It's been just a little bit more than two years since Collateral Beauty barfed its way in and out of theaters, and ever since then, it feels like we've been living in a golden age for astonishing cinematic boondoggles.Β  Over the decades, the Hollywood film industry has been fine-tuned to discourage truly horrible filmmaking, and for most of the 21st Century, the worst of the worst of mainstream cinema has been more on the order of aggressive mediocre rather than actually bad filmmaking. But we're in a fantastic cycle of movies right now, ones so acutely misguided at their foundation that it's more or less impossible to imagine how even one or two people thought they'd make for successful, audience-pleasing fare, let alone the dozen or more people involved in the pre-production of every movie who are in some position to say, "or, you know, we could not make this film".

The latest of these, pushed back from two different 2018 release dates (one of which was just a week after Life Itself came out; the mind reels at thinking of what it would have been like to see both of these in the span of a few days), is Serenity, written and directed by Steven Knight. I know little of the script's history prior to the public announcement of the film's existence in January 2017, but I am compelled to imagine that Knight had been sitting on it for a very long time, waiting until he'd accrued enough favors, clout, and goodwill from the many well-regarded films he's written since making his big splash with 2002's Dirty Pretty Things. I have no reason for this other than the profound sense that Serenity is a film years and years out of date; it's next to impossible to describe its plot without mentioning the names of some prominent late-'90s films, at least one of which would constitute a major spoiler to name it. But more than that, it just feels '90s-esque, in its rhythms and setting and dialogue, even in the way it uses camera movement (the opening shot, a "whoosh" across the surface of the ocean up to a boat, feels particularly old-fashioned). And, not for nothing, because the 1990s were the last decade to regular see relative mainstream releases turn out this spectacularly poorly.

This is an example of the purest batshit bugfuckery, a movie which cannot even be properly summarised without giving away narrative decisions so horrendous and so unpredictable that it would be both a crime to reveal them, but also maybe be the single biggest selling point for a film that might not quite be "so bad it's good" (it's so bad that it's pretty goddamn bad), but is absolutely the kind of thing that simply must be seen to be believed... except I've seen it, and I'm not even sure that I do believe. Most awful films, you can still tell what they had in mind and why they thought that this would find a constituency. If there is a constituency for Serenity other than the very forgiving mothers of the people who made it, I cannot even start to imagine who it might consist of.

The setting is Plymouth, a cozy island somewhere in the tropics (it was filmed on Mauritius), though it has the demographics and personality types of a New England fishing village where everybody has been involved in everybody else's business for the last four generations. Here we find Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey), because this is a film which thinks that "Baker Dill" is a good name even for an obvious pseudonym. Now, Mr. Dill makes most of his money from taking wealthy tourists out game fishing about his boat, named - get ready for this! - named Serenity. Increasingly, though, he's become surly and impatient with his tourists (in the film's first scene he points a gun at one patron's head), for what he really wants to do is spend all of his time and energy hunting a legendary tuna that he's taken to calling Justice. When he's not threatening to murder clients, he spends his days angrily bantering with Duke (Djimon Hounsou), his first mate and apparently only friend, or having smug sex with Constance (Diane Lane).

Into this stew arrives his old high school sweetheart, Karen Zariakis (Anne Hathaway), presently married to a wealthy construction magnate or something, Frank (Jason Clarke). Karen's tale of woe will be instantly familiar to anybody who's seen Double Indemnity or its uncredited remake, Body Heat (the latter of which is visually referenced inΒ Serenity, though perhaps not intentionally): Frank has been beating her and her son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh), who is almost certainly Baker's son as well, and probably also the figure he's been seeing in strange psychic visions, and she needs a patsy HA HA I MEAN she needs a good friend to defend her. By which she means "push him off a boat and feed him to the sharks".

Absolutely none of this comes anywhere close to being the wild part of Serenity, though it is all jaw-droppingly terrible. Now, to its credit, this is one of those extraordinarily bad movies which explains away some of its badness by means of the twist. Turns out there's a reason for the awful, functional dialogue, the seeming impossibility of a town as robust as Plymouth whose sole economic activity appears to be Baker's fishing boat, and the random appearance of Constance's black cat. But it's a bad reason, and in the moment of watching the film, it doesn't matter if this all "makes sense": it's excruciating to watch. Also, even if we spot the film its midway twist, that only changes the problem, leaving us with absolutely no reason to care about anything or anyone, least of all Baker Dill, who turns out not to be our protagonist at all, which sucks, given that we never in fact meet our protagonist.

Anyway, even without the twist, the film suffers from being horrendously overbaked. It is, when you get right down to it, Peyton Place meets Double Indemnity, placing the stuff of film noir in a sun-baked island full of sex and gossip, and that means lots of hammy intrigue. But it also wants very, very much to be a study of the moral choices we make - something it fails to be about in an incredibly spectacular fashion - and whether or not it is possible to do good by doing evil. So there's a certain desire for hushed solemnity and strained dignity on the one hand, screaming robust melodrama on the other, and the cast seems to have littered itself randomly on the spectrum between those points, with Hounsou ending up closest to "strained dignity" and Clarke definitely getting the closest to "screaming melodrama" (and it's no coincidence that Clarke is the one person who escapes the movie without needing to feel embarrassed about himself.

An entirely different set of problems are brought in by Knight the director, with his clear desire to do artful things that don't play. To begin with, the film has a very distinctive look, one that's sharply lit by cinematographer Jess Hall, with lots of contrast and strong individual blasts of color, and I'm pretty sure I know what the intent was, but it really just proves to be too bright and flat. It's also got some really fucking weird flourishes in the editing: most obviously the blasts of imagery that connect Baker and Patrick, and which somehow become far more incomprehensible after the film bothers to explain what they are. It is, suffice it to say, a very artful movie, and Knight's not the director for it. This is his third movie, directly following Locke, in which Tom Hardy and the camera both stay inside a car for the whole running time of a feature; while I'm confident that Knight learned something from directing that movie, none those skills prove to be at all transferable to the genre-blind erotic thriller he's set himself to make here. It's amateur-hour stuff from the word go, fearlessly tunneling up its own ass. And that's when it's just a grubby thriller. When the second half kicks in, and the film starts to bask in its half-baked metaphysics ("half-baked"? Christ, this is still raw dough), one can only gawk in giddy awe that a film this hapless thought it had a prayer in Hell of successfully exploring such wildly ambitious themes and narrative rabbit holes.