WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Steven Knight’s Serenity and various M. Night Shyamalan movies.
When folks think of video game movies, franchises like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Tomb Raider and Street Fighter come to mind. Only those who had played the game would have guessed Steven Knight’s Serenity is one as well, given the dramatic trailers and a cast which seems more skewed towards a film looking to win major awards.
But make no mistake, as much as this is a tale about scorned lovers, abuse, revenge and, yes, murder on a small fishing island, Serenity is indeed a video game movie. Sadly, it’s also hands down the worst one ever filmed.
The movie focuses on Matthew McConaughey’s Baker Dill, a playboy on Plymouth Island who’s now struggling to make ends meet and has resorted to taking rich men out on fishing trips to catch tuna. He, himself, is distracted by catching a big fish called Justice, and suddenly finds his world upended when his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) shows up, requesting he take her current husband and abuser Frank (Jason Clarke) out to sea… and kill him. In exchange, she promises Baker $10 million and, even more importantly, freedom for their emotionally-scarred son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) from a life of domestic violence. So far, nothing reeks of being a video game film, right?
It turns out this world, with Baker’s boat (the titular Serenity) as the centerpiece, is an open-universe RPG created by Patrick in the real-world. This online game was made with a set of rules that forbade killing, but as the characters that populate Patrick’s virtual reality gain sentience, they begin to make their own decisions, and so Patrick is waiting to see if Baker will kill Frank. When he does, this inspires Patrick to follow in his dad’s footsteps and kill Frank in the real world. Yeah, it’s as messed up as it sounds, and the fact that the movie can’t pull it off is why Serenity is being slagged by critics and audiences.
This movie comes off like Psycho meets The Matrix meets Ready Player One, but it backs the sentiments of anti-video game activists who believe the medium inspires people, especially younger ones, to engage in acts of violence. In an era where school shootings are also prevalent, and where games like Grand Theft Auto are often pointed to as part of the cause for them, do we really want to see a movie about a video game that drives a teen to kill instead of reporting abuse to the relevant authorities?
Now, we’ve had some bad adaptations on the big screen in the past, but Serenity hits a special level of all style and no substance. Video game movies should provide enjoyment and escapism, not mental torture and a mockery of free will. Even at their worst, movies like Doom or Super Mario Bros. aren’t meant to be taken seriously. Serenity, though, envisions itself as an artsy take on human conscience and mankind’s fragile moral compass, but using an online quest to turn a kid into a sociopath is downright tasteless.
It doesn’t do video games any good by playing into the age-old stigma surrounding social outcasts and isolated kids who many assume are influenced by pop culture to become threats to society. If Serenity had been painted as a dark comedy like Pain and Gain or Super, it might have worked on some level. But by trying to be an intelligent statement on child abuse and online gaming, it’s merely a movie with a cheap gimmick that never coalesces into anything of any value at all.
Serenity, directed by Steven Knight, starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, Jason Clarke and Djimon Hounsou, is in theaters now.
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