One of the common complaints about Hollywood is the lack of original stories.
So when bold and original ideas come along they’re usually celebrated. That didn’t happen with “Serenity” and for a very good reason.
“Bold & Original” doesn’t mean “Quality and Watchable” by default. There are no participation trophies in art.
Director Steven Knight wants us to be swept up in the film’s major plot, keeping the audience off balance in the process. Instead, he creates an upheaval where everything you’ve seen amounts to little. Therefore, anything you’ve invested emotionally ends up lost in a narrative ponzi scheme.
Let’s take this fish tale and drop it onto the cutting board and filet this up appropriately.
0:01:38 ELEVATED FORESHADOW LEVELS
The opening shot is a tight closeup on a young teen-aged boy, and the camera zooms into his eye. The screen dissolves to an underwater image of the surface as a tuna languidly swims by. A high degree of plot gets tipped off here.
0:02:23 TYMPANIC TRAUMA
The camera breaks the surface to an aerial shot approaching a fishing boat, as the title comes up. This is a bit of an anomaly, as the visual of racing over the ocean surface to a surging score with thumping drums feels like the polar opposite of a serene scene.
0:01:03 SEPTIC INTRODUCTION
The charter boat is called Serenity, and two of the clients are promptly passed out in the deck chairs. The first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) calls up to the captain, and we get our first peek at the disheveled and hungover hero, Matthew McConaughey. However this decrepit visage is offset by the fact that he smokes like a degenerate who just bet the rent in a Vegas sports book.
0:04:29 WEAKENED IMPULSE
One of the fishing rods comes to life, but as Baker Dill (Matty Mac) sets the hook he can just tell that it is “Him” on the line. It seems that this tuna is something of his white whale. As the two drunk businessmen demand their chance at the fish Dill anchors his rod and rages at them as he pulls a knife. Clearly this is not the kind of guy you want to be stuck with when miles off shore.
0:07:32 ADVERSE CEREBRAL ACTIVITY
As the charter is returning to port on shore a fastidious man in a 3-piece suit watches. He then removes his shoes and holds them, and his briefcase, aloft as he walks through a waist-deep channel. His effort is less impressive considering he decided to go with Men’s Warehouse togs instead of wearing island fashions.
0:09:49 BLUNT-FORCE DIALOGUE
On the docks Dill promises Duke he’ll still pay him even though they had been stiffed by the drunks. When Duke asks “How?” we cut to a bedroom. Baker beds down on occasion with Constance (a still sharp-looking Diane Lane) for supplemental income. She playfully calls him a hooker, and Dill mournfully says “A hooker who can’t afford hooks.”
0:11:52 EXPLORATORY STORY INCISION
At the local bar Dill throws back whiskey as the bartender discusses him losing the tuna. It’s suggested that Dill give the fish a name, and he announces he already has. “Justice”, he declares. This seems significant!
0:15:27 LOCALE ANESTHESIA
We repeatedly hear and see that this is all set on a place called Plymouth Island, Florida. Yet we also constantly see mountains in the background, which do not exist in Florida. Also the vehicles have right-side steering wheels and foreign license plates. It’s like they did not even try to mask they filmed this in Mauritius.
0:17:11 INVASIVE PATHOS
After going out the next day to try to land Justice they come back empty again. Dill promptly gets in Duke’s face and declares he must be bringing bad luck, so he fires him. Of course, the drunken and irrational Baker Dill with a solitary obsession cannot possibly be the one responsible.
0:19:04 CRANIAL ATROPHY
Another night in the local bar Dill is approached by Karen, an apparently lost Anne Hathaway looking like a dinner-theater cast off with a bottle blonde coiffure. Everyone seems impressed by her and her $100 bill, except for Baker, whom she calls John. So wait – the man who wanted to hide away chose to get rid of an essentially anonymous name, and decided to opt for Baker Dill instead?
0:21:36 IRREGULAR PLOTBEAT
On Baker-John’s boat Karen explains a common friend had a picture taken with a fish, and Baker-John was in the shot. She explains it made sense, because Dylan Baker was the name of his favorite math teacher. Sure, makes perfect sense…
0:23:40 SCRIPT GRAFT
Now we learn it all. Karen is Baker-John’s ex, and they have a son. She has remarried to an abusive, rich and powerful drunk. Their preteen son hides in his room and plays on his computer for hours at a time. During her monologue we see the boy on the computer, with some monitor graphics superimposed of a coastline, and a fishing pole. HINT, HINT!
0:24:20 WEAKENED IMPULSE
While affecting the femme fatale routine here, Karen has a proposal for our broke “hero”: Her new husband is arriving to the “Florida” island the next day. She wants Baker-John to take him out for tuna, get him drunk and then toss him overboard. In return she’ll pay $10 million. Baker-John does a surprisingly sane thing for once, and kicks her off of his boat.
0:26:37 LOCALE ANESTHESIA
Pulling up to his charming shipping container abode Baker-John sees Constance waiting for him, and looking for her cat. Inside she mentions the blonde, as he strips naked. He announces he is taking a shower. This consists of him walking out and leaping 60 feet off of the cliffs which do not exist in Florida.
0:28:41 PHYSICS DISORDER
After having a vision of his son in the water we see Baker-John, and the boy in his room, both startle awake, with each experiencing water on their table wherever they are at. We’re supposed to feel a cosmic connection is taking place. It’s not taking place, as this feels more like a way of avoiding having to explain how he scales the cliffs to get back home.
0:31:10 ADVERSE CEREBRAL ACTIVITY
At the hotel Karen is surprised by the early arrival of her husband Frank (played with reptilian charm by Jason Clarke of “Chappaquiddick”). Frank has her disrobe so he can lasciviously inspect her naked form, becoming upset when he spies a small scratch on her hip. Frank then peels off his belt to beat her. Umm…if a scratch is upsetting, then won’t the welts he is delivering be more objectionable???
0:34:45 DEPLETED CHARACTER CONCENTRATION
At the dock Frank and Karen meet Baker-John to arrange the trip, but he rebuffs their offer. Frank declares he’ll be back the next morning to go out and fish, before Baker-John pulls away. As he does the nebbish guy in the suit races up to miss him once again, after repeated attempts. Wild guess here — this guy will become a crucial plot point sometime soon.
0:36:59 WEAKENED IMPULSE
Baker-John pays another visit to Lane for a dutiful romp in the sheets. Try to figure out which is the more ludicrous setup: that Lane would need to pay anyone for sex, or that a destitute drunk who usually smells of bait considers having sex with Lane to be a chore, and not a reward.
0:39:43 IRREGULAR PLOTBEAT
Duke comes back to announce Frank will be willing to pay $10,000 to take him out, so Baker-John agrees but he tells Karen all three of them will return. She then mentions to him she knows all about the big tuna, because their son can hear Baker-John through his computer screen. Because…sure he does.
0:43:46 ELEVATED FORESHADOW LEVELS
Out at sea Frank is drunkenly blathering, and begins mentioning Baker-John’s son. He once burst in on the kid to see what he was doing on the computer. He says the kid created this whole world where he is catching fish all day. The shot of the boy’s room is a bit of a tipoff as well.
0:47:23 ARTIFICIAL NARRATIVE STIMULANT
When they all return Karen implores Baker-John to go through with their plan tomorrow … for their son. “This was his idea – he needs you to do this. He wants justice!” This makes him pause, and we all feel a chill down our spines! (We actually do not feel this, but your mileage may vary.)
0:56:15 VISUAL ADRENAL INFUSION
Baker-John goes on a rum tailspin. During a torrential downpour he is on deck on his boat, and Karen walks up the dock in her London style raincoat and rain hat – because those are items people pack to travel to the islands. They go in the cabin where he declares he has decided to toss Frank overboard. Then Baker-John, who has been naked throughout this tale, has sex with Karen – WHILE LEAVING HIS PANTS ON.
1:02:33 BLUNT-FORCE DIALOGUE
Coming home at 2:30 that morning the guy in the suit is there waiting for him. He is from a fishing company and has a fish finder for Baker-John to try. He then declares he will certainly catch something, “It will work, I promise you — I am the rules.” Then after telling him to catch the fish and not kill the man, Baker-John properly puts a knife to his neck
1:05:29 CONTINUITY FAILURE
And now we get to a part where this film COMPLETELY goes off the rails.
While pinned to the wall the nebbish fish salesman begins to explain that everything on Plymouth Island is a game, created by Baker-John’s son. He, and everything he experiences, is merely a computer program. This means the son has managed to spend all his time creating a world that exists around a drunken fisherman. He also has programmed scenarios where is dad is constantly naked, and having sex. This movie has officially become a fiasco of monumental narrative proportions. Ho-Lee-Crap.
1:15:15 CAUTERIZED PLOT CAVITY
Baker-John now spends his time challenging the denizens of the island with existential questions (Where are we?; Do you know why we do things?) due to his being told about them living in a game. This would somehow mean then that he – as a computer program – is becoming self aware. I mean seriously now, what the hell is going on?!
1:16:26 IATROGENIC DIRECTION
We see the son pull out a knife in his room, then in the hotel (that is, in the game) Karen discovers Frank is bloodied. On the boat in the morning Duke announces he hired some men to break Frank’s hand, so he could not fish. The film makers really expect us to care at this point what is going on and to feel like any of it is important.
1:23:04 SCRIPT GRAFT
With his charter trip dashed Baker-John gets into a couple of bottles of rum, and wanders out to a lonely spit of land by the water. The nebbish guy in the suit arrives, because of course. They have meandering talks about being in the game, not being in control, and whatever else. At this point it really does not seem to matter. But the guy informs Baker-John that Karen convinced Frank to still go out on the charter in 15 minutes. So I guess this will be our climax to the film.
1:34:25 VISUAL ADRENAL INFUSION
On board a heavily medicated and drunk Frank is nearly comatose when Baker-John hooks onto what he’s sure to be Justice. During all of this we go back to the kid’s room where he leaves his computer behind as he walks out with a large knife. On the boat Frank gets yanked out of his captain’s chair and in to the water, carried down to the depths by the big fish. At this point I’m rather jealous of Frank; well, the drunken and numb Frank, not the hauled 50 fathoms deep version.
1:36:05 COLLAPSED CLIMAX
The camera pans back from the boat and then through the computer screen in the kid’s bedroom. We listen to a news report detailing how the son was charged with the murder of his step father, Frank. This voice-over is meant to wallpaper over large segments of framework that were never properly constructed, and it manages to get numerous facts completely wrong.
They provide a quote from his principal (named Dylan Baker) while stating the 13-year-old was in high school (uh, nope.) They mention his father John died in Iraq and received a Purple Heart posthumously, “for gallantry” (it’s awarded to those wounded or killed in service.)
Then they declared the kid will immediately be released to the care of his mother, when I’m sure authorities would have the kid under observation for a spell following a murder. I would maybe start watching another affiliate station for my news, just saying.
1:39:32 CELLULOID TOE TAG
Despite telling us he is with his Mom we see the kid seated in a cell, and though not as his computer we cut to “the Island” (the game) somehow. Baker-John answers a pay phone and he and his son talk about meeting sometime soon. He then steps out to a plaza and for a long duration the scene breaks apart into digital shards, swirling around him. Then it cuts to a close up of the kid and we dissolve into his eye, where we see him racing up the dock to his father. So this entire enterprise was the concocted fantasy of an emotionally disturbed 13-year-old boy.
Bold and Original? Sure. Good, and engaging to the point of being entertaining? Hardly.
Given you have a teenaged boy crafting his own fantasy world and the best he can come up with is a charter fishing scenario is — stunted. Then consider you have him recreating his deceased father and he makes him an alcoholic with damaged interpersonal skills and it gets even more odd.
Then let’s make it really weird, and have his father being frequently naked, and having sex with his spaced-out mother and you get a severely impacted motion picture.
Knight should have just tossed this script over the transom and cut bait.