Like Old, Knock at the Cabin marks the start of what may come to be seen as M. Night Shyamalan’s late period. Both films move away from the twists that have become Shyamalan’s stock in trade in favour of high concept premises whose sombre implications gradually emerge over the course of the narrative. Both films also feel inflected through what Julia Leyda has described as the climate unconscious – a prescience of impending planetary catastrophe as an event so overwhelming that it can’t be translated into a programmatic artistic statement. In Knock at the Cabin, that dovetails with another recent tendency to imagine ways in which queer modes of futurity, and queer conceptions of family, might turn the LGBTQI+ continuum into both the salvational and apocalyptic poles of climate discourse.
The film opens in an idealised pastoral setting, amidst a grassy greenness that comes as close to a primal state of nature as anything we’ve seen in Shyamalan’s body of work. This space is the province of Wen, a young girl played by Kristen Cui, who is collecting grasshoppers for her terrarium. No sooner has Shyamalan immersed us in Wen’s world, however, than it’s overshadowed by the arrival of Leonard, played by Dave Bautista. Leonard runs his hands along the brilliant foliage, and then clasps Wen’s hands in his own, in what could easily be the start of an abduction narrative. Instead, Leonard arrogates a fatherly role, in size, stature and tone, admitting to Wen that his heart is already breaking for the actions he has to commit this day, and asking her to run back to the nearby cabin, where her parents are waiting for her, and inform them that they need to open their doors to the three people travelling with him.
When Wen returns to the cabin, we learn that she has two fathers – Eric, played by Jonathan Groff, and Andrew, played by Ben Aldridge, both of whom barricade their doors against Leonard and the three people with him. Yet it’s only a matter of time before the quartet break in, and tell the family that they have a major part to play in an imminent global catastrophe. Before they go into details, however, Shymalan inverts the tropes of home invasion in quite an uncanny way. Just as Leonard assumes the role of father upon meeting Wen, the quartet adopt the role of the liberal homeowners who are typically victimised during invasion narratives. All of them hail from Democrat America, and apologise so strenuously for the invasion as to take on the main burden of suffering from it. Sabrina, played by Nikki Amuka-Bird is an urbane nurse from Southern California who spent her savings to get to the cabin; Adrianne, played by Abby Quinn, is a teacher in Chicago who volunteers for an after-school program; and even Redmond, the renegade, played by Rupert Grint, has reformed himself.
For all that the invaders over-apologise for their presence – or perhaps because of it – Eric and Andrew’s first instinct is that they are simply the last in a long line of people “trying to change us, or make us different.” The invasion narrative is intercut with flashbacks depicting the struggles the couple had to endure to get married, and then to adopt Wen, while these two strands of the film converge when Eric realises that Redmond assaulted him in a gay bar, an event that precipitated a major mental health crisis in his personal and professional life. Shyalaman signals that the first stage in the home invasion is complete by cutting to the first time Eric met Andrew’s disapproving parents, and builds a tacit homophobia into the sheer repetitive insistence that the crime isn’t motivated by the couple’s sexuality: “We’re not here with hate or prejudice in our hearts – we don’t have a single homophobic bone in our body.”
Between this gay family home on the one hand, and a troupe desperate to claim that home as their own, a tension emerges around who has the right to reprofuturity – the model of futurity based on family, children and bourgeois values. This only intensifies when the four invaders finally disclose their agenda. They have all had a vision of an impending apocalypse that can only be stopped if two members of this family voluntarily sacrifice one of the others. If they refuse to perform the sacrifice, they will live, but the rest of humanity will die. Worse, they will have to witness the death of humanity, and then “wander the devastated planet alone, cosmically alone.” By asking Eric, Andrew and Wen to sacrifice one of themselves to save the planet, the invaders are asking them to give up reprofuturity for a more collective global futurity, while implying that the sheer fact of simply existing as a family is an act of cosmic selfishness, at least for this family. Put another way, if Eric, Andrew and Wen want to preserve their cabin in the woods, one of the most enduring tropes of the middle-class good life in American cinema, they have to be prepared to witness every imaginative atrocity from its doors and windows. The cabin, long a symbol of privileged isolation, will now literally isolate them from everyone they have known or loved, and from every human on the planet.
This ultimatum presents the family, and the audience, with an impossible proposition. On the one hand, reprofuturity is directly linked to planetary catastrophe – the fate of the family is set against the fate of the earth. Yet this reprofuturity is also attributed to the type of family – gay families – that have been the most recent to benefit from it, and even now barely occupy it. It’s as if family values suddenly become twisted, warped or simply visible in their full implications once assumed by the gay family, which means that the quartet, all of whom are heterosexual, have to invade and undermine Eric, Andrew and Wen’s very claims to family itself. Even though the two men have a child, Leonard invokes children as a conversation-stopper, while Sabrina guilt trips them with her recurring visions of her own son’s death, as if this could ramify to them more than the actual and imminent death of their own daughter. Likewise, Leonard warns that the apocalypse will start with a deadly flu virus that will prove particularly damaging to children, while Wen also starts to wonder – “Will all the children die?” – as if not quite permitted to think of herself as such a child in this gay family scenario.
To some extent, this reflects a common, if usually unspoken, assumption that gay parents are not real parents, along with a similar belief that gay parents cannot properly claim to care for children. But Shyamalan also leans into a more cosmic anxiety here too, a growing awareness that the reprofuturity of middle-class life, and the neoliberal fixation on the family, is starting to cut directly against the collective action needed to ensure the ongoing existence of the planet. In recent years, a certain cynical-sentimental invocation of children has worked directly against the welfare of future children, in the same way that the Republican obsession with the sanctity of life goes hand in hand with an apparent disregard for victims of school shootings. So great is this dissonance, Knock at the Cabin suggests, that it tends to ramify through the gay nuclear family, which the invaders reproach both for being too reprofuturist and not reprofuturist enough. By tacitly treating the gay couple as inferior parents, the invaders mock their aspirations to reprofuturity, and yet when they hesitate to sacrifice one of themselves, let alone their daughter, they represent the worst excesses of reprofuturity.
In other words, Knock at the Cabin, like The Whale, presents queer futurity as occupying a salvational-apocalyptic nexus when it comes to popular perceptions of climate change – and it is out of this dissonance at the heart of the film that symptoms of climate change start to emerge. As Eric suffers from a concussion, and becomes photosensitive, the light of the sun becomes unbearably bright; as Andrew hesitates, ocean levels starts to rise, and massive supertsunamis crash across the American coast. The third act of the film doesn’t resolve so much as suspend us in this dissonance, as the couple decide that their family cannot be about reprofuturity, only to be swayed by the prospect of their daughter wandering a world devoid of any humans apart from themselves. In an unbearable bind, Eric sacrifices himself so his daughter doesn’t have to inhabit a world destroyed by reprofuturity, and so becomes a kind of messianic figure, like Charlie in the final moments of The Whale. Together, they perhaps reflect a new modulation of the superhero, attuned to climate change in the same way the first wave of the Marvel Renaissance was attuned to 9/11, except that their task feels more incomplete and less conducive to fantasy from the outset, destined to produce dissonance –and an “ending” here in which Andrew toggles the radio obsessively on and off, between Eric’s favourite song and silence, unable to settle convincingly on either horror or catharsis.