Serenity may be an admirable film on some level, but it’s certainly not a good one. While writer/director Steven Knight (Locke) should be given credit for taking risks and attempting a stylized approach to character and storytelling, we should never lose sight of the fact that he’s made a terrible movie.
Serenity is initially set up to be a modern retelling of The Old Man and the Sea, which is itself a reframing of Moby Dick. Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) owns a fishing boat and takes rich tourists to the open waters in hopes of catching a profile-photo-worthy big fish, but he does so with ulterior motives. In fact, Baker is kept up days and nights with thoughts of that one giant tuna that got away: Justice. Yup, you read that right. Baker named his maritime nemesis Justice. Serenity shows its extreme lack of subtlety early on, and this only continues throughout the full running time.
As Baker oscillates between his life of fishing, drinking, and getting paid for sex with Constance (a criminally under-utilized Diane Lane), an old lover appears. Karen (Anne Hathaway) is Baker’s old flame and mother to his child, though they haven’t seen each other in what sounds like decades. Here Knight asks the audience to somehow accept both that Baker and Karen were in the same high school graduating class (despite the 13 year age difference between Hathaway and McConaughey) and that Karen tracked him down because they both missed their reunion.
I have to give Hathaway and McConaughey credit for their performances, but they’re acting in completely different films. Hathaway seems to be doing her best noir-drenched Veronica Lake impression, and a good one at that, while McConaughey is a hyper-sexualized version of Quint from Jaws. These two never quite seem to be talking the same language, but the aggressively clunky dialogue doesn’t help that.
It turns out that Karen’s sudden reappearance is because she wants Baker to kill her abusive husband. Had Serenity maintained any tonal or genre consistency up to this point, this reveal might have felt like a turn in plot. Instead, it feels like just another oddity to be added to the heaping pile of bad decisions. As the story continues with a few more of these bombshells, it’s hard not to laugh at how clever the film thinks it is, and how awkward it actually is.
The structure of Serenity is designed not only to be a spoiler minefield, but also has a built-in mechanism to explain away some of its own stylistic missteps. I’ll spare you the joy of seeing the plot unravel for yourself, and I’m also not certain you would believe me if I told you. It is that far-fetched.
The performances are dedicated, the story ambitious, and the locations beautiful, but don’t let any of that trick you into thinking Serenity works on any level. It does not. But it was interesting to watch it try.