M. Night Shyamalan’s Cinema of Religious Environmental Activism

If there is anything we can say with absolute certainty about Knock at the Cabin, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest directorial effort, it is that it is incredibly familiar and immediately invites reviewers to see it in the context of the man’s previous work. Indeed, Shyamalan seems to be a creature of habit compelled to ‘go back to the well’ and revisit themes and ideas which have haunted his existence throughout his entire career. However, it seems that at least some of the contents of that well may not have been appreciated by audiences the way they perhaps should have. 

His newest film – a home invasion narrative with a twist™ and an accessible allegorical reading appended to it – has been rightly identified as fitting withing its creator’s long-standing pattern of discussing faith, predominantly in the context of understanding one’s place in the universe, hence effecting their self-discovery and self-actualization. After all, the grand conceit of the film revolves around two people coming to an understanding as to what needs to be done to put a stop to their ordeal and what role each of these characters must play, often with the help of the filmmaker’s own cameos guiding the characters like a benevolent, omniscient and omnipotent deity. This has always been a mainstay in Shyamalan’s storytelling as his unique interest never extended past what the archetypal narrative template would see as a turning point for the characters, after which a resolution would take place.  

In Shyamalan’s world, the resolution has always been of secondary importance as he would cut to black the minute Bruce Willis’ character found out he was a ghost in The Sixth Sense or when his pedigree as a superhero was confirmed in Unbreakable. Some would potentially be inclined to criticize this decision-making manifold as anti-climactic, but from the point of view of the filmmaker, there wasn’t much more worth saying after the cards were revealed. Shyamalan has never been particularly interested in playing out the familiar chords after he allowed the viewer to put together the key of the song, figure out its time signature and understand its subdivisions, if that makes any sense. It is almost as if he had faith in the viewer’s ability to put two and two together and play out the rest of the film in their heads on their way home or in their dreams later that night.  

However, this isn’t where his interests end because on top of the easily identifiable threads of faith and self-discovery underpinning his movies, Shyamalan has been increasingly interested in using his movies to advance a different kind of messaging – one that is more general and quite a bit less nebulous than the plight to see storytelling as a means to understand something about yourself. If you take a close look at Knock at the Cabin, and it doesn’t have to be that close, you will see it as a call to arms to finally act and do something about climate change. Arguably, this is again left by the filmmaker for you to put together on the way home as the movie cuts to credits almost immediately after the characters realize what’s going on and decide to do what’s right, but why what they decide to do is the right thing to do is never explicitly stated. Yes, we do learn that the home invaders are analogues of biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Yes, we can surmise that the world being punished for the characters’ indecision is immediately parallel to what we can observe in the world at large right now – floods, tsunamis, pandemics, and other calamities. And it doesn’t really take a genius to figure out what the movie is trying to tell us we ought to do.  

Using a localized allegory, Knock at the Cabin suggests that for us to deliver our species from extinction and to ensure our children’s survival we must make the ultimate sacrifice. Because we’ve been dragging our feet for too long and allowed corporate interests to run the coach and horses through the delicate homeostasis of our home planet – the only planet we know of capable of sustaining organic life – we are no longer in a position where we can have the cake and eat it. In fact, there isn’t enough cake for us to eat. Shyamalan’s movie tacitly becomes an amplification piece for Greta Thunberg’s acolytes who are no longer interested in constructive solutions and demand a blood offering. The way they see it, we are too far gone and constructive solutions no longer cut it. We don’t have multiple decades to sort out an alternative to fossil fuels. Time is no longer on our side. So, they suggest – and the film agrees – that the world needs fewer people in order to stabilize and rejuvenate. Or, if you choose to believe that Shyamalan remains a sensitive humanist soul, you can apply a softer interpretation to how the movie unfolds and see it as an invitation to make a less radical sacrifice. Consume less. Forgo meat. Choose not to fly. Use a paper straw. Re-use your toilet paper. Or something.  

However, a ‘softer interpretation’ may not be what the filmmaker intends. He may be out for blood because – just as the disgruntled gen-Zers who are tired of shouting into the void – his cinema has been, at least for a good while, devoted to this cause already and nobody has paid attention to this either. This is because, at least in some of his movie – and ever so frequently in recent years – M. Night Shyamalan has been appealing to our collective conscience and asking us to change our ways.  

Do you remember what The Village was about? Is the twist™ of the story taking place in modern day and monsters in the forest being fake the only things you can remember? Well, there’s more to it and if you – again – look closely and perhaps make sure not to get distracted by the primary narrative structure, you will find out that the movie is an indictment of the rich who choose to abnegate their responsibility for helping their communities and decide to abscond to the wilderness to live a life of fantastic denial. The play dress-up in the forest because they refuse to deal with the fact the world has become uninhabitable for them.  

And nobody got this message, which prompted Shyamalan to be a bit more direct, so a little while later he directed The Happening, a movie remembered only because it was bad, and not because it confirms its creator’s obsession with preaching to the world about an impending environmental catastrophe. However, this time people understood the message; in fact, it was hard not to because it was essentially hammered into us at the end of the film and explained away as though we were children. Again, nobody cared and decided to laugh at the corniness of the idea that trees could stage an Armageddon. How ridiculous.  

The pattern was later confirmed by After Earth, another movie nobody even remembers. Granted, it wasn’t particularly easy to sit through and maybe had it not been for the fact Shyamalan had been on a losing streak for a while at the time, it would have been remembered as another sign of the director’s keen interest in radical environmentalism. How else are we supposed to interpret the simple fact that the world the characters land on is an Earth where every living thing had evolved to eradicate humans? The planet took action. How much more direct can we get here, really? Especially when we take a logical approach to this thematic concept, we shall realize it is purposefully (or serendipitously) blown out of proportion to advance a message. After all, it is fundamentally illogical for creatures on Earth to remain tuned against humans long after humans were either driven out of the planet or eradicated. They would evolve further, adapt and perhaps mellow. The fact they do not is an important signifier – coincidental or not – that the message trumps logic.  

Shyamalan doesn’t stop there. In fact, the radical activism embedded in his movies eventually traverses from the realm of the allegorical and subliminal ideation to outright protestation and finger-pointing. As a result, Old is interested in nothing else but indicting corporate interests and in one fell swoop banding together big pharma with big oil, at which most environmental activism is typically targeted, and laments the notion that big secretive corporate monoliths hide God-knows-what behind their colour-coded branding and well-designed logos. If anything, it is a fascinating example of how art imitates life in that environmental activism has also progressed – as time went on – from targeted picketing to general civil disobedience fuelled by rising and largely undirected wrath. After all, Greta Thunberg’s famous ‘how dare you?’ isn’t really addressed at anyone in particular. It is expelled like an area-of-effect spell, aimed to inflict damage at everyone around her, because in her eyes we are all guilty and we have run out of favours.  

Thus, we arrive at Knock at the Cabin and perhaps now we can see why Shyamalan gravitated towards this narrative. Sure, it is easy to surmise that he did so on the back of how faith is systemically woven into the way characters develop and understand the world around them, but I would venture a guess that the film functions as a continuation of the mostly dormant thematic thread found in most of his movies – the anger at humanity’s indifference to the way they have been treating their home planet. And now this anger has begun simmering potently enough for everyone to take note.  

In consequence, it may even lead you to have another look at Shyamalan’s other movies that do not overtly connect with this idea because they deal with ghosts, superheroes or alien invaders. Maybe Shyamalan’s cinema of faith has a false bottom. Underneath the primary thematic interpretation connecting the filmmaker to the notions of self-discovery, the power of storytelling and a deeply rooted desire to act out his youthful desire to prove to himself that cinema has allowed him to find a meaning in life lies a thin layer of connective tissue capable of weaponizing them in service of fervent environmental activism.  

Thus, the viewer is allowed to pull back and see these films as even more nuanced and worthy of discussion. We have gone a long way since the times when Shyamalan’s movies were consistently discussed in the context of their plot. Take a few steps back and you will see them as personal anthems praising the power of storytelling. Take another few steps and you will see them as spiritual experiences aiding one’s self-identification. Now, we can take another few steps and we can see that the religious fervour permeating Shyamalan’s movies fuels the fire of environmentalism and that the faith he wants us to have may also be understood as faith in humanity. A faith he has been slowly losing as we continually missed this interpretation of his cinema, just as we have missed all the hints and nudges the planet was giving us hoping – praying – we’d see the light.  

Now, it’s probably too late and – just like in Knock at the Cabin – not everyone will make it out alive. Some of us will have to recognize that for our future generations to have a chance at survival, a sacrifice must be made. Otherwise, the planet will have no other recourse but to stage an apocalypse or evolve to eradicate us like a plague.  

And then, a few millennia later, Will Smith will show up with his kid. Just to rub it in. 


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