What do beach-based, neo-noir narratives, video games and a giant tuna have in common? I just watched two hours of it and I still have no idea — and whatever else “it” may be. It certainly doesn’t make for compelling cinema. I suspect that, at some point in its production history, writer/director Steven Knight’s Serenity might have had an interesting script. Certainly, there must have been something worthwhile on the page in the distant past to attract stars like Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou and Diane Lane. But whatever it was that got those generally acceptable actors on board must have wound up on the cutting-room floor, because I’m just not seeing it in the finished product.
Serenity is an almost indescribably odd film, from its bizarre camera work to its tepid plot twist, awkwardly revealed in the second act — and that’s to say nothing of the egregious employment of McConaughey’s bare ass throughout. The story, ostensibly, sets up McConaughey as a burned-out Iraq war vet who has taken up residence on a vaguely identified island where he whores himself out to Diane Lane for money to prop up a failing sport fishing business. When his estranged ex (Hathaway, inexplicably blonde) seeks to enlist his aid in extricating herself and their son from her abusive marriage to Clarke, an unduly simple murder plot is spawned. And if only the narrative had stuck to that line of reasoning, this might have proven a perfectly passable little thriller. Spoiler alert — it’s not.
I could go into detail about the problematic performances from every single cast member involved, but that would elide the fact that there’s nothing they could have done with this script in the first place. Knight’s screenplay contains so many blind alleys and red herrings that one begins to question not only the reality of its story world (intentional) but also whatever tenuous grasp its writer might have on the real world himself (probably unintentional). The mechanics of the film’s deficiencies are laid out early, but the true inadequacies are only revealed about an hour in, as the creeping dread that none of this nonsense is going to come together sinks in definitively. Look, I’m all for a quasi-Gnostic, high-concept bait-and-switch, but the line between intrigue and incredulity can become perilously thin under even the best of circumstances. Serenity does not represent the best of circumstances.
The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. Whether Serenity was a well-intentioned film thwarted in post-production or an ill-conceived mess from its inception is impossible to say with any degree of certainty. Given my experience enduring Knight’s writing in such abysmal travesties as The Girl in the Spider’s Web and Seventh Son, I strongly suspect the latter to be the case, but that’s strictly supposition. The only fact abundantly self-evident in these proceedings is that, whatever Knight’s plan for this film may have entailed, it should have been aborted long before it had the chance to inflict its inanity on the unsuspecting moviegoing populace. Note to Knight: Opening a movie in mid-January is not the same as making it disappear altogether.