One of the Most Infamous Misfires of the 2010s Could Never Be Made Today

Trust us: You’ve never seen a movie like this before.

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Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in 'Serenity'
Aviron Pictures
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A movie does not have to be good to be worthwhile. Reading that may cause you to squint your eyes, but one need look no further than the filmographies of actors and filmmakers like Nicolas Cage, M. Night Shyamalan, Zack Snyder, and even George Lucas to realize just how true that is. Even the biggest misfires can be worth seeking out — if only to shake your head or laugh at all the miscalculations and reckless amounts of ambition contained within them.

Case in point: Steven Knight’s 2019 flop, Serenity. On paper, the Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway-led crime drama had everything it needed to be a success: a star-studded cast and a writer-director who has, at different points, proven himself capable of pulling off big-screen, pulpy thrillers like it. Serenity isn’t the film that its trailers sold it to be, though. It is, in all actuality, one of the weirdest and wildest creative swings that any filmmaker and cast have taken in recent memory.

Five years after its release, the film is widely regarded as one of the most infamous misfires of the 2010s. You won’t get any argument here that it’s some kind of underrated, secretly great gem, either. However, it’s the kind of overambitious, slightly insane gambit that you rarely see nowadays. If more films like it were made, Hollywood’s output would be, at the very least, a whole lot more interesting than it is currently.

How does one even begin to describe Serenity? According to its logline, it’s a film about a fishing boat captain, Baker Dill (McConaughey), who is approached by his ex-wife, Karen Zariakas (Hathaway), and asked to murder her abusive husband, Frank (Jason Clarke). On its own, that seems like a perfectly cockeyed premise for a seaside neo-noir like Serenity. The only problem is that’s not at all what Serenity is actually about.

The further into its runtime the film gets, the clearer it becomes that nothing in Serenity is what it seems. Without spoiling too much, it’s worth noting that its plot ultimately has little to do with tuna fishermen who moonlight as for-hire assassins and more with computer games and — even more importantly — one boy’s naive belief in a very specific, Hollywood-inspired form of masculinity. By the time everything is said and done, Serenity has unexpectedly emerged as a film about the ways in which storytelling can, for better and for worse, become a form of therapy.

That is, to be clear, an extremely generous reading of Serenity, a movie that misses more shots than it makes. No matter how hard he tries, Knight never fully manages to make Serenity’s reality-within-a-reality structure work, and the film’s loose-at-best understanding of computer games only makes it that much easier to laugh at its odd assortment of unlikely themes and twists. More than anything, the film would have benefitted from a far greater sense of humor than Knight’s work typically boasts.

Despite its many flaws, Serenity still contains a unique kind of value. It’s messy and tonally confused, but there’s also never really been a movie like it. It is, above all else, the very definition of a Big Swing.

Serenity is the kind of movie that needs to be seen to be believed.

Aviron Pictures

Serenity was famously buried by its distributor when it was released in 2019. Stories were written about how frustrated some of its stars — namely, McConaughey and Hathaway — were by the lack of promotion for the film. When it hit theaters and critics got the chance to see it, though, all of the questions surrounding its lackluster promotional cycle immediately vanished.

The film falls undeniably short of the mark, but there’s something admirable about it. Not only are the ideas at the center of it still distinguishable even beneath its many mistakes, but the film is also trying to find a new way into the kind of genre stories that it was partly meant to honor. That’s a commendable goal, and it’s one that more modern-day thrillers could benefit from adopting. Serenity is, among other things, a one-of-a-kind film that defies all categorization and explanation. It shouldn’t exist, and that alone makes it interesting enough to seek out now.

Serenity is available to stream for free on Tubi and Amazon Prime Video.

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