Odds are you haven’t seen many articles discussing how the twist of Serenity is actually grounded in our everyday decision-making practices.
Most of the talk is about how bizarre or bad Serenity is.
One headline I saw said it was almost impossible to describe the movie without sounding crazy. The Washington Post‘s article was titled, “Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway’s new movie has a giant plot twist. It’s terrible, and I can’t tell you why.”
Even outlets who had a grasp of what was going on often missed the point about why it was going on. So that’s the little secret I’m going to let you in on today.
There’s a thing that happens on the daily—to you, to me, to everyone. We all encounter situations where we don’t know exactly how best to act, what to say, what the consequences of our actions may be. That can be something small, like a friend asking, “Where do you want to go to dinner?” To something larger, like your boss asking, “Honestly, do you think people here respect me?” How we respond in those moments is often a process of elimination, sorting through various potential choices to decide on what we believe, at least in the moment, to be the best. It may seem wild, but this process is essentially what happens in Serenity. To put that into context, though, we need to start outside the plot of Serenity and discuss two things: role models and a movie called The Truman Show.
We all know and have hopefully had a role model in our lives. We tend to think of role models in life-defining capacities, like “My dad was a firefighter so I decided I’d be a firefighter.” But they can also be for more simple, mundane things. The first time you had to do laundry on your own, you may have had no idea how to do laundry on your own, so you called a parent or sibling or friend or your roommate. Or maybe they weren’t around so you just thought back to all the times you’d watched other people do laundry. Or maybe you literally just, right then and there, watched someone else do their laundry and imitated them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done that at the gym.
This kind of “monkey see, monkey do” behavior is rooted in a biological mechanic known as “mirror neurons”. From the moment we’re born, to the moment we die, we rely on mirror neurons to help us figure out what to do and how to do it. Whether that’s an infant trying to understand smiling and frowning, a little leaguer emulating the swing of Mike Trout or Francisco Lindor, a new hire trying to get a sense of when everyone else leaves for lunch, the ability to empathize when you see someone else happy or hurt, etc.
Mirror neurons are the mechanism by which we observe and encode and thus improve our behavior in relation to our environment. To put that into a simple example, there’s a story in the book The Inner Game of Tennis where author and world-renowned coach, Timothy Gallwey, describes instructing people without actual explanation, only a physical call-and-response, where Tim swings the racket the correct way then the player tries to mirror Tim. Life, in this way, is often very much like tennis.
Typically, our parents are our earliest and primary role models. What happens, though, when you lose a parent? Who do you turn to for answers to the questions you have, however big or small? Whether it’s about laundry or if you’re ready to get married, opening a checking account or buying a home.
In the case of Serenity, the question Patrick faces is, “Would my dad approve of me killing my step-father?”
With his dad dead, Patrick has no way of actually asking that question. The best thing he can think to do is to create an AI based on what he knew of his dad, memories from years prior when Baker was still alive, then present the AI with a similar situation, “Would you kill this man?”
If AI Dad decides to let the AI Step-Father live, then Patrick would do the same. But if AI Dad decides to go through with it…
That’s the simplest way to present what happens in Serenity. Patrick isn’t playing a video game of his dad. Instead, he’s programmed a world in which he can observe a recreation of his father and use that recreation as a role model.
The Truman Show
The situation Baker Dill, Patrick’s AI dad, finds himself in is not far off from The Truman Show.
In The Truman Show, Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, a seemingly ordinary guy who lives in an idealized small town. He has a wife, a job, a nice house, and a comfortable routine, with friends and good neighbors. In short, he lives a version of the American Dream many wish for. It just so happens Truman doesn’t realize he’s an unwitting participant in the most absurd and incredible TV show of all time. Everything that happens to him is pre-determined by the creator and production team. His wife, his friends, everyone in the town–all professional actors. His entire life, from childhood to high school to college to these adults years has been scripted. Everything that happens in the town happens in order to manipulate him for whatever story is being told.
Eventually, of course, Truman starts to question the nature of his reality. Which leads to him to actively rebel against this superficial world.
Baker Dill, like Truman, is surrounded by people who are scripted to behave a certain way. The difference is Truman’s people are real and Baker’s people are computer programs. But they serve the same function.
For example, whenever Truman seems skeptical of his world, it’s his wife’s job to reorient him, whether that means distracting him or belittling whatever evidence he presents to her. Early on in Serenity, there’s a similar dynamic between Baker and Duke, who serves as a sort of baseline for morality, the straight-man to Baker’s chaotic nature. When Baker’s first presented with the notion of killing the AI Step-Dad, it’s Duke who attempts to talk Baker out of it.
Just like Truman Show falls into a binary dynamic where there are people trying to stop Truman’s escape and those assisting in it, Serenity‘s last half divides the island’s inhabitants into a larger group pushing Baker to focus on fishing and forget about murdering, versus a smaller group who encourages Baker toward murder.
Both Truman and Baker were programmed by their environment to behave a certain way and believe certain things, and both reach a point where they override their programming.
Is Baker conscious?
There’s a subtle issue with Baker Dill’s autonomy and thus his decision and what it means for Patrick.
Serenity tries really hard to convince us there’s a blurred line between “Baker is a real person” and “Baker is an AI that’s gained some kind of consciousness”. This is accomplished through several narrative decisions.
First, the movie is from Baker’s POV, which humanizes him and makes the viewer feel closer to him than to anyone else.
Second, the movie is structured in such a way as to make us believe, for most of the story, we’re observing a “real” person rather than a computer simulation.
Third, there’s an unexplained voiceover that talks about how it’s possible for AI to gain consciousness and a digital sort of autonomy (Skynet, anyone?).
But at the end of the day, Baker is not Truman. Truman is a real person who can make his own choices. Other people can peer pressure him or manipulate him, but they can’t force him to do something.
Baker on the other hand is still code…as self-empowered as he can become, there’s still the question of Patrick. We don’t know how much Patrick has programmed vs how much truly is an AI believing itself to be Patrick’s father and wanting to do right by his son. There’s an argument to be made that Patrick designed the simulation to get the results he wanted. Could he have rigged the deck (pun intended?)? Was it inevitable Baker would choose to kill, because that’s what Patrick wanted?
To me, that’s the most fascinating thing about Serenity. It’s not the movie itself, but the question of…how do we arrive at our decisions? When we have a choice to make, a hard choice, a profoundly difficult choice…how do we justify the action or inaction? And how often is that justification biased in a way similar to a glass of water being perceived by some as half full , by others as half empty?
Now that we understand why Patrick created an artificial world, let’s come back to that idea of how we do the same, every day, throughout the day.
You’re at work and you fuck something up. There’s an initial moment of panic. Then there’s the question, “What do I do now?” As you try to figure out your next step, what happens? You internally run through potential decisions and potential outcomes. If you try and fix it, will it work? If you try to fix it and it doesn’t work, is that worse than if you just go admit what happened? You could admit what happened, but is it possible no one will know it was you who fucked up? If no will know it’s you, can you just leave now or act like it didn’t happen and be okay? If you do leave or try to avoid responsibility, will you feel bad about that? Could someone else get in trouble? Is that the person you want to be? What would your friends think? What would your significant other think? What would you parents tell you to do? How will you boss respond either way?
Whew. So many questions! And in just a few seconds or minutes you could run through all of those scenarios, imagining the various ways people would act and react. It’s often said the human brain is the greatest computer in the known universe. Just like a computer, our imaginations can simulate entire worlds, entire realities.
So what we see in Serenity is bizarre because of how it’s presented and the details of the specific story, but the actual situation—a young man asking himself, “What do I do now? What would my [insert person] do?”—is something all of us do each and every day. Which is why, despite how weird and convoluted the story is, Serenity has resonated with audiences in a way they may not be able to explain. To not only make decision but to also be at peace with that decision is something many of us wish for.
You can see in this sequence of photos how that process plays out. The overlap between Patrick’s observation of the simulation and his eventual action. Notice how the death of the AI step father overlays onto the computer screen, a brief reveal of how the code on the screen has generated the island-world we’ve observed. Then the AI world vanishes. The code vanishes. And all we’re left with is the reality of Patrick’s choice.