Sometimes a movie’s plot twist can be so huge that it precedes the movie itself. Take The Sixth Sense, or the original Planet of the Apes, for example. Those twists were culturally earth-shattering. And both come at the end of their respective movies. But even before those famous climaxes, each film had a lot going for it. Serenity is a different case, undoubtedly sure to divide the audience. Not just because of how bad the movie is before the twist, but because the twist comes in the middle of the story, changing the landscape of the film entirely.
We open up with Matthew McConaughey’s character, Baker Dill, on a fishing boat with a few other guys, when something begins tugging at the line. Baker takes over and begins wrestling with the giant tuna. After a couple of minutes, the fish gets away. You can tell that he’s seen this fish before, but this most recent attempt is the closest he’s come to nabbing it yet, thus furthering his obsession with the creature–a la Captain Ahab.
But it’s not just him. The entire island town he lives on seems to have unrealistically bought into this obsession and it’s over-the-top. With any other plot detail presented as far as background information or why they’re obsessing, you feel as though you’re being intentionally and frustratingly left in the dark, making you already want to check out.
For the first 30 minutes, we’re not only watching a movie about Baker obsessing over not being able to catch this big fish–but a film noir about it. We think, “Why would they make this?” Eventually Anne Hathaway enters the picture, playing Baker’s ex-wife, Karen, who approaches him about a plan to murder her current husband, Frank (Jason Clarke), because he’s extremely abusive. After Karen and Baker’s divorce, Baker went off the grid to this island. With Hathaway’s introduction, the story gains an actual plot, but her performance is so cringeworthy that it almost doesn’t seem real. She’s taking this film noir thing so seriously, as though she just landed the lead in the high school play and is merely copying what she’s seen in old movies. It doesn’t help that the dialogue written for her is chock full of oft-parodied genre cliches.
As I’m watching, I’m scribbling in my notes, going off about the writer trying to emulate bad film noir from the 1930s. Things keep happening that should be extremely alarming for anyone who has ever paid attention to movies at all. Such as McConaughey’s insane brooding about catching a fish, or Hathaway’s cartoonish line deliveries, or even the fact that the filmmakers keep shamelessly pounding into our brains that everyone knows everyone’s business in this island town. It’s all so bizarre. You start to wonder if this is perhaps a self-parody. But then about an hour into the movie, something great happens and everything starts to make sense. I then realize this is all intentional.
A twist gets dropped on us that is so ridiculous that it actually changes the entire genre of the film. And since the movie had been so marginal up to this point, that plot shift comes with a sigh of relief. In fact, I may be doing you a disservice by even telling you that there’s a twist in the first place. Maybe it’s more fun if you’re able to pick up on the hints sprinkled here and there leading up to it. Then maybe the shift would be less jarring.
The only real problem with the twist is that it risks nullifying our attachment to our characters as it flips our heads around, completely switching our protagonist to someone I haven’t even mentioned. Fortunately the director’s restrictions on the actors’ freedom of performance prevents us from ever becoming fully invested in these characters in the first place. While being entertained, we do have an issue attaching ourselves, somehow making us better able to embrace this oddball concept.
If you’re a fan of gratuitous absurdity, then Serenity is right in your wheelhouse. It’s like The Truman Show meets Wild Things, in the most on-the-nose way possible. While it does take itself a little too seriously, it’s that very same commitment that makes this film appealing in the end. You just have to sit through a bad half of a movie to get there. Just think of it as needing to eat your dinner before you can have any dessert.
Originally published on February 22, 2019 at https://www.popzara.com/movies/movie-reviews/serenity-2019/