Friday, October 11, 2013

Review: The Cabin in the Woods

(Warning: major spoilers ahead. If you were interested enough to get this far, and you haven't seen it, go see it now. It's on Netflix Instant.)

What do we mean when we talk about "sacrifice"? And what do I mean when I say "we"? "We" could be modern Western media-savvy types—Joss Whedon's usual audience. "We" could be modern Americans.

"We" could also be all of humanity, but in rewatching The Cabin in the Woods, I began to think in terms of premodern versus modern peoples (to use very broad categories). For premodern peoples, sacrifice means abject terror before dark forces you can't control, and feebly offering blood in the hope of placating those forces, under the assumption that they want blood, since they're obviously dark and all—what with their plagues and floods and pyroclastic flows.

For modern Americans, perhaps modern peoples generally, sacrifice means soldiers, firemen, and cops. What if both meanings of sacrifice are the same? What if the dark forces to whom we now sacrifice our young (mostly) men are war, random fiery destruction, and man's inhumanity to man, respectively? And was there an early version of this script where one of the cabin visitors was a veteran of a recent war?

If so, that would have made for a profoundly unsettling commentary on our collective value system, rather than the only sorta unsettling commentary on horror genre tropes that we got.

I don't mean that as a true criticism—you can't blame Fantastic Four for not being Batman. And I don't mean to suggest The Cabin in the Woods is bad or disappointing, or even especially shallow (though it's not significantly deeper than, say, Scream). Like any horror film that really excels, it takes a moment now and then to step back from the fantastical and implausible elements to acknowledge the real horror taking place. Which is kind of remarkable considering what kind of movie this is.

But I do look at its impressive last few shots and wonder what more could have been achieved here. The stoner character's thoughts on modern society are almost a throwaway moment, yet the movie basically turns them into a theme. Does a movie that straight-up destroys the world have a responsibility to do more than have fun with a gallery of vicious monsters?

I'd argue no. To draw a parallel with a similarly monster-intensive setting, many's the D&D DM who's wondered what a game world would look like in which the demons/undead/evil dragons/illithids were to win—if the prototypical narrative of "band of heroes trying to save the world against incredible odds" ended the way it's not supposed to.

And, in wondering that, I have doubts that such a setting would be sustainable in the sense of providing enough good story opportunities. Likewise, hypothetical sequels to Cabin would have to get very strange indeed, and it's hard to see how they could work even if the first one had done more world-building and theme-circling.

In a sense, that's a good thing. Part of Cabin's audacity is its cataclysmic finality; in an age where every movie with even a whiff of genre is eager to set up a franchise, here's one that says, "Not gonna happen." When I saw this in the theater, I laughed aloud when the credits started.

The rest of what makes Cabin special is its worldbuilding and the pace at which it parcels out information about its world. Buffy fans may have a slight edge in figuring everything out, and some viewers will have been spoiled by careless friends, but the ride is still a riot. A totally solid cast helps keep the fantastical goings-on grounded and affecting.

So while I obviously feel a little conflicted about just how successful I consider Cabin in the Woods to be, the things I'm not conflicted about are

  • that it's very good;
  • that it's an absolute, drop-everything-right-now must-see for horror fans, even those with an aversion to Whedon;
  • and that it portends great potential for earth-shattering developments in the Avengers sequels.

Star Score: 4 out of 5

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