I Like to Watch | Serenity (2019)

I Like to Watch | Serenity (2019)

by Don Hall

Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. 

The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners' reality. Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all, for he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the manufactured reality that is the shadows seen by the prisoners. 

The inmates of this place do not even desire to leave their prison, for they know no better life. The prisoners manage to break their bonds one day, and discover that their reality was not what they thought it was. They discovered the sun, which Plato uses as an analogy for the fire that man cannot see behind. Like the fire that cast light on the walls of the cave, the human condition is forever bound to the impressions that are received through the senses.

Both Fight Club and The Matrix are twenty years old this year. 

I can’t overestimate how these two films impacted me in 1999 and how they resonate still. At the heart of both is the revisiting of Plato’s Cave as a story device. The concept that the world we live in, perceive all around us, is not the reality but the illusion that we accept as comforting despite the inherent misery that illusion may cause. 

Both Tyler Durden and Morpheus are the bears of the bad news: the images on the cave wall are not the world. You are not who you think you are in that world. Both Sebastion and Neo are those who take that step and deal with this harsh realities of having the blinders taken away, the scales fall from their eyes, and walk away from the delusional state of safety and consumerism and the lunatic belief that we know the world around us.

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In its way, Fight Club effectively predicted:

  • Alt Right Culture

  • Alt Fact Culture

  • The Rise in Domestic Terrorism

In its way, The Matrix predicted:

  • Social Media

  • Anonymous

  • Digital Hackers influencing the Non-digital world

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The great fear behind Fight Club is that behind all of the copies of copies of copies is a deep and despairing meaninglessness behind it all. That all of the numbers and credit scores and Starbucks and IKEA are merely concealing how terribly unimportant we are in the vast universe.

The terror behind The Matrix is that the media-driven, Instagram influenced, celebrity culture isn’t real but a pernicious plot to keep us cogs in a great machine that we cannot see.

Which brings me to Serenity, a 2019 film starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, and Djimon Hounsou that currently has a 19% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes with only 30% of the audience liking it. The buzz was that there was a twist that people just hated like Hereditary, a film that so many were into until the last scene. Unlike Hereditary, no one liked Serenity.

I avoided reviews of it — to be fair, I had no intention of watching it despite my affinity for the cast. I’ve seen enough hard-bitten, down-on-his-luck dude tempted to kill someone for money offered by a sexy femme fatale movies to last a lifetime. I finally decided  wanted to see it because so many people really hated it. A Forbes reviewer even made the case that it as so bad it was a dangerously bad movie threatening to undermine all other adult-skewing thrillers in its wake. A number of reviews claim that the twist in reality was obvious from the start (which might have been true for them but not in my case and I was looking for that twist the entire running time) and that the third act reveal undercut the rest of the film.

Writer/Director Steven Knight has created a genre film that then exposes the false world of the genre. Like Us, Jordon Peele’s second feature, he takes us along a seemingly standard character study only to flip us on our heads to show the shadows on the cave are, indeed, shadows and the larger picture is more complicated than the simple narrative we have been lured into. Interestingly, my issue with Us is that I didn’t care much for the explanation of the new reality (like finding out that Pennywise the Killer Clown is actually a giant spider in IT). 

So, aside from the twist (because the movie is still in theaters and I’m not a complete ass-stain…) what is this thing about?

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Matthew McConaughey stars as Baker Dill, a hard luck tuna fisherman with serious debt and an obsession with a giant fish he’s named “Justice” so overwhelming, he’s willing to throw away business to catch it.

Baker's life becomes complicated by the appearance of his sultry ex-wife, Karen (Anne Hathaway). She shows up, now a trophy wife for an abusive monster (Jason Clarke) and she offers her ex ten million dollars to take her husband out on the sea and dump him to eaten by sharks. Dill wrestles with this until he slowly starts to see the cracks of his reality splinter open to reveal that Plato’s Cave moment.

It’s sexy. It’s as shallow as you’d expect from a noir plot. It’s atmospheric. It’s lyrical. And then it gets pretty fucked up.

I loved it.

In the realm of both Fight Club and The Matrix, it is a reasonable conclusion that these two are essentially the same story. Sebastion is Neo outside of the Matrix; Durden is Neo inside with all the badassery and desire to destroy the system. The only thing Sebastion didn’t have was Morpheus to explain it to him and his sanity.

Serenity isn’t anywhere close to these two cultural touchstones but it’s playing in the same existential sandbox and that’s a sandbox I love to sit in and think the Big Thoughts of Reality, Existence, and where I fit in.

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