THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
In order to tell a story, sometimes you have to make some pretty daring leaps. Whether logically ridiculous or convoluted, mystery and noir films have relied on complex plot twists that stretch credulity to tell us engaging and unique stories. Sometimes, those twists work and sometimes they fall flat. But, occassionally there is a film whose twist is lambasted but when you dig deeper into the movie you find that not only does it work but it offers something different than we have seen countless times before. Steven Knight‘s SERENITY is a prime example of a movie that was completely mismarketed thanks to the fact that it is a film that defies categorization. Not quite a noir, not quite a thriller, and not quite a science fiction film, SERENITY is one of the most daring movies of 2019 and one that is more than just a plot twist.
So let us dispense with any pretense and jump right to it, okay? SERENITY is all a video game. The events of the film all exist within the electronic creation of a broken child who mourns his dead father and longs for the freedom from an abusive stepfather. In his depression and crippling anxiety, this young man creates a fictional realm where his dad is still alive and he can imagine the murder of the man torturing him in real life. It is a dark and quite haunting story idea for a movie and one that unabashedly turned critics and audiences off. But it could also have been the pisspoor marketing of SERENITY which imagined the film as a pictaresque neo-noir set in the Caribbean. With a pretty cast doing nasty things, SERENITY looked like any number of other movies and another potential bomb for Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey.
But that is the problem with judging a movie based on trailers. True, previews are inherently designed to make audiences want to see a film and the marketing for SERENITY failed spectacularly. When people finally saw the film and what the twist was, it further soured them on the core conceit of the movie. Yes, this is a revenge film but not the one you were teased. Yes, it is weird to create a video game wherein you are navigating your parents having red hot sex on a boat in a thunderstorm, but many are missing the fact that this is a game being created by a deeply troubled mind. Many called the dialogue atrocious and bad, but that misses the fact that the dialogue is being written by a teenager. The villain is dastardly, the hero stoic and the woman is a femme fatale. All of the cliches and tropes are on display here and that is what makes this movie work so well.
Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway have an easy chemistry, something briefly seen in their screen time shared in Christopher Nolan‘s INTERSTELLAR, but here they get to have fun with genre conventions. While critics called their acting hammy or phoned in, they are both playing two-dimensional versions of three-dimensional people; fictional versions of what someone would think people they know would do. There is an intention behind this and it becomes clearer as the movie proceeds. Once Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is made aware by Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong) that they exist within a video game, the story has more fun with how the programming of the game tries to stop Dill from going against the fundamental goal of the game. In many ways, SERENITY is the evolution of elements from TRON and THE MATRIX told within the confines of a murder mystery.
Writer/director Steven Knight has shown how much he can do with dialogue and nothing else with the excellent LOCKE as well as the brilliant screenplays for DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, EASTERN PROMISES, and TV series like Taboo, Peaky Blinders, and Apple TV+ series See. Knight could not go from a resume like that to turning in something holistically bad, so you must reconsider that SERENITY is deliberately written the way that it is. Knight’s direction makes great use of the gorgeous views of Mauritius where the movie was filmed and gets a range of performances from Djimon Honsou’s friendly first mate Duke to Diane Lane‘s sexy Constance all the way to Jason Clarke‘s mustache-twirling villain Frank Zariakas. The secondary characters here are all intentionally generic to evoke the non-playable stock characters in a video game. As Matthew McConaughey‘s Baker Dill uncovers the truth of his existence, everything begins to make sense.
After seeing the film without knowing the twist, I watched it again fully understanding what was going to come next. Like with THE SIXTH SENSE or any film with a narrative-altering reveal, revisiting SERENITY fully aware of what is coming next allows you to pick apart each sequence, looking for clues about what is going to happen. Steven Knight peppers these teases through the film and it allows the viewer to experience the tale in a much different manner when you know what is going to happen. If anything, it makes the story more tragic and the performances from Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway all the more impactful.
SERENITY took balls to make, especially for a filmmaker who is not quite at the level of some of his colleagues in Hollywood. While Steven Knight certainly has had success on screens big and small, a miss as big as what happened with SERENITY could irrevoccably damage a career. But, like many of the characters in his films, Knight took a chance and made the movie he intended to. The results may have been financially disastrous but they are creatively bold. So, if you have stayed away from SERENITY because of critical reaction or due to your interpretation of the twist, I ask that you give the film a shot. Don’t go in expecting this to be an awards-worthy film nor a movie that will change the careers of anyone involved, but go in with an open mind and truly think about what the twist means for the characters on screen, especially the abused teen whose warped mind had to create such a game and still succumbed to commiting one of the worst crimes imaginable. This is a haunting film and a powerful one told within a very unique framework. And for that it is a success.