No, not that Serenity
Spoiler-free discussion of the 2019, Matthew McConaughey-starring film Serenity (not to be confused with the 2005, vastly superior film of the same name) is pointless. Something is up with this movie such that, if you don’t just jump right into spoilers there’s really nothing to talk about. I’m not even going to try to dance around it. But, before I dive in, I’ll offer a small piece of advice…
If you’re curious about Serenity, either read one of the many articles that spoil the ending and decide if that’s something you NEED to see for yourself, or, ask a friend to spoil it for themselves and tell you if you should go into it blind. My experience was the latter, and it was a unique time at the movies, at the very least.
With that out of the way, I’m going to jump into spoilers to discuss my actual feelings on the film. Proceed at your own risk.
Okay. So I knew there was something weird going on with this movie when my fiance read about the twist and insisted we needed to see it. I hemmed and hawed about the 20% score on Rotten Tomatoes, but she wasn’t having it. The tickets were pre-ordered, the time was set, and I started to wonder what could be so worthwhile about this dull-looking thriller.
Fast-forward to the opening shot of the film: a young boy’s face. The camera zooms into his eyeball to show a view of the ocean, and, with the camera now literally inside the boy’s head, the actual story begins. Matthew McConaughey is Captain Baker Dill of the Serenity, a small fishing boat for tourists on an island called Plymouth. This opening shot telegraphed an obvious twist—that the events of the film are all in a boy’s head—but why? Serenity was already committing a storytelling sin, but my interest was piqued.
From there the first two-thirds of the film are strange, but not in a particularly intriguing way. Baker Dill is obsessed with catching a tuna, so much so that he prostitutes himself to a wealthy islander named Constance (Diane Lane) so he can afford fuel. He yells at his clients and fires his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou), telling him he’s bad luck, when in fact Baker just wants to leave Duke out of his self-destructive tendencies. Meanwhile, a mysterious Half-Life-G-Man-looking dude keeps running into every scene just as Baker leaves.
Finally, after the camera oogles McConaughey’s chest and ass a few more times, the central plot of the film shows up in the form of Anne Hathaway’s Karen, Baker’s ex-wife. She steps into the only bar on the island looking like the love interest in a deleted scene from Sin City. You could almost see the cartoon wolf whistling from the back of the bar as she tells Baker of her plight.
Her request? Take her abusive new husband out to sea and kill him. Baker refuses the job, but when Karen tells him his son has visions of his real father, things become more complicated.
Now if I recall correctly, it was shortly after this that we see a vision of Baker’s son coding in front of his computer and playing what looks like a fishing game. I’d already had some suspicions that this whole story was in the kid’s head, but taking it a step further seemed ridiculous. Is Plymouth island just a game created by this boy? Surely, no big-budget Hollywood film starring a bunch of A-list actors could possibly be that dumb…right?
But when the mysterious man finally stops making minor cameos in every scene and convinces Baker to listen to him, he lays it all out. The world of Plymouth island is, actually, a video game. The island is full of mini-games like fishing because Baker fished with his son before going off to war. Baker is dead in real life. Baker is a video game character. This whole maritime murder drama story is intentionally contrived because it’s the invention of a teenager working up the courage to kill his abusive step-dad. What a twist!
If there were ever rails to go off of in this disaster of a film, this is the moment that Serenity achieves lift-off.
There are a few issues with this twist. Sure, it may seem clever to tell an intentionally boilerplate “save the girl” storyline as the plot of a video game, but it doesn’t work when it’s the A-plot of the first two-thirds of a film. Not to mention, that plot puts Anne Hathaway’s Princess Peach through a ringer of brutal abuse from Bowser and an awkward rough-then-tender sex scene with Mario. Presumably, this is the story their teenaged son wrote about them, so why is he so interested in watching some steamy humping between his mom and dad?
You could say this is a daring, high-concept twist for a seemingly generic thriller, but that only works if the twist actually makes sense. Has director and screenwriter Steven Knight ever actually played a video game? And if he has, did he think they’re created by magicians?
Yes, the film suggests that other characters in the world are limited to a set routine, and Knight does play around with concepts like power-ups (a fish finder) and a limited world, but he also seems to give McConaughey’s character complete autonomy and vivid memories of his real life. Did this boy create a sentient AI? Is his bedroom ground zero for the technological singularity? This isn’t how any of this works!
Serenity could have played around with the concept of a world within a world, but even then, the “it was all a dream” or “it all took place inside a snow globe” twist is pretty laughable. By specifically making the story take place inside a video game it demands some additional internal logic that’s seriously lacking.
In the climax, we see Baker killing the abusive stepdad on his boat in the game. In real life, we see his son pull out a knife and make his way into the next room to do the same. The murder is seen as an act of heroism in the face of abuse, affording him a much lighter sentence then he’d have otherwise. Baker’s son then vows to reprogram the game so that he can join his father. We see a shot of the boy in his jail cell smirking at the camera as Baker’s world disintegrates into polygons and rebuilds anew.
Is this a happy ending? Is the boy actually reprogramming his game or is he committing suicide in order to join his dad in video game heaven? Is this film an indictment of abuse or the lonely gamer? It’s never really clear what this movie is trying to say about anything, so I certainly don’t know what to make of the ending.
If it seems like I’m struggling to end this review it’s because I am. I have more questions than answers. I’m left dizzy trying to imagine the inside of Steven Knight’s brain. I’m baffled as I imagine an elaborate set with some of the best actors in the world trying to take this film seriously. My only solace is the brief moments where I can’t tell if McConaughey is overacting or crying for help. His weak, weird, desperate scream upon throwing the abusive husband overboard was my weak, weird, desperate scream at the thought of trying to review this film, yet, somehow, we both got through it.