We should keep the expectations for a January release to a minimum. A few titles throughout the years have done well for themselves, but January is traditionally a dump month. This is where studios place movies they financed but now do not know what to do with.
Serenity is a prime example of a movie no one knows how to sell.
The trailer literally reads like a who’s who of Oscar-caliber actors: “Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey.” “Academy Award winner Anne Hathaway.” “Academy Award nominee Diane Lane.” … “Jason Clarke.”
What the ads were selling was a movie about a fisherman named Baker Dill (McConaughey), who is asked by his ex-wife (Hathaway) to kill her abusive husband on a fishing trip (Clarke). Dill has a son with his ex-wife, and that is an extra motivation to get rid of the abusive husband. Should he commit murder to protect those he loves?
Director Steven Knight has been a favorite of Film School Rejects. His television series Peaky Blinders and his feature film Locke have both received high praise from our writers. Locke is a high-concept film that takes place entirely inside a car with Tom Hardy communicating with others about a decision that will affect him forever. His projects take something mundane and turn it into something else. That’s exactly what he has done with Serenity.
Spoilers for Serenity ahead
The first 20 minutes of Serenity focus on Baker Dill and his difficulty hooking the mighty tuna known as Justice. Yes, the tuna is named Justice. Along with his second mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou), Dill takes tourists out fishing so he can afford to pay his help and hook that fish. The big problem is that Baker Dill cannot afford to keep doing this. To make money on the side, he has sex with a local woman (Lane) who pays him for the privilege. This continues until the arrival of his ex-wife, Karen Zariakas.
Karen needs Dill to kill her abusive husband, and she’ll pay $10 million for him to do it. With that kind of money, Baker Dill could chase that tuna until the end of time. There is just this one issue of having to kill a man. Fast forward two-thirds through the movie, and finally the secrets unravel.
The island where the movie takes place is a video game and everyone involved is part of that game.
After Baker Dill decides to kill the abusive husband, he is visited by a man named Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong). Miller has had trouble talking to Dill, and he has a fishing product to sell at 2:30 am. If that wasn’t strange enough, Miller is saying weird things like “I am the rules” and “playing my part in a game.” That’s when everything clicks into place.
If Plymouth Island is a game, then who built it? It is unveiled that Baker Dill’s son, Patrick (Rafael Sayegh), is incredibly bright and gifted in programming. He sits in his room all day playing and making adjustments to his fishing simulator. Why fishing? Because that is what his fondest memory was of his late father. Baker Dill is an avatar for Patrick’s father in the video game. The real Baker Dill died while on duty in Iraq. The game also allows Patrick to escape reality — a reality in which he and his mother are victims of domestic abuse.
When Baker Dill decides that he will go through with the murder, he is abandoning his programming and doing something outside of his set rules. Once that action is completed, Patrick decides he will no longer take the abuse from his step-father and murders him in the real world. Serenity explains that Patrick was let off from his crime and could recode Plymouth Island to include an avatar of himself. This way, he could visit his father in the game world.
If Serenity seems at first like it was poorly written and acted, we’re later lead to believe that was part of the design. This story is supposed to be written by a teenager and that’s why the dialogue features gems from Hathaway like “strangle me baby,” there are multiple sex scenes which aren’t sexy and end in a flash, and the narrative is poorly written. It is possible to explain away many of the faults in the movie because of the creator of the video game. Instead of a neo-noir revenge story, it’s really more like The Truman Show or Black Mirror.
Steven Knight has essentially made both a low-concept trash film and a high-concept one at the same time. Serenity is so reliant on the twist that it is easy to see the difficulty in marketing it. I haven’t decided if it is a disaster or genius, but beyond all else, it is definitely wild.