I was intrigued by Serenity as soon as I saw the trailer. And then the reviews mauled it, and I became slightly less intrigued. But I persevered, avoiding spoilers so as to give it a fair go. I can absolutely understand why it has been savaged, since writer-director Steven Knight’s solution to the overfamiliar “reality is not what you think it is” premise is simultaneously absurd and – most damagingly – sadly mundane. And yet, I still couldn’t find it within myself to dismiss the movie entirely; it’s closer to the engaging folly namechecked by Christy Lemire’s review, The Book of Henry.
Miller: If it helps, I don’t much know either. I just know what’s supposed to happen.
Both, after all, take some unlikely genre detours in their attempts to address the subject of child abuse (in this case, it is also spousal). Both also culminate in the death of the abuser. In Serenity, the reveal that Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is actually a character in a computer game devised by Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) is signposted early on and revealed at about the hour mark, which leaves perhaps too much “fictional” plot remaining before the coda informs us that Patrick, inspired by the outcome to his game, has stabbed his stepfather Frank (Jason Clarke) with the knife that once belonged to his Iraq War veteran dad John (also McConaughey).
Duke: Catch the fish in your head. That is the rule. Do not kill the man.
In that sense – empowerment, if you want to call it that, through escaping grim reality into a fantasy world – Serenity parallels such titles as Pan’s Labyrinth, Life of Pi, Sucker Punch and Heavenly Creatures. The difference being that Patrick is at best obliquely present in Knight’s movie, necessarily so for the twist. Which makes Dill the focus, as his reality gradually caves in, à la Identity, Shutter Island and Vanilla Sky. Some of these types of movies are much, much better than Serenity. Some are much, much worse.
Duke: You do know it’s just in your head, right?
Dill: Oh hell yeah, that’s why I’ve got to get him out of there.
There’s a span, as Dill’s perception of life on Plymouth Island is going awry, when Serenity is hitting all the right notes for a stimulating head-scrambling tale. Knight builds measuredly towards this. Which is to say, you know something is seriously wrong with this reality as soon as the patently absurd notion of Diane Lane paying for sex is introduced. Besides which, fishing-boat captain Dill’s Moby Dick-esque obsession with landing a giant tuna is continually characterised as “a tuna that’s only in your head”; “You can get the lady, or you can catch the tuna that’s in your head”. The oddball appearance of besuited Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong, on top beta-male form) also underlines the point, as he misses Dill’s boat leaving port and comments “There’s something wrong. There appears to be a twenty-second discrepancy in my allotted schedule”.
Knight has ensured the movie looks great; ironically, since it takes place in a computer game, it has far lusher, more colourful photography than ninety percent of pictures out there in the “real” world, in all their two-tone glory (ironically, cinematographer Jesse Hall has lensed a slew of virtual/alt-reality outings including Transcendence, Ghost in the Shell and WandaVision). Indeed, I was put in mind of the best examples of “Just what is going on in this tropical paradise?” Lost. So it seems strange that Knight should then simply throws the answers out there, with Dill having little work to do to unravel them. First ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) tells him his son, whom he no longer sees, “hears you through his computer screen. He hears you every time you talk to him. You are connected”. Which pretty much leaves nothing to the imagination.
Then, much more intriguingly, Miller shows up at Dill’s shipping-crate home at 2am and informs him “I am the rules” to “This game. Don’t you get it? Someone made the whole thing up. All of it”. The scenes between McConaughey and Strong are far and away the best in the movie, particular when Miller agrees to help with the new rules. But by this point, you’re also wondering just what Knight hoped to achieve, having spelled out the answers in the most unvarnished way. Even abusive husband/stepdad Frank (Jason Clarke) is in on it, reporting that Patrick plays a fishing game constantly, and when he was asked why, replied “If I didn’t catch fish all day, I’d find a way to kill you”.
Miller: You know, don’t you? Who the creator is.
Dill: It’s a boy sitting in a dark room…
I wondered if Knight would try and make more from the potential of his fake reality scenario. Obviously, he has his non-player characters, unable to awake from their autopilot functions – you know, the sorts who believe whatever their government tells them, and will do whatever they’re told by them, even to the extent of queuing up to jump off the nearest cliff – even as Dill wakes to the reality of the global – as in, the island, as the game – situation. It’s a familiar device (“It sometimes feels as if we’ve been here forever, right”), but we already know what is going on by the time Dill is pushing the NPCs’ buttons and getting no response.
Miller: So as a representative of the existing programme, my question is, the big question is, why has the creator changed the rules?
There’s also the question of just what Patrick is supposed to represent, assuming he’s intended to represent anything beyond what he “is” (a damaged kid out for escape/justice). After all, he has created his own flawed imitation of the actual universe, one in which he consciously changes the rules, so corrupting its “purity” of purpose: “The new game is that you kill a man. It isn’t meant to be that kind of game”. Is Patrick actually the Demiurge, an immature god corrupting his false creation? Maybe he is. Maybe Knight’s message has been lost amid the hoots of derision.
Dill: Your proficiency does not alter the regulations.
Strong and Lane are the standouts here, although the latter simply has to smoulder gently in the Sun (or shade) to make an impact. Djimon Hounsou is the reluctant first mate; Hounsou has an uncanny ability to make a big impression on a part instantly, yet bring almost no notable characterisation or charisma to it. Clarke offers his serviceable brand of assholery. Hathaway, meanwhile… One might charitably suggest she’s playing Patrick’s disastrous envisioning of a femme fatale. More likely, her performance is just disastrous (she earned a Golden Razzie nomination; McConaughey earned one too, although he’s fine, even if he’s relying too much on prop acting, namely chain smoking and maximum mooning).
Dill: Wouldn’t it be funny if the truth was that nobody knows anything? Like where exactly it is that we are.
There are a few writer-turned-directors contributing some of the more interesting – and better directed – fare out there at the moment (David Koepp, David Twohy, Scott Frank). Knight’s batting average isn’t quite up with his peers yet (although, as a writer, he appears not to sleep and is given to the occasionally ill-advised venture such as fucking up “fucking” Scrooge). I’m not totally down on Serenity. It’s far from the quality of the disgraced Joss Whedon’s Serenity, or Knight’s previous movie, the standout Locke. But it’s superior to his Stath starrer debut Redemption. He probably just needs to recognise that every idea he has probably doesn’t need to see the light of day without first going through some, or perhaps considerable, reworking.