“Serenity” (2019) and the art of the “Twist”

What is it about the movie title “Serenity”? The 2005 attempted “Firefly” reboot chose that title, referring to the ship crewed by our merry band of madfolk. Why in the world give such a placid, misleading name to a badass SF action movie, thereby guaranteeing that NO ONE but diehard fans would have the slightest idea what it was? I don’t know, but consider that one of the all-time worst marketing decisions.

And in 2019’s use of the term, there is once again a switch, a movie that looks like one thing and is actually something else, and I can’t even say what that other thing is without spoiling the fun.

But…is it fun? Well…if I take a look at the 22% or whatever this mess got on RT I totally understand that rating. Wow, is this Matthew McConaughey erotic noir thriller about a sport fishing guide talked into murdering an abusive husband ever a howler. My favorite review cannot be quoted: it comes too close to spoiler territory, and if you know what’s coming, the best thing about the movie dies like a hedgehog on a highway.

But…I have to admit that I had pretty much figured out the “unpredictable” twist, and that I’ll say this much: let’s say there was a suspense television anthology show that wasn’t afraid to genre-bend, say 30–60 minutes in length. Call it 60. I could see a fantastic episode of that show cut down from this movie, with a few bridging moments. I mean “knock your socks off” good, legendary good. But this ain’t it.

What we have here is fun, IF AND ONLY IF you can ride the vibe, if you flow with the fun. There were moments when it seemed to fall apart, and others where they pulled it together and I was grinning at the screen, even as the rest of the audience was groaning. Maybe its just me.

I can’t recommend “Serenity”. It really does meet the precise description of “the kind of mess that gets dumped by Hollywood in January.” But…writer-director Steven Knight actually had an idea, bless ’im. A thought that was fairly original (in retrospect, I can imagine JUST what triggered the notion. I know just what he was doing, and just what intoxicants were coursing through his system as he was doing it), and dovetailed with real human emotions, and fought their way through the system to get it made. And frankly, I respect that. It may well be a failure, but it’s a lot more interesting and intelligent than a LOT of successes I’ve seen.

And that counts for a lot in my book.

###

There are movies that rely on the “Twist” and of course M. Night Shyamalan has made his career on them, from the utterly sublime “Sixth Sense” to his most recent (and disappointing to many) “Glass”, he is playing a game millions of people enjoy: “Can you guess where this is going?” and when you’re fooled, and watch the movie a second time and EVERYTHING MAKES SENSE there is a feeling that you’ve been well handled by someone who, in this context, was smarter than you. I love that.

“Psycho” may have been my first encounter with this, and Hitchcock did it twice in that classic film, two massive “WTF?” moments that really spun the audience and created something unique. NO spoilers here: if you are the one person who hasn’t seen it, you deserve to have the same fun the rest of us did.

“The Sting” and other great con-man movies like “Diggstown” play with this, and its part of the fun: knowing you are dealing with con men, but still being conned.

Other classic examples are Simone Signoret’s “Diabolique” and her lesser-known “Games.”. 2009’s “Orphan” had a nasty little corker, but I’ll never watch it again, for other reasons. “Fight Club” was a classic, but while the metaphor was powerful, I couldn’t believe in the objective surface of the story (I mean…hadn’t anybody involved in this ever practiced martial arts in a hard school? There was nothing happening here that you can’t find in inner-city boxing MMA gyms all over the country).

But if they can’t see the “twist” coming, and it makes sense in retrospect, and it makes EMOTIONAL sense as well as LOGICAL sense, and touches something philosophical, the “who am I?” or “what is true?” place…has a point of view encoded within it…wow. You can make something that is fun on multiple levels, and if you are playing with images and ideas that are relatively unexploited in the culture, you create a cinematic language that actually wakes people up a bit (similar to Patty Jenkin’s “No Man’s Land” sequence, which triggered a “I didn’t even know I needed to see that” response that triggered a Scooby Take in millions of women. Rrrrr?)

It is powerful, IF you get it all right.

Get Out was one of those movies: it worked fine on the core level of suspense film, and the “twist” would have worked, even without the social elements.But when you add those additional factors of race and class? You had something that hadn’t been done before, a dangerous film that flirted with sacred American tropes, and expressed fears that had never been tweaked like that in a mainstream film. When the “twist” came, it was good on the objective surface, and DEVASTATING in the social subtext, enough that people walked out of the movie shaking, and water-cooler conversation buzzed around it for weeks.

Oh, sure, you saw it, and it didn’t hit you that hard. That’s fine. People say they weren’t scared by THE EXORCIST, and figured out THE SIXTH SENSE by the time the titles finished playing. Very good for them. Maybe you can solve a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded, too. Some can. I’ll wait.

But when you combine structure with philosophy, when the revelation or solving of a puzzle reflects the difficulty we have as a culture “figuring out” some of this stuff, these demons that devil us on a psychological, spiritual, or social level, all of the cleverness implodes into a black hole that rends holes in the cultural myth, the story of relationships, gender, race, or existence and makes us look at things…differently. And can trigger cultural conversation.

We LOVE that. It is one of the things great storytelling does.

Under no circumstances is Knight’s “Serenity” great storytelling. But lurking within it was a really GOOD story. Not the version we got, though, and that’s a shame.

Namaste

Steve

(if you want to understand more about how Jordan Peele took real social concerns, combined them with expert storytelling and a wicked sense of humor to create one of the most successful movies of all time, check out our THE SUNKEN PLACE class at: www.sunkenplaceclass.com)

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