Let me start by saying: SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! If you have yet to see Cabin in the Woods, produced and co-written by the inimitable Joss Whedon—patron saint of nerds, weirdos and emerging adults of the right age for Buffy the Vampire Slayer—then walk, don’t run to your nearest cineplex and purchase a crazily expensive ticket. Then, come back here and consider the following, which will make much more sense if you’ve seen the movie already anyway:
Since the start of the Great Recession, the millennial generation has become an increasingly popular subject of media debate. Specific topics have included: what’s wrong with them/us, what’s right with them/us, how there are no jobs out there for them/us, Obamacare as it relates to them/us, what their/our values actually are in this social media world, etc.
Another cultural meme: the apocalypse. Whether you’re blue or red, haunted by rising global temperatures or petrified by all those mangy kids setting up living rooms in the Bank of America, the end times are a common thread these days. (Remember May 21, 2011? Or, more to the point, May 22nd?)
Joss Whedon is a very smart man who knows how to make the political personal and then funny and then wrenching and then political again, a genius at recognizing his broader historical moment. His immortal (literally, kinda) heroine Buffy Summers was the golden-girl paragon of late-‘90s American optimism, prosperity and individuality. She fought (and died! And was reborn!) for our way of life. She kept the demons at bay so we could all go on living in the happy suburbanity of Sunnydale, California.
Of course, by the end of the series, Sunnydale had collapsed in a smoking craterous mass, consigned forever to the Hellmouth, and Buffy was no longer the chosen one, but one of a hundred superwoman slayers. (WHOOPS! BUFFY SPOILER ALERT!) But all of that makes sense when considered in socio-political context. The series finale was in 2002: The Clinton years were but a distant memory, a some-would-say false war was raging in Iraq, apparently in defense of the American way of life … Whedon’s art was once again reflecting his contemporary political reality.
In retrospect, this transformation of Buffy’s latent politics was but a harbinger of themes to come in Whedon’s latest venture, Cabin in the Woods.
Sigourney Weaver has a line toward the end of the film, her first in fact, which she utters in response to Marty, one of the five kids trapped in the titular cabin, who is now standing, bloody and befuddled in the basement of the freaky Facility, surrounded by huge stone carvings and crying in horror-movie-cliché-ridden inquiry, “Why are you doing this to us?”
“Because you’re young,” Weaver responds, emerging as if from nowhere, looking awesome in her suit.
And that smacked me, my compatriots in movie-going and millenialism, and every other 20-something sitting in the audience at the Riverview, straight in the gut.
Marty and his companion Dana—the fool and the virgin, respectively, in the archetypal language of the film—are millennial heroes. They’ve watched their friends be maneuvered by an unseen force into the decaying hands of zombies. They’re grist in the mill of tradition, lambs fatted for god-knows-how-long to be sacrificed to ancient demons in a ritual they find broken and empty. But they’ve survived by working together, making their own choices, going rogue. They’re Ivy Leaguers refusing gigs in finance to start a band; freelancers foregoing health insurance partly by necessity and partly by choice; interns who don’t want babies and live communally and don’t own a car and occupy Wall Street.
They’re also, of course, by some standards, selfish, narcissistic and snotty. When Sigourney The Director offers Dana a choice—save one or save all, kill Marty and save humanity or perish with all humankind at the hands of the Ancient Ones—Dana chooses (MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT) to chuck Sigourney into the demon pit and get high with Marty as humanity gets what may be coming to it.
This ending has zero moral satisfaction; this isn’t Buffy saving the world by jumping into a swirling vortex, or stabbing her demon lover through the stomach and sending him into a swirling vortex; there’s no superhero here to whose virtue, self-sacrifice and rad individualism we can all aspire. There are no old ideals worth defending.
And yet Joss Whedon, once again, seems to have taken the temperature of the cultural zeitgeist (literally “time ghost”—uniquely appropriate for the horror genre) with startling accuracy. Because every single “emerging adult” in that audience was laughing and sighing and cheering right along with me throughout Cabin in the Woods. We recognized ourselves up there: We were Marty and Dana, staring at a proscribed future (be successful! Raise good kids! Die for the sake of humankind!) and finding it at best non-viable and at worst utterly devoid of meaning.
Besides, what’s the alternative to human destruction: The Facility wins? No way, man. The place is a stark, all-white military-industrial environment in which nameless hordes of strangers busy themselves while two old white dudes run the show from an isolated control room. It’s American hegemony; it’s hell. And it’s clear from the film’s opening sequence—in which our two old white dudes (one of which is, admittedly, the delightful Bradley Whitford, everyone’s favorite Chief of Staff) talk about their boring home lives at a vending machine and drive around in one of those airport carts—that Whedon and Goddard consider the Facility to be the film’s ultimate source of horror.
I mean this literally—the place is a stockpile of zombies and vampires and dragonbats (dragonbats!) used as weapons of destruction against the youths chosen for sacrifice—and figuratively, in that some of the film’s most disturbing images arise from juxtaposing the office drudgery of the Facility with the kids’ violent deaths. In a particularly harrowing sequence, workers from every department—custodians, chemists, even an intern—gather for a celebratory bash in Whitford’s control room, laughing and drinking as, on giant screens behind them, Dana takes a brutal beating from her zombie assailant. These are the real demons: people who’ve allowed specious moral superiority to blind them to human suffering that is a direct result of their actions. And Whedon doesn’t let them off the hook: The goriest, funniest and most satisfying moments in the film come when Dana and Marty unleash every monster in the Facility’s arsenal, and the screens of Brad’s control room are suddenly filled with horror-movie images of those sad-sack demon workers, victims of the system they’ve sicced on others for years. It makes you want to set a dragonbat loose in the hall of Bank of America.
The film’s final seconds are a blatant cop-out, but the misstep was an unavoidable one, my movie-going compatriots and I decided, working as it did with a Recession-era budget. But even with bad CGI, the takeaway is an alluringly dark one: Fuck humanity, man. We’ve overrun our planet, destroyed its ecosystems, perpetuated horrific atrocities on one another and somehow still think we deserve to persevere? To paraphrase Marty, maybe it’s time to give someone else a shot.
We millennials aren’t lazy or self-absorbed or over-educated or under-educated or over-privileged or under-privileged or angry or lethargic or LinkedIn or Facebooked. I mean, we are all of those things, but we’re much more besides. We’re citizens of a rapidly overpopulating, ecologically imploding globalized world, surrounded by repressive conventions and outmoded systems and vitriolic political debates and brutal conflicts and the very old and the very new and much, much, MUCH more information about all of these things than our parents could ever have imagined dealing with at our age. We’re looking for new and old ways to handle it all, and no one has any answers, because no one has ever lived the way we are living now.
So excuse us while we decide not to devote our lives to work without considering what kind of impact, violent or otherwise, that work is having, on our selves and on the world. Excuse us while we try and build our own temples and battle our own demons, instead of blindly sacrificing our blood for yours. And if you don’t excuse us, whatever, it’s cool, Joss Whedon does. He gets it. I think.