Starring: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Kristin Cui, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rupert Grint, Abby Quinn
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Runtime: 100 mins. Reviewed in Feb 2023
Reviewer: Peter W Sheehan
Four strangers invade a cabin where the family – two fathers and daughter – are holidaying. The strangers demand that the family make an unthinkable choice to avert the apocalypse and humanity’s destruction.
Fans of the eerie and apocalyptic will be pleased to open for this knock at the door. But, it is a door that ordinary people would not want to open.
First, it is important to say that this is a M. Night Shyamalan thriller. He has been producing them for a quarter of a century, making a huge impact in 1999 with The Sixth Sense and that frequently quoted “I see dead people”. During the 2000s he made a number of eerie films, starting with Unbreakable. In more recent times he has touched horror and psychological quests in Split and Glass.
This particular cabin in the summer woods is surrounded by beautiful trees. A little girl, almost 8, Wen, is catching grasshoppers playfully. (Cui gives a remarkably convincing performance.) And then, Leonard appears and starts catching grasshoppers with her. He’s a huge man (played effectively by Bautista), but gently spoken. And then this stranger demands that he and his friends come into her house and meet her fathers.
At first this seems a home invasion as the four visitors smash their way in, while Wen and her fathers, Eric and Andrew (Groff and Aldridge) are fearful, defensive and then overwhelmed. But this is not a robbery – Leonard announces that he and his companions have had visions, and the end of the world is nigh, and to save humanity from absolute destruction, they have received a message that disaster will be averted only by this family, and that one of them must be killed as a sacrifice.
Apocalyptic themes have been popular in recent years, with all kinds of motivations, climate change especially, but it is not clear why this particular apocalypse should happen.
The film becomes more eerie as the family refuses to sacrifice one of them – and television sequences indicate the beginnings of world disasters, huge tsunamis, and planes falling from the sky, infections and plague… And, as the family refuse, successive members of the group die. With their backgrounds of teaching, cooking, nursing, protection, they are interpreted as variations on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The writers and director have decided to enhance feelings of apprehension by inserting a number of flashbacks during the terror, as each member of the family thinks back to past events – which is the opportunity for the filmmakers to give some background to the other principal theme, the same-sex marriage, the two fathers’ parenting their adopted child, the experience of family alienation, some homophobic brutality. And then back to the present and the terror.
Of course, the filmmakers want to frighten audiences, not just with the terror, but with the challenge of asking what we would do if this situation arose – sacrifice a member of the family for the good of humanity, or preserve the family unity – even if it meant wandering the earth alone forever.
Which means then that given this scenario, there has to be a willing suspension of disbelief in the theme, and, for the very rationalist audiences, a willing suspension of scepticism.
But, that is what most of M Night Shyamalan’s films ask of their audiences.
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