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Warning: This post contains major spoilers for the new film Serenity.
Move over, M. Night Shyamalan. While the auteur’s comic book trilogy-capper Glass has its own surprise ending, the most bonkers plot twist of 2019 belongs to Serenity. The new film from writer-director Steven Knight stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in a sun-soaked noir that begins like Body Heat and then takes a wild turn into crazytown midway through. Over on Rotten Tomatoes, where Serenity currently stands at a 22 percent score, the critical reaction ranges from shock to befuddlement — so much so that Hathaway felt compelled to publicly stick up for the movie, which opened to an anemic $4.8 million this weekend.
But in an interesting real-world twist, the scathing reactions are actually encouraging some moviegoers to seek the movie out to experience the twist for themselves.
Me walking out of Serenity you folks really need to see this film it’s either the most ambitious train wreck I’ve seen in a long time or a stroke of stupid genius that left me reeling with questions and genuine excitement to show this thing to everyone I know. What a fucking ride pic.twitter.com/VfNyrCKI4H
— KBow (@_KB0W) January 27, 2019
1. Serenity (2019) is the biggest, weirdest train wreck I’ve seen in a theater in a long time. Please see this film. pic.twitter.com/itpycQ7lzx
— Buddy Ketelle (@BuddyKetelle) January 27, 2019
The movie @SerenityFilm is a whole conversation.
Just saw all this negative reviews about it. Glad I saw it AFTER I saw the movie.
I would definitely recommend seeing it for yourself.
— FashionMeansFreedom (@FashionFreedom_) January 27, 2019
— bem (@mullerbsyv) January 27, 2019
For the record, Steven Knight set out to make a movie that would aggressively kick moviegoers out of their comfort zones. “Audiences are so movie-literate, and so savvy, one of the things I wanted to achieve was to genuinely surprise people,” the filmmaker told Yahoo Entertainment prior to the movie’s release. “I haven’t met anyone yet who said, ‘I knew what was coming!’ We’ve had fantastic responses from people who’ve seen it. The response I like most is, ‘I don’t know what I just saw.'”
If you’ve seen the film and are still confused yourself, we’re here to help. In separate interviews with Knight — who previously directed the acclaimed 2013 film Locke with Tom Hardy — as well as McConaughey and Hathaway, we dove off the deep end into spoiler territory, covering everything from the mid-movie reveal to the reality-bending final scene. But first, here’s a quick recap of the events leading up to the crazy plot twist.
Previously on Serenity…
Meet Baker Dill (McConaughey), Plymouth Island’s most handsome, and most obsessive, fisherman. When he’s not piloting wealthy businessman around the pearl-blue waters surrounding his impossibly gorgeous island abode, he’s engaged in his own Ahab-like quest for the big fish that keeps getting away. By all rights, Baker should be content with his life — which also includes a torrid affair with Plymouth’s most eligible bachelorette (Diane Lane) — but there’s tragedy in his past that can’t be so easily forgotten. Then, one evening, that past collides with his present when his ex-wife, Karen (Anne Hathaway), walks into the island bar. In another life, they were the happy parents of a young boy named Patrick, but then Baker was called up to fight in the Iraq War. During his deployment, a despairing Karen married Frank (Jason Clarke), a wealthy businessman who turned out to be emotionally and physically abusive towards her and Patrick.
At a breaking point and worried for her son, Karen has arranged a Plymouth Island getaway for Frank and arrives with a deal for Baker: murder her new husband in exchange for a $10 million payday and the knowledge that Patrick will be safe at last. Still angry at her for marrying another man, Dill repeatedly turns the offer down. But then she tells them about their son, who has retreated into his room, only communicating with the outside world via his computer. While processing Karen’s plea, he’s approached by Reid Miller, a bespectacled bureaucrat-type (Jeremy Strong) who has reality-altering news to deliver, setting off a chain of events that push Serenity into truly unexpected territory. Ready? Here we go.
Twist No. 1: Plymouth Island is a computer simulation created by Patrick
Patrick’s real father, John, never made it home from Iraq. In the wake of his death, Karen married Frank, a construction worker prone to violent outbursts. Hiding in his bedroom, Patrick creates Plymouth Island on his computer. It’s both an outlet for him and a heavenly home for his dead father, whose spirit the grief-stricken boy has tried to replicate in digital code. Everyone else on the island happily runs according to Patrick’s program. Only Baker — named after Patrick’s school principal — yearns for more, perhaps because he’s he’s a free-willed avatar in an open world game.
Steven Knight: Whenever I direct something, I set myself a challenge. With Locke, it was to take the most ordinary man in Britain, doing the most ordinary thing: he’s driving down a motorway. Could that be a film? With Serenity, I wanted to set up a conventional situation and then — at the most inconvenient moment for the narrative — rip everything away. Whatever stakes you’ve set, they’re not the stakes at all. So that was the challenge I set for myself in the script.
Matthew McConaughey: On the first read, [the plot twist] was a mouth agape “Wow!” moment for me. I had to go back and reread and pick up clues that I’d missed along the way to try and make sense of it.
Anne Hathaway: For me, [the twist] was the moment where my heart really dropped. My son at the time was just turning 1, and when you have a child, you start to think about the collective inheritance that we’re giving our children that we’re asking the future to take on. Within the twist, this is a story of a child processing violence and abuse and pain and trauma and war. All of those things are really the things that define us as a society, and that we don’t ever talk about. It just broke my heart, and made me want to do the movie.
Knight: I look at my kids and other people when they’re playing computer games. I believe that the suspension of disbelief when someone’s playing a game is more profound than the suspension of disbelief when someone’s reading a novel or watching a movie. It feels that they are creating a reality between themselves and the screen, where the stuff on the screen is just sort of the raw materials for what they are creating in their heads.
Patrick recreates his dad and gives him the best possible life. He once went fishing with his dad, and his dad seemed to like fishing, so he made him a fisherman and he’s given him a boat. His dad used to like to drink rum, so he’s given him a bar. I don’t think we should necessarily think that the boy is there for the sex scenes [with Constance]. He’s just saying, “Off you go, have a perfect life.” But we know from the beginning that the character isn’t happy at all, because he’s having to live the life that’s been programmed for him.
Twist No. 2: Patrick created a digital dad to explore his darkest desire: killing his stepfather.
It shouldn’t be overlooked that Serenity is arriving in theaters 20 years after The Matrix popularized the “We’re living in a computer simulation” premise. In that action classic, though, the machines didn’t create the Matrix to learn anything from its digital citizens; it’s just a way to keep them docile while their real-world bodies provided the battery power that kept their high-tech wardens operating. Patrick’s intentions with Plymouth Island are different — it’s a simulation into which he can download his darkest fears and desires, and also learn from the way his creations act. The experience that Patrick specifically wants to explore through his digital world is whether he can — and should — kill his abusive stepfather. Thus, he’s prompted Baker to wrestle with this very question at the same time that he’s weighing the morality, not to mention the logistics, of such a violent act.
Hathaway: There are a lot of questions that need to be asked, which The Matrix posed, and I think that Serenity is a wonderful chapter in asking, “What is life? What do you want your life to be?” We’re reducing the world in which we live, and we’re allowing ourselves to be conditioned by things that don’t take in the vastness of the beauty — the lushness of life. More and more, we’re cutting our children off from that beauty.
McConaughey: Any parent has to deal with the challenge of screen time for their children. Where do our children come to understand reality? Do they have an experience first, and then go to a video game and say, “Oh OK, this is a version of that experience?” More and more, kids are getting their experience through the digital age, and not from life’s experiences. That can be dangerous, because reality has to be enough for us humans to get off to, or else we’re really thrown off balance, and we’re really tweaked.
Knight: Twenty years ago, movies like The Matrix were putting forward the possibility that this might be the future. Well, this is the future. We’re in it, and for many people, the reality that they create in association with a game is as profound — if not more profound — than the boring reality that they have to live during the day. What interests me is the idea that when someone dies, if you have enough information about that person, it is quite feasible that you could make a virtual version of that person with whom you could consult. And I think this will become possible with the power of the technology of the future.
Twist No. 3: Patrick kills his stepfather, and earns the praise of his dead father.
Just as in the real world, murder is frowned upon on Plymouth Island. So once Baker commits to killing Frank with Karen’s help, Patrick’s program throws obstacles in their path — reflecting the anguished mental state of a child torn between his own impulses and what society teaches him. Eventually, his parents’ avatars lure an inebriated Frank out onto open water, where Dill straps him to a fishing seat just as the massive fish he’s been chasing — called, appropriately enough, Justice — bites at the line and hauls the gangster out of the boat and into the depths of the digital ocean. Having witnessed justice served on his computer screen, Patrick then picks up the knife that belonged to his real father and heads into the next room, where Frank can be heard beating Karen. The next time we see him, he’s covered in his stepfather’s blood.
Naturally, Patrick is swiftly arrested for this crime. But neither he — nor, for that matter, the movie — believe he’s done anything wrong. That’s an opinion that Serenity drives home in a climactic scene where Patrick communicates directly with his long-dead father by “calling” him on the telephone as Plymouth Island’s computer code disintegrates.
McConaughey: Baker Dill says to his son [on the phone], “Sometimes good people do bad things.” That’s something I stole from the mouth of Steven Knight when he said it in pre-production. Someone at the table had asked him, “What is a theme in your drama that you love?” And that’s what he said, so I kinda stole it and put it in [that scene].
Knight: I was very pleased when Matthew did that. Because throughout the film, I’d said to him that, in my opinion, the best drama happens when a good person does a bad thing for a good reason. And, again, you question what is good and what is bad. That’s fundamentally what this movie is about.
Hathaway: I don’t hold [Patrick] accountable — I hold the world accountable. My eyes were so open in learning about how hard it is for battered women to lose relationships. My eyes are open to the economic reality of women making less money than men, and how that traps us. I’m not mad at him. He’s a child who has had to absorb and process far too much. I’m mad at people who only talk about the heroism of war and not the human cost. I’m mad at all of that, but I’m not mad at him.
Knight: I think we establish that the stepfather who he kills is abusive and violent. I don’t imagine there’d be many courts in the land that would convict that boy of anything other than — I don’t know what it would be, but I don’t think it would be murder.
McConaughey: I did another film earlier in my career that had that same question. It was actually in the title: A Time to Kill. How ecclesiastical is that question, which says there’s a time for everything? And then you get into, well: How old is he? He’s a child; he may have done the deed, but we all have to look at what was not. The story comes back to parents. Where was the person, and why was the child not tended to in the right ways — where they got to this was the action they took?
Twist No. 4: Patrick may have chosen one reality for another
Terry Gilliam’s 1985 classic, Brazil, boasts one of the most unique happy endings in cinematic history, with the hero “winning” by essentially going crazy and vanishing into his own mind. Something similar appears to happen in the closing moments of Serenity. Having vanquished Frank both in and outside of his Plymouth Island simulation, Patrick creates a new realm where he and his father can be together. Rather than on a computer screen, this place appears to exist in his own head, as evidenced by one of the film’s last shots: an image of a solitary Patrick smiling contentedly in our world, while he and John reunite in his.
Knight: I’ve never seen Brazil, to be honest. I don’t watch many films. I wanted the ending to suggest that we have to respect the reality he’s created as an equal reality to the one that we live in. Even with a cursory look at quantum mechanics or quantum physics, you realize that the greatest brains on earth have no idea what the hell is going on when it comes to what is real and what is not. So I think the authority of the reality of the boy at the end is that he is where he is because he believes it. And I think that, in a sense, is the happy ending.
Serenity is playing in theaters now. Visit Fandango for showtime and ticket information.
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