Editor’s Note: Before you click on the link here, please be advised that this article spoils the endings of two films that are best watched knowing as little as possible the first time around. You have formally been warned!
In a recent article, my colleague Nathan Comstock looks at the ambiguous heroism of The World’s End protagonist Gary King in terms of the sci-fi conceit of ‘the human spirit.’ While his article argues for the taking of Gary’s heroism with a grain of salt, I think taking the focus off Gary himself makes such a reading much less convincing. I’d like to make the case that, while Gary is a deeply flawed protagonist, his victory over the Network is rightly read as a moral victory. In making this argument, I want to use for comparison and contrast Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods, which similarly ends with its heroes deciding to let the world end (in this case with much more finality), and similarly portrays their actions as heroic.
As Cabin’s ending can be fairly argued to be made up of more clear-cut absolutes, I’ll discuss it first. As a bit of overview, for about the first hour, the film’s story follows a group of teenagers who unleash undead killers on a camping trip, alongside mysterious but ordinary-seeming office workers who somehow appear to be administrating the whole thing. As it turns out, the scenario is artificially constructed, and furthermore is an ancient ritual to keep dangerous old gods at bay, now controlled by a government bureaucracy. Of the sacrificial teenagers, only the archetypal ‘virgin’ is permitted to survive the ritual. The stakes, as they stand, are distinct: either the horror-movie scenario in which our heroes are trapped plays out as planned and the old gods are appeased with their sacrifice, or someone other than the ‘virgin’ lives, and they end the world. The decision survivors Marty and Dana ultimate;y make once escaping the ‘cabin’ scenario is that they will not let things proceed as planned, and the final shot of the movie is a giant hand slamming up through the titular cabin.
The text of the film does not support the notion that this is just the selfishness of flawed people who have been through hell and cannot agree to die now. In the final scene, they are resigned and waiting for the end of the world. And the audience is expected to at least entertain the idea that maybe this is better than the alternative.
It is not as though our heroes choosing to die would constitute saving the world. The containment cells of the agency that presides over these ritual sacrifices have endless scenarios planned. It is a stated fact in the plot of the movie that we can only appease the old gods so long — that group after group of young people have been put through this same sort of sacrificial gauntlet, and will be after the film’s heroes are dead. It’s why a whole infrastructure like the agency run by Sigourney Weaver’s unnamed director is supposedly needed — the feeding of hungry gods must be scheduled.
And make no mistake, comedic as they are, the office drones running this operation are to be seen as truly villainous. Their behavior — betting which monster will be unwittingly chosen, watching the whole thing for entertainment — is absurd because it is so on-its-face not right that the systemic suffering and death of human beings be treated in such a cavalier manner. This unexpected and bizarre juxtaposition is funny and chilling simultaneously. Furthermore, we, the audience, find irony and even catharsis in these pencil-pushers’ deaths at the hands of the monsters intended for other sacrifices in other cabins. This is because it is understood that they meet their ends at the hands of the very evil in which they are complicit, an evil so integrated into the world that its maintenance is a banal nine-to-five job.
If Cabin in the Woods presents the profoundly bleak notion that a world sustained by evil ought to cease being sustained, then The World’s End has a more optimistic message. It does not simply seem to make the case that the (admittedly unforeseen) cataclysm caused by the Network’s abandonment of earth is an acceptable cost to prevent the reshaping of humanity according to some frightening external force’s design; it demonstrates that after the cataclysm, all is far from lost. The text of the film, and not just the tone, makes this clear in a number of ways.
First, the general behavior of the Network gives numerous reasons to distrust it. For one, the very structure of a secret takeover such as is occurring in Newport Haven and similar places indicates an unwillingness to talk directly to humanity. That it should fear us in the event we resist seems implausible, given how thoroughly the robotic “blanks” seem to be able to survive the gang of five’s attacks: should it come down to war of attrition, the Network will win. The explanation, then, seems to be contempt. In Gary and Andy’s confrontation with the Network, it makes clear that it thinks of Earth as backwater and is certain that its work would be nothing but beneficial to us. What this would indicate, then, is that the Network believes there would be no point in telling us what it was doing. Regardless of promises of utopia, if an entity rewrites our being according to its own designs without our consent, then violently suppresses any resistance once found out, it is reasonable to distrust that entity.
And what about that utopia? Taking Newton Haven as an example does not make a good case for its being worth it. At best, it is something of a dull English village. That said, between the “Starbucking” of the local pubs, draining them of any character, and the empty, warmth-less cheer of the citizenry, there is reason to assume that something of value is lost when the network replaces human beings with blanks. Arguably, this is subjective, simply the film’s way of showing the uncanny feeling of returning to one’s old haunts. But even if so, the only difference shown in the film between a world of blanks and one of humans is that, if it so desires, the Network can take over a blank. While the Network promises world peace and technological advancement, all that both the audience and protagonists can be sure of is that it is making us into instruments of its will.
Finally, the ‘life goes on’ ending suggests that humanity is already beginning to bounce back on its own terms, questioning whether we needed the Network to save us from ourselves in the first place. We see Oliver and Peter, or at least some very convincing duplicates that are now free of Network control, return to their normal lives. Steven’s broken out of his rut and is enjoying a happy domestic life with Sam. While the standard of living has decreased due to lack of advanced technology, society has not irreversibly collapsed. Andy seems largely content throwing himself into subsistence farming, even if he does miss his Cornettos. While Gary King caused a great deal of damage in prompting the EMP-like shockwave at the end of the film, humanity, like his four friends at the start of the film, is fully capable of moving on and growing past the effects of his recklessness. Sure, we’re not the same from having known him, but neither are they, and they turned out all right. As it turns out, the World’s End was just the name of the pub.
Fundamentally, this speaks to a difference more in genre than anything else. As a horror story, Cabin in the Woods has at its core the notion that things really are as bad as you fear they are going to be. Meanwhile, The World’s End is a comedy, and ends on an appropriately offbeat and hopeful note. The moral choices driving each film’s ending, though, work along the same logic. In each case, the films heroes are faced with the wide-scale treatment of human beings as expendable in furtherance of some goal, and decide that, no matter how worthy the goal or disastrous the consequences of putting a stop to this exploitation, it is simply intolerable. As divergent as they are, the films draw the same line in the sand, asserting the right of each individual to not be a pawn in somebody else’s secret game.