Cinema Dispatch: Fishing for Answers in Serenity

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Serenity is owned by Aviron Pictures

So now that it’s been a week since Serenity graced theaters, you’ve all had a chance to go see it and get your mind blown or hear other people regale you with their stories of seeing the movie themselves!  When I went to go see it, I was coming down with a pretty nasty cold and perhaps that’s why I ended up liking the movie more than a lot of other people (it’s got a pretty abysmal score on Rotten Tomatoes), but I do think that there’s something at least INTERESTING in the movie’s ideas even if it’s not the most coherent use of a wacky twist and a high concept I’ve seen in a movie.  Well everyone else has already given their unfiltered opinions on what the movie actually means and how well it pulls of its absurd twist, so why don’t I go ahead and give you mine!  First things first…

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Just What the Heck is Going on Here?

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Since we’re going to be analyzing some of the film’s themes, we might as well start with a spoiler filled recap of the entire narrative.  For the first half of the movie, we’re following Matthew McConaughey who’s on a small island named Plymouth and he’s obsessed with catching a tuna fish that he calls Justice.  During his meaningless existence of waking up, not catching the fish, and drinking himself to sleep at night, he gets visited by his ex-wife played by Anne Hathaway who offers him ten million to kill her utter scumbag of a husband played by Jason Clarke, and also he had a son named Patrick with Anne Hathaway and the two of them have been viciously abused by Jason Clarke.  This back and forth goes on for some time as McConaughey keeps hemming and hawing over whether he should do it, but the whole time something seems off.  Anne Hathaway seems to have jumped out of a noir thriller and Jason Clarke is an absurdly exaggerated caricature of a bad person; not to mention that there’s this one dude in a dorky suit trying to find McConaughey the whole time but always just misses him.  Is there something else going on here?  Well yes there is!  When the mystery man played by Jeremy Strong finally catches up to McConaughey, he offers him a super duper fish finding device to use that will hopefully catch him that tuna once and for all which would be a good way to spend an afternoon instead of maybe sort of killing a guy.  Not that Jeremy Strong somehow KNOWS anything about that!  Okay fine, he does.  McConaughey ends up getting him to spill some of the beans (the rest of the puzzle he puts together himself) and we find out that what we’ve been seeing up to this point has NOT been a charming little island, but instead a simulation.  That’s right!  We’re in the Matrix!  Okay, more specifically we are inside a video game.  Which video game pray tell?  Well it turns out that IN THE REAL WORLD McConaughey’s character is actually a dead army veteran who left behind a wife (Anne Hathaway) and a son (Patrick).  His wife remarried an abusive construction worker (Jason Clarke) and so he spends all his time programming this video game where his dad is still alive, his new dad is a dangerous mob connected monster instead of some abusive loser, and his mother is a wealthy femme fatale instead of… well we don’t really get an idea of what Real World Anne Hathaway is like, but I’m sure that Patrick put just as much exaggeration into her character as he did everything else.  Now things are starting to come together as the somewhat unbalanced way that the characters were drawn start to make sense from the perspective of a confused and angry teenager who is finding a way to escape the horrors of his real life.  This does raise a few questions however about whether Patrick is directly controlling McConaughey and whether or not he truly has any free will, but if we’re gonna let Wreck-it-Ralph slide on that stuff, I think we can let it slide here!  Anyway, McConaughey starts to question everything around him and begins to see where the “seams” are in the programming which starts to react in a rather hostile manner to his break in the routine.  His “role” in the game as it were is to catch the fish, and entertaining the idea of murdering someone is clearly going against the programming at which is why he’s getting the ire of the NPCs that populate the town who keep telling him he should just catch the fish, and he even runs into a few… let’s call them “traps” that are intended to keep him on the right path.  This is also a rather confusing point in the narrative as it’s clear that Patrick is the one programming all of this… but it’s also clear that the scenario here about McConaughey killing Jason Clarke is what he wants… so did he add this scenario to the game?  If so, why is the rest of the game telling McConaughey not to do it?  That is something I wish the movie had a better grasp on, but in any case, despite ALL the resistance he gets from the other NPCs and whatnot, he does manage to kill Jason Clarke in the most symbolically ridiculous way possible.  He takes him out on the boat, manages to get the Tuna called Justice onto one of his poles, and hands the pole to Jason Clarke without strapping him in properly which causes him to be pulled overboard and dragged down to the bottom of the sea… by Justice.  GET IT!?  This is where things take a dark turn as while this is going on, Patrick has taken a knife that his father once owned (a knife we see Virtual McConaughey use frequently in the movie) and stabs the REAL WORLD Jason Clarke to death off screen.  Now this raises questions as to whether or not these things were happening simultaneously, if McConaughey was being directly “controlled” by Patrick as he simulated killing his own step-dad or if this may have been some bug Patrick witnessed that inspired him to do it, but I won’t get diegetically nit-picky here because the thematic thru-line itself is rather consistent.  Patrick feels that he needs to TAKE JUSTICE by killing Jason Clarke, and that attitude is reflected in the game as well as this specific scenario he either intentionally made or just somehow managed to work its way into the code he already wrote.  The movie ends with Virtual McConaughey getting a phone call from Patrick who says he’s gonna rewrite the game, and moments later a Virtual Patrick shows up.  The two reunite, the credits roll, and the house lights turn on before anyone has a chance to really grasp just what the heck it is they witnessed!  Now as I said in my review, I did enjoy this movie before the big twist when it was just a run of the mill Cohen Brothers knock off, and I enjoyed it after the reveal in terms of understanding the metaphor and what they were trying to do with the concept.  Maybe it’s not particularly deep, but I did find at least a few neat ideas about video games and how we can relate to them with the text of the film, so let’s go over some of those now!

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Not Just Once in a Life Time: The Horrifying and Utterly Boring Truth of Open World Games

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At the point where McConaughey realizes that he’s IN THE MATRIX as it were, he starts to take steps to break up his routine but finds resistance at every turn; most overtly when he wakes up a few minutes earlier than usual but is physically unable to get out of bed until his “usual” wake up time.  Other examples are a red light he can’t seem to run and of course the other NPCs making veiled threats at him to go after the fish instead of whatever it else he has planned.  I certainly found this to be a pretty apt metaphor and one that makes sense within the context of open world games.  If you play games like that long enough, you get into certain routines and patterns that are facilitated by the mechanics in ways that the developers more or less intended for you, but at some point even the most vast world out there is gonna start to feel restrictive in some ways.  I played Grand Theft Auto V only once in a two hour quest to try and be as non-violent as possible; and what I learned is that it really limits what you can do.  At least out of the gate, there really isn’t any way to earn money that doesn’t involve some sort of crime, so when my car got damaged I spent most of my time just trying to find a way to pay for it that didn’t involve stealing or killing.  In real life, while the well-adjusted (and also privileged) among us aren’t usually running into those ethical quandaries on a day to day basis, we do get ourselves stuck in similarly restrictive ways of living.  I go to work each day and after that I either spend my free time seeing a movie or sitting at home watching YouTube videos and Adult Swim shows; day in and day out.  I’m trying to shake things up every once in a while, but like McConaughey in this movie or playing GTA as a pacifist, it can feel like the whole world has been specifically designed to keep you from going outside your predetermined lane which is why I tried so hard to rebel with hugs on the mean streets of San Andreas while McConaughey tried to buck the system by killing a man in cold blood.  To each their own I suppose; as long as you’re still fighting The Man!

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Ghost in the Machine: Video Games as a way of Connecting with Someone

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There was this story a few years back where a teenager who lost his father some years prior was playing RalliSport Challenge on his Xbox and found some old records that had been set by his father before he died.  In the game, you can race against another car that will run the track with the same time which is often called a ghost in racing games, and in this case it turned out to be rather apropos.  There’s no magic, no angels, no “speaking to him from the afterlife” or anything like that, but there’s beauty and significance in the idea that he could more or less race against his father and connect with him on that level even after he passed away.  I don’t know if writer/director Steven Knight ever heard that story, but it’ what my mind was drawn to as the pieces started to come together in this movie.  The fact that he made the main character of this video game his father makes sense considering how his new father figure is an abusive monster and that his own father died when he was rather young.  It must have been a way for him to connect to the man he may not have ever gotten to know (I’m not sure how old Patrick was when McConaughey died in the real world) and only built him up that much more in his mind.

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We Need to Talk About Kevin Simulator 2019: Violence in Video Games and Justice versus Revenge

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However you want to interpret the murder in the game, Patrick indulging in GTA style mayhem or possibly just some bug, he basically created a scenario in which he could imbue a sense of meaning through the interactions of ones and zeros, and ended up interpreting it as his father’s will which in turn he justified as “justice”.  His father was a great man and Patrick felt that he was in some way telling him to use his old knife to stop an unambiguously bad man.  Now personally I don’t think murder is justified in most cases, especially this one which is so cartoonishly over the top that you couldn’t realistically buy that Child Protective Services or the police wouldn’t have taken SOME notice in the kid coming to school regularly with black eyes, but I can’t speak for victims of abuse and how they should react in these kind of situations.  The movie however does ere on this being justified, what with the soft ending they give Patrick’s character (he’s being remanded to his mother’s custody with no indication that he will serve time) and then the big joyous reward that McConaughey gets when (as I interpret it) Patrick puts a character modeled off of himself into the game so that McConaughey can be reunited with him.  From my perspective that makes things a bit too clean cut for a movie that was, for the most part I feel, ambiguous as to whether or not the actions being taken were the right ones; despite how many times he yells the word JUSTICE.

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The End!  OR IS IT!?

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That’s pretty much all I have to say about THE TRUTH BEHIND SERENITY.  I don’t think it’s all THAT deep, but it does manage to bring some ideas to the big screen that haven’t been brought up in other video game (or video game adjacent) movies which will too often go after surface level connections to the source material instead of anything that really made those games so popular in the first place.  This is why I think DOOM being such a departure from the original game was such a great creative decision and why I feel it’s so underrated as a movie, and it’s also why I think this film is a good primer on examining video games through the lens of another medium.  Plenty of movies are going to be compared to this such as The Matrix, The Truman Show, and Dark City, but I still think The LEGO Movie is a very apt comparison here and not just because they have the same twist at about the same point in the movie.  What The LEGO Movie did for adult nostalgia (i.e. a harsh examination of a mindset that is propped up by commercial interests promising us our childhoods can live forever as long as we keep buying their stuff; not to mention how selfishly hogging it for ourselves deprives the ACTUAL children of their own childhoods to a certain extent) is basically what they did with this movie but aimed at a different medium.  I said in my review that it’s The LEGO Movie of the GTA generation which to me means the point in video games where the adult game market started to overtake what was originally aimed as a children’s hobby.  The game that is being made here, while not modeled on anything specific, certainly ends up feeling like a lot of open world sandbox games which are now the standard for the industry, and having a character obsess over one before killing their stepdad is not something that feels incidental.   Then again, the ending is kind of muddled so who knows what the filmmakers ACTUALLY think or how biting they want this movie to be, but I can certainly come to my own conclusion here which is that it’s somewhat of a criticism of video games as a tools for compulsive escapism.  I feel that the argument about violence in video games, while one worth discussing in genuine terms (not with bad faith actors like there were during the height of video game legislation debates), has always been secondary to much more insidious concerns about compulsive playing, exploitation from careless or outright malicious developers, and forming an identity around the hobby to the exclusion of everything else; something that isn’t EXCLUSIVE to video game fandom but is becoming increasingly synonymous with people of that particular mindset.  This film at least touches on it without going into outright propagandistic territory which is helped by the fact that the film is so coy about its big twist until VERY late in the movie as well as the fact that it doesn’t reference (either directly or obliquely) any real world game franchises or even much iconography from gaming.  Heck, the kid doesn’t even play with a controller or use a headset at any point in the movie!  It’s a film that’s interested in the idea of video games with having absolutely no interested in video games as they exist nowadays which… well I can’t say I’m too far off from that point of view myself, and again it feels unique to try and sell video games as a frame of reference without trying to sell it to “GAMERZ” or those who fear “GAMERZ”.  Considering our most recent entries in the genre have been Assassin’s Creed, Warcraft, and Tomb Raider, I think that raising the bar above that, even in this absurdly awkward approach, is worth commending at least a LITTLE bit!

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