If you know Serenity at all, it’s likely through all of the recent headlines about its totally bonkers twist.
Or you’re simply confused why everyone is suddenly talking about Joss Whedon’s fantastic Firefly movie. Rest assured, this is a different Serenity. No leaves on the wind here. Instead, think of Matthew McConaughey as a deranged boat captain on a middle-of-nowhere fishing island and Anne Hathaway as an I’ll-give-you-ten-million-bucks-to-kill-my-abusive-husband femme fatale. That’s Serenity. The title comes from the name of McConaughey’s boat (because of course, it does).
This is a production which, like most every other movie which eventually washes up on January’s rocky shores, had its release date delayed multiple times. It now hails from a company, Aviron Pictures, most people have never heard of before. The director-writer, Steven Knight, hasn’t directed anything in 5 years. He used the time between his last movie (Locke) and this one quite wisely, wracking up writing credits on a bunch of middling movies (Burnt, Allied, Woman Walks Ahead, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, to name a few) and creating two different TV shows (Peaky Blinders, Taboo).
Serenity, thus, is the result of someone steadily building up enough credit in Hollywood to finally get another shot at directing and it shows. He even managed to scrape together a $25m budget from some shady financiers and attract some pretty recognizable names, with Jason Clarke joining McConaughey and Hathaway as the no good hubby and Djimon Hounsou showing up as McConaughey’s shipmate/moral conscious.
All of that time and work has now come down to this: Serenity will forever be defined by its twist. Everyone at least agrees the twist is pretty insane. Not everyone agrees, however, if the twist is actually any good or perhaps at least qualifies to be in the so-bad-its-good conversation.
Knowing all of this, I went into Serenity in the mood for mindless, trashy fun and hopefully a twist I’d want to talk about right away. (The setting and sexy noir feel of the trailer definitely gave me some Wild Things vibes.) Instead, I ended up guessing the twist in literally the first 30 seconds.
Spoiler warning, when a movie opens on an unexplained shot of a child’s eyes, zooms into them as if we’re going into the kid’s mind, and then jumps to our lead character suddenly waking up in a clearly entirely different location and setting what might you guess that means? If your mind goes straight to “it’s all happening in that kid’s head, obviously” or something in that territory, congratulations, just like Steven Knight you’re clearly familiar with that prolonged post-Usual Suspects/Primal Fear period in film history when every screenwriter in Hollywood competed to see who could come up with the coolest twist ending. Or maybe you’re simply familiar with St. Elsewhere‘s infamous series finale which reframed the events of the series as taking place inside the mind of an autistic child.
Without going any further into specifics, Serenity does a 2019 version of that but doesn’t have the good sense to realize how hackneyed it is. Instead, Serenity takes itself quite seriously. Not once, not twice, but thrice does McConaughey, for example, yells toward the heavens in the last convincing display of existential dread possible. There’s a character who is simply named “The Rules.”
Elsewhere, McConaughey inexplicably strips naked in front of Diane Lane (who occasionally employs him as a gigolo), walks out of his oceanside makeshift cabin, melodramatically snarls “I’m going to take a shower” and then jumps off the side of a cliff to swim in the Indian Ocean. That’s some Swayze “paint don’t hurt” level cheese, but Serenity really doesn’t want us laughing about it, not with the way we then watch a completely naked McConaughey swim underwater while possibly flashing back to a time when his estranged son almost drowned. You’re forgiven if this ultra serious drama seems a tad upstaged by the “yeah, but can we see McConaughey’s penis?” of it all (the answer is no).
Benjamin Wallfisch’s overwrought and overly loud musical score doesn’t help things, either. Every time a string section popped back up to swell and try to force the audience into tears, I thought, “Did no one who worked on this realize what kind of movie they were really making?” It’s a thought which occurred to me a lot throughout Serenity.
The answer I reached is very similar to what I concluded about Replicas earlier this month and Red Lights last year: I’m pretty sure this was just a vacation gig for everyone. They filmed in Mauritius, a truly stunning island nation in the Indian Ocean which has been named “World’s Leading Island Destination” and “World’s Best Beach” in the past. You can’t tell me that doesn’t help turn the tide when your gut is telling you the script is a bit iffy.
That doesn’t automatically mean everyone was just phoning it in. Hathaway, for one, is clearly having the time of her life vamping it up as a character straight out of a film noir. But all actors are entitled to their “it paid for my summer home” or “I just really wanted to see Africa” gig. Heck, McConaughey has several of those already. Serenity is simply another. That it has people talking about its big, predictable, largely nonsensical twist is a testament to how starved we are for something interesting to debate with this January’s especially putid selection of new movies.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Serenity starts out as a somewhat passable, trashy modern film noir before giving way to an annoyingly self-serious twist, one which left at least four people walking out of my sold-out screening early. Credit to the writer-director for taking such a big swing, but it all ends up falling into the so-bad-it’s-good territory, at best. But, hey, the island they filmed on looks gorgeous.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHT
A counterpoint to my “vacation gig” theory: Maybe after Interstellar, Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey just really wanted to work together again.