Sometimes a movie’s plot twist can be so huge that it precedes the movie itself. Take classics like The Sixth Sense or the original Planet of the Apes, for example. Those were culturally earth-shattering. And both of their well-earned twists come at the conclusions of their respective movies. Those films also had a lot going for them, even before those famous climaxes. Serenity is a different case. It’s going to divide the audience, not just because of how bad the movie is before its twist, but because the twist comes in the middle of the story and changes the landscape of the film entirely.
It opens up with Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) 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, though after a few minutes struggling on the line the fish gets away. You can tell that he’s seen this fish before, but this most recent attempt is his closest yet, thus furthering an obsession that he has about catching it – a la Captain Ahab.
But it’s not just him. The entire island town Baker lives on has seems to have unrealistically bought into this obsession and it’s over-the-top. With any other plot detail that gets brought up, as far as background information or why they’re obsessing, you feel as though you’re being intentionally left in the dark. It’s frustrating and makes you want to check out. For the first 30 minutes, we’re not only watching a movie about Matthew McConaughey’s character, Baker Dill, obsessing over not being able to catch this big fish, but a film noir about it. We think, “Why would they make this?”
In comes Karen Zariakas (Anne Hathaway), Baker’s ex-wife, who approaches him about murdering her current husband, Frank (Jason Clarke), who’s become extremely abusive. We learn that after Karen and Baker’s divorce, Baker went off the grid to escaped to the island. With Hathaway’s entrance, 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 just copying what she’s seen in the 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. 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 it into our brains that everyone knows everyone’s business in this town. It’s all so bizarre. You start to wonder if this is self-parody. But then, about an hour into the movie, something great happens and it all starts to make sense…I realize this is all intentional.
It drops a twist 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, the twist comes with a sigh of relief. In fact, I could be doing you, the unsuspecting viewer, a disservice by even hinting about such a twist in the first place. It’s not quite on the gotcha! level of M. Night Shyamalan – it’s far more expansive. Perhaps they thought it would be more fun – and less jarring – to pick up on the hints sprinkled here and there leading up to it.
The only real problem with the twist is that it risks nullifying our attachment to the characters, and in turn flips our heads around, completely switching our protagonist to someone I haven’t even mentioned. Fortunately, director Steven Knight, known mostly for screenwriting, places restrictions on his actors’ freedom of performance, which prevents us from ever becoming fully invested in these characters in the first place. While entertaining, perhaps a different approach may have allowed us to better relate to their crazy situation within such an 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. Seldom do we see such mega-stars in a project so wildly different like this, and for good reason. It does take itself a little too seriously, but it’s that very same commitment to its absurd premise that makes it so 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.