Here’s the thing about Serenity: Yes, I’m about to spoil everything that happens in the movie, but if you haven’t seen the movie already, it will hardly matter, because it is so categorically ludicrous that you probably won’t believe me. Even if you do, will probably have trouble believing it with your own two eyes if/when you decide to go see it anyway. If you have seen it already, I’m just here to assure you that you haven’t had a momentary lapse in consciousness, or at least that, if you did, we all experienced it together.
[Ed. note: Just to reiterate, the rest of this article contains spoilers for Serenity.]
The first half of Serenity, which stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, is about what you’d expect from the trailers, which frame the film as a sexy thriller. McConaughey plays a fishing boat captain named Baker Dill (why not), who spends his days obsessing over a particularly large tuna fish he’s named “Justice,” and sleeping with Constance (Diane Lane), who pays him for his time. Naturally, his idyllic island existence gets shaken up when his ex-wife Karen (Hathaway) rolls into town with a favor to ask: kill her abusive new husband Frank (Jason Clarke) for the sake of the son they had back when they were together.
There’s a lot of shirtless McConaughey (and in-the-buff McConaughey), and Lane and Hathaway get very breathy around him, which is about par for the course that the movie seems to be setting. Director and writer Steven Knight, however, has more on his mind. The intermittent flashes of Dill’s son — seen through the child’s computer screen as he plays computer games — and the strange swoops of the camera hint at something, but what comes next is what I would conservatively call “galaxy brain level.”
As Dill ponders the ethics of committing a murder in order to better the lives of his son and his ex-wife, strange things start to happen on the island. The strangest is the appearance of Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong), who drops the following revelation on Dill:
Dill is a character in a video game.
The island is a collection of minigames — fishing is a minigame, finding Constance’s stray cat (not a euphemism) is a minigame — being played by a very real young boy with a dead father (who looked just like Dill) and a new, abusive stepdad, and because the game doesn’t involve any violence, the programming is pushing back against Dill. Reid is “the rules,” sent to ensure that Dill stays the course and doesn’t commit murder.
Let’s recap: Serenity stars Matthew McConaughey as a video game character trying to commit a murder in a game that would be rated E for Everyone if not for all of the boning going on in it.
It all comes to a head when Dill decides to go through with killing Frank, and the footage of him letting Clarke get dragged off the boat (and consequently drown) is intercut with footage of the boy getting up from his computer, grabbing his dead dad’s knife, and going to murder his stepdad. We next see the boy in jail, imagining a phone conversation in which he tells Dill that he’s changed the rules of the game so that they can visit each other. Polygons fly through the air around Dill until the boy is running down the dock and into his arms, and, in real life, the kid smiles in his cell.
I have seen this movie, and I still believe almost none of it. The video game framing device, the number of times Anne Hathaway says “daddy,” the mental gymnastics involved in figuring Hathaway and McConaughey as even close to the same age (and then her reminiscing about how he’d told her she was finally old enough to sleep with), the fact that a child commits murder — you couldn’t make any of this up. Except, apparently, if you’re Steven Knight. To be clear, I admire Knight — Eastern Promises, Locke, and Peaky Blinders are great — but Serenity is inexplicable. I am also not trying to nonstop dunk on this movie; I’m just genuinely still trying to process the plot.
Serenity is beautifully shot, and there’s not a single performance in it that isn’t one hundred percent committed (Clarke is having the time of his life playing to the rafters, McConaughey is treading into Nic Cage territory, Hathaway is basically playing a cartoon — not a complaint). But when the big twist in a film is so The Sims-adjacent, it’s hard to focus on anything else. (I would say Tron-adjacent, but that’s giving too much credit to Serenity, whereas The Sims games have always been used to enact the weirdest lives for your Sims as possible.) The video game framing device is also a little undercooked, as any cogent points about the nature of free will and creating your own path are subsumed by the amount of work that has to go into keeping the metaphorical ship steady once the twist is revealed.
While I can’t whole-heartedly recommend going to see this film — the first hour, i.e. when it’s still trying to hide the fact that it’s a video game, is a drag — I can’t imagine that there’s a single other movie coming out this year that will match it for how utterly unbelievable it is. That alone makes Serenity worthy of distinction, despite how impossible it is to figure out exactly what audience the film was meant for. A movie that swings wildly for the fences and misses is infinitely more memorable than one that never tries.