It's been a while since we've had a reminder of just how fun the world of Joss Whedon can be. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer mastermind's last major project was the short-lived Fox series Dollhouse, which was quickly and cruelly canceled just as it was starting to get good. And really that show never had quite the same Whedon-y zest that Buffy and Firefly were both bubbling over with. Lucky for us all, then, that spring 2012 marks something of a Whedon renaissance, as his superhero mash-up The Avengers debuts in May and today sees the opening of the three-years-delayed horror-comedy The Cabin in the Woods. Sure Whedon only co-wrote and the produced the film, which is directed and co-written by Buffy alum Drew Goddard, but his particular stamp is all over it.
How to talk about this film without giving away any of its delightful secrets? I suppose I'll just start with the basics. The Cabin in the Woods is, as you might suspect, about a group of young, attractive friends (even you, Fran Kranz) who hop in an RV and head out to a cabin in the woods for some sexy R & R. As usual, Goddard and Whedon have assembled a winning ensemble: The effortlessly likable Chris Hemsworth (swoon) plays a football stud who's also book smart, Grey's Anatomy's Jesse Williams (swoooooon) is the more sensitive hunk, Kranz is the wise-cracking stoner, relative newcomer Kristen Connolly (who has the soft, wide-eyed, pondering features of many a Whedon heroine) is our kind and bookish heroine, and Kiwi actress Anna Hutchison plays the blonde bombshell (who's also smart and funny). The cast has an easy, dynamic chemistry with one another, which is played almost as its own joke. Look how young and carefree and fun these beautiful kids are! Too bad they're gonna die.
Which, c'mon, is not a spoiler. Goddard — who makes his directorial debut here after writing for Buffy and Lost (and the screenplay for Cloverfield) — has made a genuinely scary and at times brutal horror picture. Only, beneath that genre label lies a much bigger and more satisfying story. Without explaining too much, I'll simply say that this cheery fivesome is not alone in these woods, nor are those woods what they appear to be. There's a basement full of creepy knickknacks, a gory painting on the wall, and, for some mysterious reason, the film keeps cutting over to the bantery duo of Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, two pencil pushers in some kind of bunker-y looking control room. Figuring out just what the hell is going on here is the silly fun of this blissfully energetic movie, so I won't ruin that experience for you by saying much more. Just know that the film heads pretty quickly into meta territory, though not in the irksome, eye-rolling way that that word tends to imply.
Which is to say, The Cabin in the Woods isn't some rehash of Scream, where everyone is constantly commenting on the action with ironic detachment. Not to pooh-pooh that modern classic, it was certainly a giddy little revolution in its day, but Cabin is concerned with something much bigger. Where Scream tweaked the slasher subgenre, Goddard and Whedon want to look at the entirety of horror, the traditional mechanics and tropes of it that we all love, but also hope to see challenged with every new film. By the time we reach the huge, splashy climax of this terrifically paced film, we are staring in slack-jawed glee at the whole of horror happening in front of us. Goddard and Whedon let their smart, wild imaginations run rampant, while also keeping things just ever so slightly below over-the-top. These are funny guys with big, cool ideas, and we're fortunate that the movie gods blessed them with some time, a budget, and a troupe of great actors to help them realize their fervid, borderline crazy vision.
Perhaps the film's cleverest joke is its title. What small, interior scares this little cabin in the woods implies. And we do get some of those, and they are indeed jumpy and screamy and spooky and all that. But when the looking glass is eventually crawled through and things take a bizarre series of corkscrew turns — which Whedon and Goddard hint at teasingly, but never mockingly, throughout the film; they mete out breadcrumbs at a perfectly calibrated pace — that's when the film's exhilarating main thrusters power on. Rarely does a movie so expertly balance horror, science-fiction, and comedy without anything turning cloying or excessive, and yet here is The Cabin in the Woods, a picture that's been in the can for three years, doing just that. Fans of Buffy's madcap violence and particularly its humor will almost certainly thrill to this film's familiar zip, but this is not solely a cult fanboy's objet d'art. It's a more egalitarian movie than that, and one that makes me wish Whedon and his pals would make four times as many movies as they do, just so everyone else could finally see what it is we Buffy/Firefly/etc. fans have been crowing about all these years.
Though I suppose an increase in volume would make Whedon & Company's products a little less special. Maybe it's best to keep them rare and precious, to place them in a basement in a creepy old cabin somewhere and wait to see what the next group of unsuspecting passersby picks up first. They won't know what hit 'em. But they'll be awfully glad it did all the same.
Meanwhile, something terrible is happening in space. Oh, no, it's not that the president's daughter has been kidnapped by rioting inmates in a state-of-the-art space prison, it's that an actor like Guy Pearce — who cuts such a strong figure in fare as varied as L.A. Confidential, Memento, and The King's Speech — is stuck doing C-grade muck like the new sci-fi actioner Lockout instead of the classy leading man roles he one seemed destined for. But, alas here Lockout is, so I suppose we owe Mr. Pearce the courtesy of talking about it a little. (Though really it's going to seem more like a discourtesy.)
Lockout, produced by Luc Besson, master of stylized French schlock (still love you though, Fifth Element), and directed by Stephen St. Leger and James Mather, who also wrote the script, does indeed involve the aforementioned space prison and the idealistic daughter (Maggie Grace) of a trembling and ineffectual POTUS. The year is, I dunno, 2075 or something, and low orbit space travel has become a regular thing, with space police and a brand new space jail and everything. Meanwhile back on Earth, where everything's ugly and the president lives underground, Pearce's former CIA agent (or something), named simply Snow, is getting roughed up in an interrogation room, framed for a crime he didn't commit. Pearce is good at the tough-even-when-he's-getting-punched one-liner stuff, and there's almost a sense in these early scenes that St. Leger and Mather might actually know what they're doing. There's a crispness to the picture that begins to raise hopes.
But then the film flashes back to the night of the framing and we are treated to a speed bike race through futuristic Manhattan that, with its computer graphics and everything, looks about as convincing as a video game on the original PlayStation. Some expenses were definitely spared on this picture, it seems. Though, to be fair, there's almost something respectably scrappy about how bad these effects are, as if the editors and directors saw this and said "Eh, f--k it, we want the speed bike chase, so this will have to do." (Or however you say that in French.) At this point in the film, there's still something vaguely interesting rattling around the familiar story, a kind of respectable, if low grade, derring-do.
That spirit is short-lived, sadly. Up in space some idiot Secret Service guy smuggles a gun past the no-gun zone and a crazy Scottish inmate with a blind milky eye and silver teeth gets a hold of it and frees all the baddies. These crooks are the worst of the worst, murderers and rapers and the like, so the prison staff and beautiful blonde First Daughter are in some serious trouble. But wouldn't you know it, Snow, who's about to be sent to this prison for the crime he didn't commit, is just the man to do a quick extraction job to get the the prez's daughter, while also running a separate secret mission to clear his own name. So we're off to space with Snow, and in the ensuing loud, senseless scenes various things go right and go wrong and Snow and the daughter, named Emilie (but it doesn't really matter), meet and bicker and flirt. Snow wants this broad to pipe down, Emilie wants this pig to be more of a gentleman, and it's all oddly regressive. At one point Snow gives Emilie a shotgun to protect herself and a gizmo to find her way to an escape pod, but she can't work the big confusing machine and, we find out later, the gun wasn't loaded anyway, because what? Even during a prison riot one shouldn't trust a little lady with a big scary gun? Ick. (OK, to be fair, Emilie does shoot a machine gun, pretty well in fact, later in the film.)
Um, what else? Oh, the kooky Scottish guy has a brother, a smarter, sterner Scottish guy, who starts running the show and eventually figures out who Emilie is. Meanwhile the whole space jail is careening off course and is going to crash into Earth, killing thousands, so space fighters are scrambled to blow the thing out of the sky (or above-the-sky), meaning the clock is ticking on this whole farkakte rescue mission. Throughout all these midadventures, the dialogue is clunky and crass, and the action scenes lacking in, y'know, any real action. Pearce has his appeal and Joseph Gilgun has a few effective moments as the whacked out Scottish bro, but Grace is a monotone bore (RIP Shannon!) and the great character actors Peter Stormare and Lennie James are mostly wasted in thankless earthbound roles.
I had odd optimism about this little movie; I liked its smallness, its foreignness, its Luc Besson-ness. But alas in the end it's just another messy action movie with no point of view. It's all initial bluster and chest puffing that gives way to generic, rote storytelling. (I mean, "storytelling" is an awfully lofty word for what this is, but oh well.) You get the impression that if everyone had just tried a little harder, this space prison movie could have been fun. But as is, it just feels like doing time.