We already have an awesome review of The Cabin in the Woods and I have little more to add to that sentiment: this is a game-changing movie and should definitely be taken in by anyone who has a penchant for these kinds of films. Even days later the movie has stuck with me and continues to make me consider the consequences of the story. More than just the consequences within the movie, I keep thinking about the story itself and how it serves as a departure from what we expect from the film’s screenwriters, and what that departure says about our society today.
Be forewarned: this is a discussion about the ending to The Cabin in the Woods. That means that this editorial will be moving into serious spoiler territory. I highly recommend stopping right here and now unless you have either seen The Cabin in the Woods or have absolutely no intentions of seeing it ever. It really is one of the most fascinating films I’ve seen in theaters for a while and deserves to be seen completely unspoiled. So, only proceed if you’re willing to be spoiled or you’re one of the fortunate who have caught the movie so far.
Still here? You’ve been warned, so here we go.
As the movie unfolds, we learn that there is a very understandable rationale behind what is happening to the unfortunate college students in the titular cabin. This isn’t a case of torture porn where some sicko is getting off on the misery of others. Instead, it’s part of a larger design: a ritual sacrifice with certain rules and requirements that ultimately is designed to save humanity. The protagonists we get to know must suffer and die so the world as a whole can go on. With failures from other similar stations throughout the world, the entire planet’s fate rests on the deaths of the characters we’re following. Of course, things don’t go according to plan and Marty (Fran Kranz) not dying puts a big kink in the works – of course, not as big as Marty and Dana (Kristen Connolly) making their way behind the scenes and releasing all of the beasts. Ultimately, the director (an awesome appearance by Sigourney Weaver) has to explain the situation to Marty and Dana: they must die so that everyone else must live. And they choose not to die.
Sure, for a moment there is a sense of nobility and Dana almost shoots Marty so that the ritual comes to a close, but that ugly werewolf attack cuts her moment short. By the time the werewolf is dealt with, Dana has decided not to kill her friend, and the two end the picture (and their lives) sitting there contemplating the end of the world that they’ve just doomed everyone to.
Think about that for a second: Dana and Marty ensure their own deaths and the destruction of the rest of the world by not sacrificing themselves for a greater good. There is no selfless act of heroism here (well, there almost is, but again – the werewolf). Instead, the protagonists decide to live eight more minutes rather than give up their lives to appease the old gods.
Now think about the men behind this movie: Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard. Whedon has a pretty notable filmography: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, etc. Goddard and Whedon worked together on Angel before Goddard got in with J.J. Abrams crowd, becoming a producer and writer on Alias and Lost. Now, think about the characters and stories from those shows. Buffy sacrifices herself so that her sister, who wasn’t even technically real at the time, can survive. Spike gives himself up in the finale of Buffy so she and the others can live. Angel and his crew finish his series sacrificing everything they’ve ever had to take on a greater evil – a move that costs at least one beloved character their lives, albeit a smaller body count than Whedon carries over into Serenity, which sees Mal and his crew pursuing something different than the end of a planet: the truth. Still, several of the Firefly crew don’t make it through that adventure, giving up their lives to see that truth exposed. Meanwhile, over on Lost, who can forget about the selfless gestures of Charlie (“Not Penny’s Boat”) and Hurley (taking on the mantle of leadership of the island), not to mention others. In essence, Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon are men who have filled their respective bodies of work with characters performing selfless acts for a greater good.
Yet, here is The Cabin in the Woods as a complete departure from that motif, and I can’t help but be a little bothered by this change in the artists’ mentality.
One of the things I like about film, or storytelling in general, is that it allows us to see the better side of people. When I think about selfless acts in film my mind fills with examples: Doc Brown sending Marty back alone in Back to the Future or Randy Quaid’s pilot flying into the heart of the alien ship in ID4 or Jack leaving Rose instead of toppling over her makeshift raft in Titanic or even Bogart putting Bergman on the plane in Casablanca. There are far too many to recount, and it’s a motif Whedon and Goddard have used and reused in their previous work. It shows humanity at its finest and sets an example some of us hope we would live up to if put in a similar situation. At the very least, it creates some epic moments of debate – how many of you would be willing to give yourself up for someone else or for a greater good?
For the longest time, moments of selflessness in film gave me hope about humanity – that we might survive epic struggles through the selflessness of others. In Whedon and Goddard’s world, however, that’s not the way society is anymore, and Cabin reflects that change. The sad truth is, they are probably right. I’ve gone on before about the self-entitlement many people carry these days. We’ve become a civilization that thinks success is instant and easy. We are so used to communication and information being instantly at our fingertips that we no longer consider the work and effort it has taken to get to that point. We are the screaming babies crying out, “Gimme, gimme, gimme” without thinking about the ramifications that come when we get what we want. Let someone else take care of the details and the hard work, just as long as we don’t have to think about it.
Why would our protagonists offer up themselves in sacrifice when they get nothing out of it? Either way, Marty and Dana are going to end up dead, but rather than select a noble exit that benefits others, the two offer up the world as a sacrifice. Besides, someone else might jump in at the last second and sacrifice themselves, and then wouldn’t our college students look silly? No, if they’re going to wind up dead then the rest of the world might as well die along with them, because there’s no real value in having something exist after we’re gone, right?
Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it? If this societal condition had been around longer, think how other selfless gestures would have played out. Just using the examples above, Marty McFly would have been doomed to life in the old west where he probably would have gotten shot after all (or the ‘50s depending on how you define Doc’s sacrifice, where Marty would significantly disturb the timeline by becoming his own father), the aliens would have destroyed a significantly larger part of our planet (if not entirely) in ID4, Jack and Rose might have stayed together but most likely both died as the raft submerged when Jack tried to get on it, and Rick and Ilsa would have stayed together but it would be a relationship tinged with guilt and regret. None of those make for especially happy endings, and The Cabin in the Wood doesn’t have a particularly gleeful one either, but it’s a lesson we can learn from – maybe if it becomes our turn to give up our life so the rest of the planet can go on, we can learn from Marty and Dana instead of copying them. At least, one can hope.