Rules of Writing: The Big Red Button

Not long ago, I watched The Cabin in the Woods for the first time. It came highly recommended, with both friends and critics (and critical friends) praising its innovative deconstruction of survival horror tropes. And, for the most part, that’s exactly what it was. I was enjoying it until the beginning of the third act where a gigantic blemish appeared right in the middle of the screen: The Big Red Button.

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Any story of struggle has to be an underdog story. When the hero triumphs over the villain no one cares unless the hero was outgunned, outmatched, and outnumbered. Well, unless you’re talking about The Avengers, which was two and a half hours of six jocks kicking the special kid’s ass and taking his lunch money, with the only real threat coming courtesy of the U.S. government (thanks a lot, Obama!). The hero has to overcome some long odds or there’s no suspense. So the writer packs obstacle upon obstacle in front of the protagonist until it seems like there’s literally no way the poor bastard will ever survive, let alone triumph. Look at Die Hard, not only the greatest action movie ever made, but a step-by-step manual on how to navigate office buildings and murder foreign nationals. John McClane is trapped by thirteen guys with machine guns, and all he has is a pistol. His vulnerability is telegraphed in his lack of shoes. His only ally is the fat dad from Family Matters. The only way shit could be worse is if he were married to Bonnie Bedelia or something.

This is where things get a little difficult. If the bad guys are so bad ass and the hero is so fucked, then how does he win? Oftentimes, this comes down to the one thing the bad guys over looked, a Big Red Button that, when pushed, causes the entire evil scheme to come crashing down. The rules to using the Big Red Button correctly are ultimately subjective, but following them will insure that you don’t need Robert Downey Jr. deploying his charisma to obfuscate massive logic gaps.

Maybe the most famous Big Red Button in the history of storytelling belongs to the Death Star. See, the GALACTIC EMPIRE (sue me, that’s how it’s written in the crawl), created a space station that was, in the sneering words of Admiral Chokeabitch, “the ultimate power in the universe.” It flew around at a stately pace and could blow up planets with a bizarre cannon that seemed to fire from several thousand miles next to it. The secret plans to the station revealed a weakness (the Big Red Button): a little exhaust port. Shoot the thing and a chain reaction gets set off reducing the entire station into light, particles, and a CGI ring. As much fun as pop culture nerds make of the Death’s Star’s fatal flaw, it is a case of the Big Red Button being employed correctly.

For one, the exhaust port isn’t an automatic “I win!” button. No, just to get there you have to fly along a trench through laser fire thick enough to walk on while TIE fighters swarm around you like angry bees. Then the shot has to be exactly right or the Death Star shrugs it off, sends a letter home to the wife of the one Stormtrooper who got killed by sparks, and blows up your fucking planet. Additionally, the weak point is described as an “exhaust port” and thus presumably serves some kind of a function. It’s there for a solid reason, or solid enough to excuse its presence. And lastly, the whole point is that is represents the arrogance of the Empire. It’s there because they can’t conceive of something as small as a single man being a threat to their moon-sized planet killer. So while the Death Star’s Big Red Button might be a little silly after a generation of snarky fan articles, it works as effective, relatively logical storytelling.

The Big Red Button in Cabin in the Woods does not. For those who haven’t seen it, the film posits every survival horror film about a bunch of kids going off to a secluded cabin and being hunted by some monster as the fault of a shadowy government installation beneath. The cabin contains a way to summon any number of bogeyman and the teens pick the method of their demise when they inevitably rummage through Satan’s basement for the right artifact to tickle. It’s like summoning Gozer, but there are no hilarious options. The best sequence in the film occurs at the end of the second act when the surviving teenagers discover the secret base under the titular cabin and take an elevator ride down. The elevator formerly housed the Redneck Torture Zombies the teens inadvertently chose as their executioner, and our heroes repurpose it as an entry into the secret base. As they descend into the earth they pass other clear elevator cages containing the different creatures they could have chosen. Each bogeyman is an inspired redesign of a recognizable monsters from film history. The scene itself is both chilling and lyrical, for a moment elevating Cabin in the Woods to art.

Once inside the base, the teens find a literal Big Red Button and press it. At that moment, all of the cubes housing every monster open into the base itself and proceed to slaughter the people that work there. All I could think of when this happened was what possible function could that button have served? Its only possible function would be to kill every single person in the base (a base, incidentally, that the operators believe is the only thing standing against the apocalypse). Why would that ever be on the building’s schematics? And while we’re at it, why would the elevators housing the monsters even open into the base itself? Did they need easy access for a veterinarian in case one of the Cenobites got worms or something?

The simple answer is this: the elevators only open into the building because the screenwriters needed a way for the teens to get into the base. The button is there to allow them to win against impossible odds. There is no logical reason for such a thing to exist, and it acts as an instant (literal) “I win” button. There is no struggle. Find the button, press it, and the bad guys have been defeated. Easy peasy.

It’s writing at its absolute laziest, marring an otherwise fun film about the horror genre. The hilarious thing, from an outsider’s perspective is this: okay, so maybe they have some reason to install a button whose only purpose is to horribly kill the very people whose existence keeps the world turning. Wouldn’t you, you know, install some password protection? A key maybe? Hell, even James Bond villains will put a covering on it.

Cabin in the Woods hinges on the Big Red Button and provides us with the clearest case of the trope being used to rob a film of its tension. Kind of makes me long for the days of the exhaust port barely smaller than a womp rat.

About Justin

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10 Responses to Rules of Writing: The Big Red Button

  1. Clint says:

    A flipside version of this is why I’ll never consider Chinatown a great movie. For Evil to triumph, Jake has to jettison every last bit of the cunning and street smarts he’s displayed throughout the movie and deliver not only himself, but his one damning piece of evidence to the bad guys on a silver platter. It makes not one lick of sense and leads directly to the death of one woman and a fate worse than death for the other, with the movie itself seemingly begging us with its final line to forget about it and not to give it a second thought.

  2. Andrew says:

    You should watch some Phineas and Ferb. They have a lot of fun with the whole big red button concept.

  3. mfennvt says:

    I would argue that the Big Red Button is another part of the multi-layered joke. They may have killed all the bad guys with it, but the apocalypse still came.

    • Justin says:

      The fact that the apocalypse came proves my point. The existence of the button made the base itself pointless.

      • mfennvt says:

        But… but it’s funny!

        Seriously, though, given the cynicism that’s rampant in Cabin in the Woods, I think there’s more to the Big Red Button than just laziness. And there is some attempt at an explanation in the film, according to TV Tropes. I missed the line they’re referring to, though.

  4. Great blog post man. I enjoyed reading it. Although, I must agree with some of my fellow commentators – I believe the big red button is part of the joke.

  5. Justin says:

    I’d be on board with the Big Red Button if there were any possible logical reason for it. Without underlying logic, a joke falls apart, turning Cabin in the Woods into a Family Guy cutaway gag (although not as funny, IMO). At the end of the day, it’s one guy’s opinion. It didn’t work for me, but it worked for you guys.

  6. ParallelH says:

    I think this is an example of a movie that I liked well enough to ignore this at the time, but now that you’ve brought it up, you’re right, this is extremely sloppy writing. I liked most of the rest of it, but this was a very lazy shortcut. It’s like they just didn’t even want to bother with establishing the plausibility of the monsters running loose. But, like I said, I like the premise and some of the execution enough to want to watch it again.

  7. Pingback: Rules of Writing: Get to the Fucking Monkey | The Satellite Show

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