We’ve come to the point in civilization where people aren’t asking “Will the world end?” They’re asking “How will the world end?” Perhaps some biblical catastrophe as predicted in the Book of Revelation. Climate change. A relentless global illness. Apes run amok. Artificial intelligence run amok. The Masked Singer renewed for a 50th season. Nonetheless, there’s a growing anxiety in human society that something is coming down the pipeline, as our current way of life may be unsustainable. It’s that grim future outlook that permeates the text of The Cabin at the End of the World. Author Paul Tremblay’s grisly novel is at once a tale of pessimistic perception, as well as a somewhat hopeful rebuke to the idea that society must pay for its sins as tribute to a higher power. It’s a strong story that entertains questions regarding faith, devotion, and whether we owe the universe anything. Perhaps the book’s most memorable character is Leonard, a soft-spoken gentle giant whose pragmatic beliefs about destiny and prophecy make him a deadly, cult-like leader.

However, he wouldn’t describe himself in those terms. He would say he’s just a good man burdened with the unenviable task of trying to save the world. When the adaption Knock at the Cabin, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest, was conceived it proved to be a match made in heaven that Dave Bautista was cast in the role of Leonard. A mountain of a man, but determined to prove his inner acting ability, Bautista portrays Leonard with a delicate touch that is contrasted with the strain his duty has put on his psyche. Leonard believes that the world will soon end in apocalyptic mayhem, unless he can convince a young family to sacrifice one of its members, thus satisfying the universe. The role is difficult to pull off, requiring the actor to display a level of kindness and care that is juxtaposed against his domineering and monstrous physical appearance. Bautista is one of the few actors today who could walk for miles inside this pit of danger.

But Leonard is not alone in his quest. After befriending a young girl named Wen (Kristen Cui), the mysterious man appears flanked by a trio of would-be intruders. They betray the initial trust Wen has put in her new friend, trapping the young girl and her two fathers, Andrew and Eric (Ben Aldridge, Jonathan Groff). The family’s cabin getaway turns into a prison they can’t leave, as their captors explain that their visions of the world’s end has led them to this point. But, given their queer relationship, Andrew and Eric understandably retort that this isn’t the act of a vision from God, but a hate crime in the making.

There’s sharp acting here, with Bautista being the standout. Aldridge, Groff, and Cui establish authenticity and empathy in their close-knit family. Hollywood finally found Rupert Grint, whose character is so convincingly pissed off that you suspect his unhinged behavior will end up ruining Leonard’s crusade. I do question why Shyamalan directed many of these characters to breathe so heavily, especially given the number of monologues we have to sit through. Yes, some of the characters are out of breath or very anxious, but the entire time, really? The whole movie, we have to listen to amateur ASMR? There’s also a few character decisions that belong in the “Why didn’t you just shoot him??” Hall of Fame. There’s great camerawork, including some trippy shots as Shyamalan makes bold choices with heavily intrusive closeups, as well as panning shots that flip their vertical or horizontal plane. Yet, despite these attributes, as the film progresses it becomes remarkably clear how… unremarkable much of it is. The end product is almost a rare case where the sum is less than its parts. The story itself seems like a husk, carving out little suspense or memorable moments. While contemplating why the story didn’t work, it dawned on me that Shyamalan’s own instincts as a filmmaker may be hampering the translation of this tale.

Many directors have signature themes, recurring in their work as if they’re ideas that the filmmaker is constantly grappling with. Alfred Hitchcock’s movies are often about men who’ve developed a dangerous obsession with a woman, leading to either fortuitous or unfortunate results (mostly the latter). Christopher Nolan’s movies are about men preparing to tackle a grand endeavor, while also openly debating the merits, ethics, and potential consequences of said endeavor. John Carpenter’s films frequently depict the idea that there’s something sinister underneath the veneer of America’s sanctity and wealth, and there will be a synth score goddammit! This doesn’t necessarily apply to literally every film in their filmography, but it’s a consistent trend. When I look at Shyamalan’s work, this is a creator that constantly explores themes of faith, spiritual awakening, and the fear that the world shields us from the truth about unknown mysteries in the universe.

This is quite interesting as Shyamalan isn’t believed to be a very religious person; the director has even stated that he’s agnostic. Yet, a recurring thematic device in his films are people of great knowledge attempting to convince those around them about the hidden truth in the world. These themes are present in The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, Lady in the Water, Glass, and now Knock at the Cabin. There’s also The Village, which inverses the formula as the protagonists are shielded from the truth for “their own good.” For anyone whose seen those movies, that’s obviously a very wide range in terms of quality, and I believe Knock at the Cabin lands in the lower end of that spectrum.

Part of the issue is what may work on the page of a novel, isn’t as exciting to see depicted. Much of the movie’s plot revolves around Leonard’s squadron showing their captives destructive events, as covered live on cable news. But, given that the film takes place in mostly one location, this is not very cinematic, offering little to immerse viewers as we watch a screen where something terrible happens… on another, smaller screen. It also doesn’t help that these catastrophic events don’t feel present, as they’re usually recorded footage of something that has already transpired, involving characters we don’t know. It’s difficult to get invested in the tragedies. Shyamalan does try, depicting footage of a megatsunami in the film’s most impressive visual showcase. But it’s presented as someone’s cellphone video; we don’t really feel like we’re there. Alternatively, you don’t buy that the news clips are all a well-timed ruse, as the movie doesn’t put any significant energy into making you consider that scenario as a legitimate possibility.

Exacerbating the issue is that this is basically the only hand the movie can play. Leonard pleads with the family that they must sacrifice one of the three in order to prevent the apocalypse. They don’t believe him. He plays a news clip. They still, kind of don’t believe him. It’s a very uninspiring escalation of stakes. We’ve seen Shyamalan’s game plan in a lot of movies – wise character urges the protagonist to open their mind to an unbelievable truth, which also doubles as the wise character urging the audience to believe in something fantastical. This method usually works to great effect (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) when the unbelievable events of the story are worth our awe. Knock at the Cabin doesn’t inspire awe or wonderment. There’s little imagination or creativity on screen, which is why it’s so grating that the movie keeps playing the one trick it knows – please believe in something that seems unbelievable. At times, the movie feels like you’re being grilled by Jehovah’s Witnesses, or a group of loons who’ve gone down an Illuminati rabbit hole on YouTube. This is usually a symptom of the bad version of Shyamalan, constantly having his characters go on diatribes instead of effectively dramatizing the themes the movie has already articulated.

In summation, what hurts Knock at the Cabin is it takes the ambiguity out of Tremblay’s story. The novel is a rorschach test, requiring you to piece together what might be the truth without confirming the truth, and your view of the story will be influenced by your personality and beliefs. However, Shyamalan’s very modus operandi flies in the face of these storytelling techniques. He doesn’t leave a lot of mystery in his work – he will confirm for the audience what definitively happened, while his films dabble in supernatural and magical realism. Thus, Knock at the Cabin becomes a blunt and dull story that eliminates some of the questions and discussion the novel inspires. Instead, only one question remains: “Would you kill a family member in order to save the world?” That can be a good movie, but the film is too unimaginative, gradually eradicating interest in the story’s themes on choices, prejudice, the outreach of religious power, and the validity of the devine. Instead, Knock at the Cabin neuters it down to a story about diverting the apocalypse in as uninspiring a manner as possible. The novel is darker and bolder than its cinematic counterpart, while Shyamalan keeps things safe and predictable. Shyamalan’s movies work when they make you believe in the otherworldly, and part of that requires swinging for the fences. Knock at the Cabin would rather stay at home.