When two guys, two girls, and a nerd set out to party in a creepy cabin deep in the woods, you know in your weary bones what’s going to happen. The only question, at this late date in the history of teen slasher movies, is whether you care. Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, the genre-wise writers of The Cabin in the Woods, are aware of that, and they’ve used this mossy premise to set up a different sort of picture—not so much a parody of the familiar concept as a very clever extension of it. The result is distinctively smart and funny, and pretty brilliant. (It has also been a long time coming: The movie was shot three years ago, then became collateral damage in the financial implosion of MGM before being picked up by Lionsgate.)
The picture announces its fresh intentions right at the top, with an opening scene set in an underground science facility of some sort, where we meet two tie-wearing technicians, Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), as they settle in with their colleagues at a control-room console bristling with dials and levers and multiple video monitors. Then we cut to the picture’s party-bound youths—five college friends—as they pile into an RV to begin their trip. These characters are pretty much what you would expect (although with some unexpected dimensions). Hunky Curt (Chris Hemsworth) and sexy Jules (Anna Hutchison) are the hot couple; modest Dana (Kristen Connolly) is the virginal sweetie; amiable Holden (Jesse Williams) is the nice guy who’d be just right for her; and motor-mouth Marty (Fran Kranz) is the bong-hitting fifth wheel. As they take off for the cabin Curt says he has borrowed, we notice that they’re being observed by a dark figure looking down from a roof. “The nest is empty,” he says into a transmitter. “We’re ready to go.”
There follows the inevitable encounter, at a roadside pit stop, with a backwoods crazy spitting out tobacco juice and unprovoked hostility. The students are undeterred by his doomy insinuations, however, and they continue on to the cabin, where things very quickly get juicy.
First-time director Goddard, a veteran of Whedon’s revered TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (and also the writer of J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield) keeps the horror movie tropes and monsters coming in waves. There are misty woods, a dark cellar that no one should ever go down into, the usual resoundingly inappropriate decisions (“I’m gonna go for a walk”), and a lumbering army of hideous redneck zombies (the advance party for an even more populous contingent of bloodthirsty creatures to come). Sexual activity (with a brief flash of the traditional bared breasts) is predictably ill-advised, and all hopes of escape are steadily extinguished.
Meanwhile, down in the lab, the mysterious tech crew is observing all of this via remote cameras, whooping it up and placing bets as each grisly cabin scenario unfolds. (“We bring the pain!” one of them exults.) But who are these people? Why are they doing what they do, and for whom are they doing it? This wonderfully inventive meta-story leads to a riotous conclusion (with an amusing star cameo) that trashes the rules of the teen fright flick. A couple of sociological questions are vaguely addressed—why do we love bloody horror? why do we enjoy seeing young people tormented?—but these are trifling concerns. (Should we prefer to watch old people being sternly jostled?) The movie’s many delights are largely formal—the cheery, self-aware revisionism, the profusion of vintage genre references. The surroundings may be familiar, but the fun feels brand-new.
The funniest thing about Lockout, a film that is not without several amusements of a subsidiary nature, is the notion that it is based on an “original idea” sprung from the brow of the alarmingly prolific French writer-director-producer Luc Besson. The movie is a brazen scavenging of such dystopian forebears as Escape from New York, Outland, and Demolition Man, among a number of others that spring instantly to mind. Any claim to originality is risible. The picture—scripted by Besson in collusion with the Irish directing team of James Mather and Stephen St. Leger, to whom he handed it off—is a helping of happy trash that asks only to be tolerated, however briefly. I think we can accommodate that desire with appropriate brevity.
The story, set in the year 2079, involves a disgraced CIA agent named Snow (Guy Pearce), who’s been framed for murder and espionage and sentenced to be dispatched to a supermax outer-space prison—MS One—where the inmates are kept in “stasis,” a sort of controlled coma. Before Snow can be sent on his way, though, a crisis develops. A do-gooding group that includes Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace), daughter of the U.S. president, had been inspecting the prison, but now their visit has been disrupted by a breakout (triggered by a single prisoner—some supermax) and the group has been taken hostage. Against the advice of a CIA bigwig named Langral (Peter Stormare), Snow is assigned to fly up to the prison (which seems oddly nearby throughout the film) and rescue Emilie. He is at first resistant (“I’d rather castrate myself with blunt rocks”), but since he knows there’s someone incarcerated in MS One who can help exonerate him of the crimes of which he has been wrongly convicted, he ultimately agrees.
You can imagine all the running and sneaking and shooting and fighting that ensues. In fact, you can imagine it so easily that there’s little point in actually seeing it done. Much of the movie was shot against green screens, leaving the performers to interact with environments that weren’t actually present, which in turn lends some scenes a noticeably tentative feeling. There’s also an extended chase sequence involving a fat-tired and entirely Batman-esque motorcycle that might have been lifted intact from a 1980s video game. The movie is further oppressed by the usual grim dystopian color scheme, although that’s a given with this well-trodden territory.
What Lockout does have going for it is Pearce, who plays Snow as a gum-chewing wiseacre and brings vital comic energy to the proceedings. (Trapped in a tight spot with Grace, he marvels at her skill with a machine gun: “Jeez, I thought you were a Democrat.”) Just as welcome are the over-the-top efforts of Joseph Gilgun, who plays a murderous prisoner named Hydell with wonderful bobble-eyed derangement (and a Scottish accent so thick it cries out for subtitles). It’s too bad that Stormare, no stranger to over-the-topness himself, has been reined in here. But Grace is suitably spunky in what might have been a passive role, and she makes the most of her occasional zingy lines. At one point, questioning Snow’s courage, she asks, “Are you all mouth and no trousers?” (Well, it sounds good if you don’t think about it too hard.)
The movie is laughably generic, but not entirely unenjoyable. You’re likely to enjoy it a lot more, however, if you wait till it comes to a TV near you.