiling the whole thing — although honestly it would probably be better and cheaper for everyone if I did — suffice it to say that very little in this movie is “real” at all. It is (mostly) all a literal game, and sad, lonely, computer-game playing Patrick is the key to the whole pixelated, murderous fantasy. As a part of the “twist no one saw coming” trope, it might have worked. But the film drops clues throughout the first two thirds of the story, with the idea that upon rewatching viewers will pick them out and marvel at how cleverly everything was hidden in plain sight.
Indeed, the twist is so clearly telegraphed from the outset, it almost feels like misdirection.
The problem is, the clues aren’t subtle. They’re boulders rolled right into the middle of the path. Indeed, the twist is so clearly telegraphed from the outset, it almost feels like misdirection. (Surely, they’re not…) When the reveal comes, it is both ludicrously funny and deflating at the same time.
The film’s jarring twist is bad. But arguably worse is how seriously “Serenity” takes itself, and not just via McConaughey’s sonorous line readings of some of the most clichéd lines this side of a Lincoln car commercial. The film clearly believes itself to be filled with deep thoughts and a modern-day discussion of free will vs. fate. But the film’s writing is all flash, no philosophy, and merely paying attention will unravel any hope of the theme hanging together.
The movie also isn’t willing to grapple with the premise it sets up of between right and wrong, or the corollary parable of video game rules mirroring the rules of society. Indeed, the ultimate moral of this confusing story is that “doing the right thing” is often synonymous with committing heinous acts. It champions the idea of virtual violence ultimately inspiring violence in real life, an oddly incongruous message for the current moment.
Even worse — yes, it gets worse — the film attempts a happy ending for both its virtual and real protagonists. (The wave of schmaltz that washes over the proceedings at the end of the film must be experienced to be believed, and makes the ending feel all the weirder and more misbegotten.) Not only does it argue rewriting the rules in real life is as easy as tweaking a bit of code, but it also claims this is the path to happiness. There are lots of ways to grapple with how the world inside our computers can feel more real than the one around us. “Serenity” is not the way to do it.