With the release of The Cabin in the Woods last month, audiences were given another rare little piece of thoughtful entertainment from the restless minds of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard. “Nothing here is what it seems,” said the Operative, a character in Whedon’s earlier film Serenity, and that is precisely how to describe what these filmmakers keep giving us.
I avoided watching Whedon's TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer for years because of what it appeared to be -- just another melodramatic teenage high school show about the troubled emotions and romances of a blonde who, whimsically enough, was also supposed to fight vampires. But I was wrong. Behind the apparent melodrama and cliches, the show’s creators were doing something different. Some doubters scoff when I claim that Buffy involves ideas and lessons of theological and philosophical import. But it does. Whedon somehow takes what would be stale in the hands of almost anyone else, and turns it into a story that explores morality, temptation, sin, justice, forgiveness, and redemption.
A couple years ago, Whedon explained how his theological beliefs influenced his script writing. He pointed back to the sixteenth episode of the second season of his show Angel. At the end of that episode, there is a little moment when the character of Angel voices what Whedon himself believes:
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Angel says. “There’s no grand plan.”
But he doesn’t stop there. His reasoning continues that “if nothing we do matters, then . . . all that matters is what we do, cause that’s all there is -- what we do.” In spite of his nihilistic conclusion, an atheistic Angel -- like his creator -- still can’t rid himself of the idea of morality. He wants to help others “because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.”
Now the thing about Joss Whedon is not only that he keeps doing unexpectedly thoughtful things with his stories, but he delights in constantly taking us one step further. He could have just left Angel there, with this grand determinism-defying conclusion that, Whedon admits, is his own. Instead, the girl sitting next to this philosophical vampire tells him, “I believe. I don’t know what I believe, but I have faith. I think maybe we’re not alone in this.” Why? “Because . . . I never invited you in.” She’s pointing out a miracle. Angel, a vampire, entered her home to save her from the bad guys, even though the “natural law” for vampires won’t let them enter one’s house without being invited in.
“I said the thing I believed in most,” explained Whedon, “then I contradicted it right away because, ultimately, it’s the conflict of those ideas that’s actually really interesting.” This is what Whedon ponders and wrestles with while writing his scripts. What is the true origin of morality? What does the idea of sin really mean?
Striding confidently across the screen in the film Serenity is the Operative. In the hands of most writers and directors, the Operative would just be a villain. But under Whedon’s scriptwriting, the Operative becomes a character who talks about God, God’s people, Pharaoh, and bondage. He explains how he believes in making the world better. He dreams of a world without sin. He casually asks multiple characters, “Do you know what your sin is?” and then delivers his own unique brand of justice and punishment.
We watch in wonder as Mal, the reluctant hero, forms his own beliefs in reaction against the beliefs of the Operative. If there is one thing the hero discovers to be evil, it is the use of power over others in the attempt to eliminate sin. “Hell,” snarls Mal, “I’m gonna grant your greatest wish. I’m gonna show you a world without sin.” In Whedon’s ragged hero’s view, a world without sin is a world without free will. “Why do the rebels fight so hard against us?” asks the government teacher. Because “people don’t like to be meddled with,” explains a unique little girl. “We tell them what to do, what to think. Don’t run. Don’t walk. We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome.”
It is suddenly no coincidence that another Whedon show, Dollhouse, is all about wiping free will out of the souls of people. And, when free will is wiped out, what is left of a person? Ms. DeWitt, who’s in charge of this operation, imperiously intones her benevolent goals: “A place of safety, of untroubled certainty, of purity . . . this is the world we must maintain. It is imperative that nothing disturb the innocence of life here. Once any temptation is introduced, it will spread like a cancer and all will be infected.” But the heroes (and even one villain) in Dollhouse passionately believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with this violation of the free will of man. There’s this troublesome idea they have of what ought and ought not to be.
It is this same thoughtfulness with which Whedon’s screenwriting partner, Drew Goddard, imbues his first film as a director, The Cabin in the Woods. (Whedon and Goddard wrote the film together.) I must warn you, I’m about to reveal major spoilers. So, if you haven’t seen it but plan to see it, stop here. (And if you plan to see it, you should know that it is an R-rated horror film, with all that that entails.)
One of the major surprises of The Cabin in the Woods turns out to be that the story in which the protagonists find themselves trapped is being manipulated by a group of scientific bureaucrats who are serving the will of evil gods. They are enforcing the clichés of the horror genre in order to kill off the main characters, as sacrifices to those gods. Early in the film, one of these “puppeteers” casually dismisses the idea that they are violating the free will of the kids in the cabin. Yet it turns out that the game is rigged. “They made us choose,” realizes one of the survivors towards the end. As the film continues, Goddard gives you the uncomfortable feeling that the will of the “evil gods” to see characters die stupid, gruesome, and clichéd deaths is identical with the appetites of the horror movie audience.
The audience’s desires are being represented by the deterministic deities in the film and the result is morally abhorrent. “They can’t be punished unless they transgress,” says one of the scientists. But what determines whether there is a transgression turns out to be completely arbitrary. And how reprehensible a world it would be if “sin” were merely defined by some arbitrary whim of a voyeuristic deity? In fact, how reprehensible our entertainment would be if our desires were merely shaped by shallow clichés? How much does mass-marketed pop culture shape what we want?
This brings us to Whedon’s most recent film, The Avengers. “Your freedom is a myth,” declares the villain in that movie. Loki argues that we aren’t really free, since what we want and do is shaped for us by our own consumer appetites for cheap pleasures and entertainment. “You think it’s not happening? You think they’re not controlling you?” asks some guy on the street in Dollhouse. “Don’t worry about it. Just sit back and wait for ‘em to tell you what to buy.”
What difference does it make whether there is a good or evil deity if we are only interested in pursuing our own visceral and voyeuristic thrills? Does it matter whether who we are is shaped by the lowest common pop culture denominator or by evil supernatural forces? Not many writers and directors ask us these sorts of questions. For all of us, they’re questions worth pondering.
Jeremy Purves is a law clerk and a freelance writer in Modesto, California. He publishes book and film reviews at his website, Redemptio Sehnsucht.
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