There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. – Mario Savio
Whether it’s Charlton Heston’s cry that “Soylent Green is people!” or Jack Nicholson’s warning that “[we] can’t handle the truth,” our collective fear has been wending its way through the cinema. That dark secret that underpins everything else – what if we aren’t the people we think we are? What if society chews up its citizens, not by mistake, but through deliberate acts of design and intent? If this is the way we survive – if we can have justice or life, but not both – which are we willing to choose? Is the greater evil that humanity ends, or that it survives by cannibalizing itself?
This moral dilemma – the question of whether survival or justice should be our first duty – has been in the air for a while, but two films have recently turned up the volume, proposing in stark and viscerally disturbing terms that the answer is “justice” even at the cost of survival. Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods (2012) and Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, released in North America in the summer of 2014, take the radical position that we have a moral duty to destroy ourselves, when survival’s dependent on evil. These movies call on us to – in Snowpiercer’s case, quite literally – throw ourselves on the gears, even if doing it means that humanity stops.
The Cabin in the Woods (co-written by witty fan-favourite Joss Whedon) is best known for the clever, self-reflexive way it questions the horror movie genre. Five smart, sarcastic college students get attacked by a “zombie redneck torture family” during a weekend vacation, only to discover that their deaths are part of a ritual sacrifice to stop “giant, evil gods” from ending all life on the planet. All of the action in the cabin is scripted and directed by a team of government scientists working underground, and the students’ horrific deaths are played out on a series of TV monitors, attracting a voyeuristic crowd. The twist comes when the last surviving students find a way into the underground bunker and literally unleash hell on their tormentors. Even after learning that the world will be destroyed if he lives to see sunrise, the wisest of the students, Marty, refuses to die. “Maybe that’s the way it should be,” he says of the coming apocalypse, “If you’ve gotta kill all my friends to survive.”
In American culture, horror movies are a ritual that takes the place of witch trials and public stoning – the audience is free to indulge in the sins of others, through vicarious titillation, while still feeling righteous because those others are punished. The Cabin in the Woods, first and foremost, makes the observation that horror stories are carefully crafted to serve just this need. The scientists in the bunker use chemistry and other manipulation to entice the students into “transgressing” so that they can be punished, just as screenwriters create characters whose promiscuous or hedonistic behaviour is meant to justify their later deaths. Both halves of the exchange take place for the benefit of the audience – the pleasure of transgression, followed by the pleasure of watching the punishment. At one point, as the scientists try to lure a female character into taking her shirt off on camera, one of their security guards expresses disgust, and they remind him, “We’re not the only ones watching.”
What’s interesting about The Cabin in the Woods, though – beyond its clever observations of the genre – is that it takes its premise entirely seriously. The scientists overseeing this human sacrifice aren’t wrong. They aren’t acting out of superstition or misinformation – it is actually the case that they must sacrifice five people or suffer “the agonizing death of every human soul on the planet.” Indeed, this is what happens in the final thirty seconds of the film, after Marty lights up a joint in lieu of dying on the altar – the world is destroyed.
Needless to say, depicting the end of the world as the lesser of two evils is a fairly unusual choice; it’s different from what happens in many other films and television shows that try to address this dilemma. The most common resolution, when faced with a choice between evil and global destruction, is to find a way of ending the evil without any negative fallout, either because the negative fallout fails to materialize or because the long-term consequences are never discussed.
In the Doctor Who episode “The Beast Below,” which aired in 2010, the Doctor and his companion travel to a future where citizens of the UK are forced to live aboard a spaceship, since the Earth has become uninhabitable. Upon reaching the age of majority, each citizen is presented with a short video explaining that life aboard the ship is only sustained through the continuous torture of a peaceful alien called a Star Whale, who has been forced to carry the ship into space. Confronted with this knowledge, citizens are given the choice between either freeing the Star Whale (in which case the ship will be destroyed and everyone on board will die), or forgetting that they ever heard about it. Everyone, including the Doctor’s companion, chooses the latter of the two options, because the knowledge is too horrific to live with, and the consequences of saving the Whale too severe. The Doctor eventually discovers the truth of what’s happened, but, when the story reaches its climax, it turns out that there’s an option no one had considered. The Doctor’s companion realizes that the Star Whale is benevolent enough to stay with the ship voluntarily, even after it’s freed, so she releases it from torture, and it carries the spaceship safely. The lesson of “The Beast Below” is that there is no cost to doing the right thing – that it was, in fact, unnecessary to do the wrong thing in the first place, because the Star Whale would have carried the ship out of kindness.
In A Few Good Men (1992), two Marines stand trial for murdering a third, and the question is whether this murder is evidence of systemic corruption within the military – whether the men we admire, “because they stand on a wall and say, ‘Nothing’s going to hurt you tonight,’” are performing horrific acts in our name – whether our freedom has come at the price of justice and honour. The practical question the film’s lawyer protagonist tries to answer is whether the Marines he’s defending were ordered by their commander to enact a “code red” – an illegal disciplinary measure – on the third, accidentally resulting in his death. The climax comes when the commander, played by Jack Nicholson, admits on the stand that he ordered the code red and that he’s not sorry, because the hard truth is that murdering that Marine saved lives. “You have the luxury of not knowing what I know,” he says. “We live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. … You don’t want the truth because, deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. … I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it.”
The entire script of A Few Good Men drives hard at this point – that there may be a schism between acceptable moral behaviour and the things we must do to survive. Nicholson’s monologue is a powerful moment, in part, because he’s saying things we fear may be correct – that we don’t ask too many questions about what goes on out of sight; that we don’t want to know, if the truth is that we’ve been complicit in evil. After introducing this problem, though, the movie pulls back and suggests that the answer is simply to stamp out immoral behaviour, ignoring the possible fallout. At the story’s conclusion, the Marines on trial are found guilty of conduct unbecoming and learn that they should have stood up for their fellow Marine, rather than punishing him for his weakness. Nicholson’s character is arrested, and it’s implied that things won’t go too well for him. There is absolutely no discussion of whether or not he was correct in what he said, and it might even be assumed that these were the ravings of an incompetent leader who tortured the servicemen under his command. Once again, the lesson appears to be that our fears are unfounded, and that there’s no conflict between moral good and survival.
There are many other examples as well. Soylent Green (1973) ends with Charlton Heston’s attempt to warn the world that human life on an overpopulated Earth is being sustained through cannibalism, but it’s unclear what the alternative may be. In Watchmen (2009), millions of innocent people are killed to secure world peace, and the secret of why they were killed, once revealed, may trigger a nuclear war – but we never find out if that happens, because the movie ends just as the secret goes public.
In a context where we’ve usually been shielded from the consequences of choosing justice over survival, the ending of The Cabin in the Woods is unusually radical and pessimistic in its politics. It accepts that ending injustice may yield catastrophic results and embraces the end of the world as the consequence for ending human sacrifice.
Snowpiercer takes a similar, though more optimistic, stance. The story takes place in the world that greed built – a future where the Earth has been made uninhabitable, and the only survivors live aboard a massive train owned and ruled by the wealthiest man alive. The train has a rigid class system where those at the front hoard resources and those at the back are forced to live in poverty. The plot concerns a group of revolutionaries who hail from the very back car and fight their way to the front of the train, trying to seize control. Along the way, they uncover disquieting truths about how the train has survived, the worst of which is the revelation that the miracle engine that powers the train is designed to operate on the labour of terrified lower-class children, who are shoved into the small spaces between the gears and forced to work as human machinery until making a fatal mistake. Faced with this information, the protagonist, Curtis, must decide whether to – literally – throw his body on the gears to stop the engine, thereby destroying the world.
Although this doesn’t become clear until the end, the real conflict in the film is not between Curtis and the train’s evil overlord, Wilford. It’s the philosophical disagreement between Curtis, who would sacrifice the world to end injustice, and his mentor, Gilliam, who would sacrifice anything – an arm, or a leg, or 74 percent of the steerage-class population – in order to save the world.
Gilliam, who also hails from the poorest car, is a hero in Curtis’ eyes, because he cut off his own arm to feed people during a famine. Curtis is ashamed of himself because he wasn’t willing to do the same thing, and because he turned to murder and cannibalized others during the same crisis. For most of the film, he maintains that he can’t be a leader, because he wasn’t able to make the same choices that Gilliam made. Once he reaches the engine, however, he learns that Gilliam has been working with Wilford all along – that the two of them have planned the revolution expressly to thin the population and ensure the survival of the train. The deed already done, Curtis realizes that the goal he’s been fighting for is lost and considers accepting Wilford’s offer to live peacefully at the front of the train. When he discovers the truth about the children, though, Curtis jams his arm between the gears of the engine, tearing it off and (indirectly) causing catastrophic damage to the train. He dies and, from what we can see, so does almost everyone else.
In political philosophy, the conflict that Curtis and Gilliam face is expressed as the problem of “dirty hands.” It’s what Canadian politician and Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff was speaking about when he told Philosophy Bites that politicians are necessarily required to deviate from “the moral standards that we customarily observe in private life,” and that people would feel less cynicism toward public officials if they accepted that “politicians do a … dirty job, but [that] it’s an absolutely necessary job for the survival of our republics.” The idea is that political office necessarily requires those who hold it to do unsavoury things so as to ensure the security (and sometimes glory) of the nation. Officials are placed in the same position as Curtis and Gilliam, with conflicting duties toward the overall good of the train and the demands of a functioning conscience – the question is how those conflicts must be resolved.
In Politics and Morality, British philosopher Susan Mendus argues that the very nature of this conflict is that it can’t be resolved. Public officials assume responsibility for protecting the welfare of the group and would rightly be seen as remiss if they entirely ignored those duties; as human beings, though, they also have a duty to the demands of private morality. It’s true that we should not allow the human race to be destroyed; it’s true that we should not allow injustice to continue. To choose between one or the other is, as Isaiah Berlin writes, to reach the erschreckend – horrifying, dismaying – realization that there are two incompatible moralities at play. That both worldviews – the one that saves the train and the one that saves the children – make sense; that they are both a sacrifice toward the greater good; that one must choose which good to pursue, while leaving the other behind.
Curtis, in Snowpiercer, chooses the children, becoming a hero, like Gilliam, losing an arm for the opposite cause. Like Marty, from The Cabin in the Woods, who fears that society’s “filling in the cracks with concrete,” and binding into a monstrous form, Curtis decides that some worlds are too awful to live in – that there comes a point where you’ve got to make it stop, no matter what the cost may be.
Like The Cabin in the Woods, Snowpiercer doesn’t shy away from the idea that choosing justice could lead to massive destruction, death, or a new type of hardship for everyone. The film’s coda, however, offers a slightly more uplifting vision that follows from its interest in class. After the train rolls over, in a torrent of fire and snow, we learn that the child Curtis rescued has survived, and that a life outside the train cars may be possible. There are several suggestions that Wilford, because the present situation benefits him, is working to indoctrinate the population against leaving the train, even as environmental conditions are changing – that even though the train might have been the only way to survive in the past, the world has changed enough that new solutions are possible. The ending is ambiguous, but there’s a strong suggestion that we can escape the world that greed built and live outside the closed systems designed by mad billionaires. That maybe, out of destruction, new worlds are born.
There’s also a possibility that the child, and anyone else who survived the disaster, will freeze and die in ten minutes, just as Wilford predicted. The point is that there comes a stage where the evils perpetrated in the name of survival are so tainting, and so horrific to our sense of moral justice, that they must be stopped at any cost. And, by unflinchingly confronting the cost of just action on screen, The Cabin in the Woods and Snowpiercer have carried the ball forward on our ability to confront this cost in life.