Things I Learned From… The Cabin In The Woods

Yes, it really has taken The Cabin In The Woods all this time to reach us, all the way out here in the wilderness. And what a movie it is! I actually laughed out loud several times, which is pretty much unheard of for me. And just as I thought I had an idea where the movie was going, well, the third act happened. Wow.

Here’s what I liked most about it. And it’s a sodding huge great SPOILER, so don’t read any further if you haven’t seen the film.

No, dude, seriously. Spoilers!

Last warning!

Still with me?  Okay then.

What I liked most about The Cabin In The Woods  is that the characters opted for the moral high ground, even though doing led to the extinction of the human race. Because sometimes you – the writer – have to make the brave choice.

Unconventional choices by your characters, especially at the climax of the movie, will always get you into trouble with your audience. Some people will respect them, but a lot of people will hate them. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t make them. But you’d better be sure you’re prepared to fight for them, because fight you will.

Some years ago, I was developing a low-budget sci-fi feature about an inscrutable alien construction crash-landing on earth and being explored by a small group, many of whom died horribly because of some unknowable transgression of the rules governing the place. In the end, the heroine figured out that, among other things, it was a doorway that would take her to its alien creators. No guarantees about what was waiting on the other side – though the signs were good, it could be anything from a warm welcome through to slavery and torture –  but at least you’d finally know what these creatures were and what they wanted.

So, being an adventurous type, she said goodbye to her friends and walked straight through it. End of movie.

Every producer and script editor who read that treatment hit the roof at that point.  “Why would she do walk away from the entire human race, with no guarantee she can come back, and no idea what’s waiting for her on the other side? No one would ever do that!”

As you’ve probably guessed by now, that idea did not sell.

Movie characters – especially in genre and commercial movies – are expected to behave in certain ways. They must love their families (even if there are a few hiccups along the way), cherish personal freedom as long as it doesn’t affect the wellbeing of others, embrace some sense of kinship with rest of the human race, and honour at least some basic, non-culture-specific ideas of morality, spirituality, and heroism. These are the things that decades of Hollywood movies have established as a baseline “right thing to do”, a hazy code of conduct somehow combining personal freedom and voluntary self-sacrifice.

In other words, they must make the moral choices that the audience would like to think they’d make. Largely because they’ve been programmed by all those other movies to think that’s how people react in these situations. How many of us would actually “make the sacrifice play”, to quote, is debatable, but we all tell ourselves that we would.

Any time your characters reject these patterns of behaviour, you’re challenging your audience. And that’s good. Your audience needs to be challenged now and then. But be aware of the culture shock you’re inflicting, and do what you can to convince them that the characters’ reactions are reasonable.

The Cabin In The Woods does this very well. The human sacrifices being played out are clearly immoral, whatever evil they protect us from. We’re so invested in these characters by this point that we care far more about them than the faceless, theoretical ‘rest of the human race’.  (Remember, we haven’t seen a single person in the whole movie who isn’t either one of the five protagonists, or someone trying to kill them. If we’d seen their siblings, parents and friends back home, this ending might not have worked.)

And the choice boils down to personal responsibility: either actually shoot your friend, yourself, and live with that; or let the human race perish at some other creature’s hands, which is, in the end, their choice, not yours.

Brave ending. But then again, this is Hollywood – and I guarantee you someone’s out there right now, trying to work out how to write a sequel…

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