Warning, in case you didn’t read the headline: the following discusses the ending of The Cabin in the Woods and (obviously) contains spoilers.
There’s a paragraph in Roger Ebert’s review of 2010 that’s stuck with me all these years, in which he discusses why he included a quote from e.e. cummings (“I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance”) in his review, years earlier, of 2001: A Space Odyssey. He wrote:
That was my response to the people who said they couldn’t understand 2001, that it made no sense and that it was one long exercise in self-indulgence by Stanley Kubrick, who had sent a man to the stars, only to abandon him inside some sort of extraterrestrial hotel room. I felt that the poetry of 2001 was precisely in its mystery, and that to explain everything was to ruin everything — like the little boy who cut open his drum to see what made it bang.
Oh, how that paragraph (and much of what followed in that review) wormed its way into my brain. It managed to put into words why, even in my youth, I preferred a story with a few loose ends (provided, of course, the ends were left untied intentionally, not as a result of sloppy storytelling, but you get my drift). Between walking away content with everything spelled out for me in the final scenes and getting into a debate with friends about what secret truths lie under a film’s surface, I’ll take the debate every time.
Which brings us to The Cabin in the Woods. (Considering the spoiler warning above, I’ll assume you’ve seen the movie and no plot recap is necessary.) For most of its run time, I was convinced I’d be walking out of the theater eager to discuss all the hints and mentions and asides meant to clue us in to the Big Picture without ever truly revealing it. Indeed, the script revels in its teases; the bit where the baddies cut off Amy Acker mid-sentence before she lets slip too much about the “ancient ones” is dripping with playful obviousness about its secrets.
Consider how the entire movie is set up to be rewatchable. That is, even though its story is all about how much the audience knows and when they know it, the screenplay is not built entirely upon a stack of twists and surprises that serve as the story’s lone purpose; Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard practice the Art of the Reveal in many of the right ways and refreshingly few of the wrong ones. Here is a film designed by its makers to reward the perceptive. It’s meant to get us talking, arguing, revisiting, all to put the pieces together.
And then Sigourney Weaver shows up and tells us everything.
It’s not a bad scene, really. But do we need it? My answer, as you can guess, is no. Weaver’s “here’s how everything works and why everything happens and I’ll repeat it twice for the benefit of those in the back row” speech is not only redundant (as filmmaker Chance Shirley pointed out on Twitter, there’s nothing Weaver says that we couldn’t have pieced together ourselves*), but, more importantly, it strips away the wonder of the mystery. Can you think of any ambiguous story that could be improved by having somebody randomly walk in and explain away every question via monologue?
I’m curious why Whedon and Goddard felt the need to include such an ending. Did they think a movie like this required a bit of dumbing down? (Unlikely, since the rest of the movie assumes a certain amount of viewer intelligence; anybody still lost and in need of a clarifying monologue by this point is beyond help anyway.) Did they think such a speech was a reward for the audience, thanking them for their patience by answering any leftover questions? (Improbable, for the same trust-in-audience reasons.) Did they think such a scene was mandatory, since, hey, these sorts of moments happen all the time in the movies? (Doubtful, for a film this interested in bucking expectations.)
My best guess – and it’s a far-fetched one, so please have your salt grains handy – is that the duo got so wrapped up in creating the film’s universe and its backstory that they simply forgot to exclude it. As a writer, it’s easy, when crafting all these details and motivations, to forget which bits the audience needs and which they don’t. The level of in-universe history may have been essential to Whedon and Goddard when constructing their tale, but it’s not essential to the audience’s tour through that world. (To strain a metaphor even further: Cabin‘s first 85 minutes are Boba Fett, while its last ten are a moody teenager eating soup with his clone dad.)
To be fair, the ending is not enough to derail the film. It certainly works within the universe the movie has created, and it sets up a finale that’s both apocalyptic and somewhat open-ended, all with the same cheeky verve the rest of the movie delivers. And, more importantly, it gets us to precisely the ending the film needs. Nothing that happens around the over-explanation is forced or ill-fitting here; I can’t imagine the path these characters take leading anywhere other than the cynical world-ending one we get.
But still. If only the script didn’t cut open its drum to show us how it bangs.
*I should add that Chance wrote as a defense of the ending, figuring since Weaver’s speech avoids adding anything we couldn’t have figured out, it doesn’t get the opportunity to ruin anything with an unearned late-game Shyamalanian revelation. That’s a fair assessment.