“Serenity” opens with a shot of a boy’s face. The camera zooms into his eye and our story begins. I jokingly thought to myself, “If this entire movie takes place in a kid’s mind, St. Elsewhere style, I’m going to lose it.” The actual revelation would be far worse.
Let’s start with everything before that big revelation though. Matthew McConaughey stars as Baker Dill, a fisherman who is obsessed with catching a massive tuna fish nicknamed Justice, “Moby Dick” style.
Baker is a surly man, a war veteran who has exiled himself to small island Plymouth Rock after a nasty divorce from Karen (Anne Hathaway) that left him without custody of his son, Patrick. The first twenty minutes of the film makes this clear as every character on the island appears to know everything about Baker’s business. Characters constantly press him on his thoughts and feelings while the phrase “Everyone knows everything that happens in Plymouth Rock” hovers over every conversation. Something is definitely up.
With no money to catch his giant fish, Baker turns to Constance (a painfully underutilized Diane Lane). It’s never made clear what kind of relationship Baker and Constance have. She pays Baker after they sleep together and makes a joke(?) about him being a prostitute. They’re clearly not in a relationship with one another. Are they friends with benefits or is he actually her gigolo? It doesn’t matter! Because Constance has no purpose in this movie. All she does is tell Baker things he already knows about himself. They have sex twice in the film, in the same location, with Constance being fully clothed in the same outfit both times as though they filmed the two scenes within a half hour of one another.
The plot of the film finally takes shape when ex-wife Karen shows up unexpectedly to offer Baker a proposition. Her husband Frank (Jason Clarke) has been abusing her and Patrick. She offers Baker TEN MILLION DOLLARS to take Frank out onto his boat and throw him overboard for the sharks. Baker is reluctant, but Karen is persistent. Frank arrives on the island the next day, booze in hand and immediately strips Karen nude and beats the shit out of her for no reason. Baker learns of this news because literally EVERY PERSON on the island immediately knows that Frank beat the shit out of Karen. Apparently, no one is willing to do anything about this domestic abuse, and it’s completely up to Baker to solve this issue. It’s at this time that Baker decides to go swimming in the ocean completely naked…
While Baker is swimming in the ocean he comes across the naked apparition of his son, Patrick – who is roughly thirteen by the way. Naked father and son bond within the water in a surreal sequence that is truly beyond words. There’s a strange connection between Baker and his son. We learn that the son is connecting with Baker somehow. The film implies there’s some sort of camera on Baker’s boat and his son has been watching him? Though it might also be telepathy? What the fuck is going on?
Back to our “main story,” Frank arrives on the dock ready to go on his boat ride with Baker -unaware that he’s Karen’s ex-husband. Karen has somehow convinced him that this shitty fishing boat is the BEST boat on the entire island and that he needs to ride THIS particular boat. Baker, however, refuses to take him. Frank, believing this is some kind of hard sell, offers Baker TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS to take him on one day trip out to sea. How much money do these people have!?
They go out to sea where boozehound Frank goes full bad guy by casually asking Baker where he can find “little girls” on the island. Apparently there’s a spot on the island where little girls “take it in the ass for ten dollars a pop” and Frank decides to casually ask Baker about that like some kind of tourist. Is it too much to ask for a little nuance here? The writers clearly want us to root for this man’s murder, but they do they have to turn him into a fucking cartoon in order to do it? Anyway, despite flashing a neon sign over his head that he’s a pedophile, Baker still refuses to kill Frank. The little girls are never mentioned again.
Karen is not happy. Visiting Baker in his boat, she attempts to coerce him through seduction. They have sex. The line “We’ve both been hurt; we’re both damaged, but in different ways” is uttered during the act. Post-coital, Baker agrees to throw Frank overboard the next day.
Now, the twist, which is delivered to us roughly halfway through the film. Baker goes home and is confronted by a stranger (the stranger had been trying to speak to him throughout the film). The stranger somehow knows that Baker intends to kill Frank and urges him to simply catch the fish instead. When Baker asks questions, the stranger informs him that “I am the rules.” Baker doesn’t accept any of this cryptic bullshit and threatens him with a knife. That’s when the stranger finally drops the bombshell – they’re in a video game.
Yes. Baker, Karen, Frank are avatars and Plymouth Rock is a video game. This. Is. Not. A. Joke. BUT WAIT! It gets crazier. The game was designed by Baker’s son, Patrick. In the real world, Baker is dead, so, in order to cope with his father’s passing Patrick created the game and made his father the star. This is why Baker has had such a weird connection to his son throughout the film. However, there’s a problem. In the real world, Frank abuses Karen. Patrick hears him beating his mother through the walls. So, tired of spending his days listening to the horror, Patrick has rewritten the game so that the avatar of his father can kill the avatar of his stepfather. That’s some healthy catharsis right there!
I have so many thoughts. On one hand, this actually kind of explains all of the horrible dialogue that has filled the movie up to this moment. After all, the game was written by a thirteen-year-old boy. Of course the social interactions are going to be garbage! On the other hand, this means that he wrote multiple sex scenes involving his dead father – one of which involved him banging his living mother. This fucking pervert has a lot of damn issues!
In a way, the “this is actually a video game” twist isn’t terrible. If done right you could potentially have a “The Truman Show” type story on your hand. “Serenity,” however, completely fucks it up. That’s because genre switching can be tricky. If you sell people on a Drama/Thriller (seriously, watch the trailer) only to pivot into a science fiction film midway through it’s going to anger your audience. This is really the most batshit crazy thing I’ve seen at the movies in ages.
Anyway, the next day the entire town is trying to convince Baker to focus on catching the fish instead of killing Frank (because the game is rejecting its new directive based on… morality?). The world is now glitching too, because why the fuck not? Baker, meanwhile, is questioning his existence. In a second scene with the stranger, Baker is informed that his new “compulsion” is to kill Frank. Instead of question whether he’s even capable of free will, Baker rushes off to kill Frank. Later, while they’re out at sea, one of their fishing rods hooks the massive tuna that Baker has been chasing the entire movie. He offers the pole to a drunk Frank, who takes it and is pulled off the boat by the massive fish. Frank never resurfaces from the water. Frank is killed by a fish named Justice.
Patrick, having watched him die in his digital world, picks up a knife and murders Frank in the real world. After a quick montage, the police determine that Patrick was acting in self-defense and release him. Patrick rewrites his game once more, adding himself to the world. Baker and Patrick embrace one another as the music swells and they live happily ever after. What in the actual fuck did I just watch?
God, I hope this is the worst movie of 2019, because I don’t know if I can handle anything worse than this one.