WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Steven Knight's Serenity and various M. Night Shyamalan movies.
While plenty of filmmakers have employed a jaw-dropping plot twist that completely changes the way the audience views the story, it's become synonymous with writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, who's spent much of the past two decades trying to recapture the magic, and surprise, of 1999's The Sixth Sense. But he may now have some competition for king of the movie twist from Steven Knight, who throws his hat in the ring with the new thriller Serenity.
However, as with many of Shyamalan's curve balls, Serenity falls short, underscoring once again that, if you have to force the twist, it's best to not do it at all.
Shyamalan has some good ones under his belt, most notably the revelation that Bruce Willis' character in The Sixth Sense is a ghost. But many of his plot twists have failed, miserably, such as 2008's The Happening, in which plants are the reason humanity has become suicidal, and 2004's The Village, in which the seemingly 19th-century settlement is actually isolated from modern society. Those films might have been better received had Shyamalan not forced the twists and undercut the audience's investment in the story. That's what hurt his current release, Glass, which reveals a sinister society has been monitoring superhumans. It didn't fit the universe that began with 2000's Unbreakable, and felt as if Shyamalan was shoehorning one world into another. That's also the major downfall with Serenity's multiple twists.
At first, Matthew McConaughey's Baker Dill wrestles with killing his ex-wife's husband Frank (Jason Clarke) so he can free Karen (Anne Hathaway) and their son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) from abuse. Seeing as secrets are difficult to keep on Plymouth Island, watching the tension build as people figure out Baker's dilemma and try to dissuade him is enough to hook viewers. However, Knight reveals this tightly knit fishing community is a simulation, a video game created by Patrick, a genius coder, so he could see what his father would do. Baker's actions in the game are meant to dictate whether Patrick should murder Frank in the real world.
It's as cringe-worthy as it sounds, and only gets more ludicrous with each subsequent twist. We later find out Patrick's father actually died as a soldier fighting in Iraq, and this is the son's way of keeping his memory alive. Baker Dill isn't even his real name; that's actually the name of Patrick's high school principal, who's always defended his reclusive, and somewhat psychopathic, ways. That enables the teen to create this murderous open-universe role-playing game that's become sentient, with his father's actions guiding Patrick's moral compass. It gets worse in the finale, where we see the "white whale" Baker has been pursuing like Captain Ahab is called Justice. It's a huge tuna Baker ironically uses to pull Frank overboard to his death, thus encouraging Patrick to murder him ... in the name of justice. Last but not least, just when we think Patrick has gone to prison, he gets off and eventually codes himself in so he can live vicariously with his father in the game.
As you can see, there are too many twists that don't feel organic to the plot. Everything is done for shock value, with Knight coming off as if he's literally cheat-coding the film like a video game to get the viewer to a level to witness Patrick's spiritual reunion with his father.
If a twist is to resonate, it needs to add value to the plot and to the characters. As Serenity illustrates, if it's there only to mislead the audience or to give the film an air of depth, it runs the risk of coming off as pretentious or too complex for its own good. It harks back to Shyamalan's style of hoping that a twist will be the icing on the cake, when really, simplicity would have worked well enough.
Directed by Steven Knight, Serenity stars Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, Jason Clarke and Djimon Hounsou. It's in theaters now.