Knock at the Cabin review – M Night Shyamalan does it again, in the worst way

In the most heart-sinking possible way, M Night Shyamalan has done it again. As so often in the past, he teases us with a great come-on, a great ultra-high-concept initial premise, a great opening scene. And then …? Well, it isn’t long before the film is revealed to be (and, really, only this technical term of criticism will do) complete bollocks.

It is a supposed apocalyptic nightmare (adapted from the 2018 horror bestseller The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay) which turns out to be a silly shaggy dog story whose big reveal is bizarrely anti-climactic, unscary and unimpressive: it is at once madly overblown and entirely negligible, exasperatingly deficient in ingenuity or genuine thrills with characters whose motivation is sketchy even on the drama’s own terms.

And yet like Shyamalan’s other preposterous apocalyptic clunker, The Happening from 2008, there is a real frisson from that opening: a great dialogue scene between Dave Bautista and newcomer Kristen Cui, playing an eight-year-old Chinese-American girl called Wen. This child is playing alone in an idyllic woodland just by a cabin, behind which her two gay dads are hanging out: gentle, sweet-natured Eric (Jonathan Groff) and the more fierce-tempered Andrew (Ben Aldridge). Wen suddenly notices a sinister man-mountain lumbering towards her: Leonard, played by Bautista, who befriends her and is perhaps a gentle giant. But what does he want?

Leonard is soon joined by his three friends: Redmond (Rupert Grint), Ardiane (Abby Quinn) and Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), all carrying strange-looking weapons, and they patiently explain to this little girl that they are in receipt of information about the universe’s destiny. The imminent end of the world can only be averted by her family making some tough decisions. Wen, Eric and Andrew will have to decide which of them will voluntarily die to prevent the planet immolating. Terrifyingly, they take the family prisoner and their cultish fanaticism has a hypnotic, almost persuasive effect – and yet … could it be that one of these people is strangely familiar to the two men?

Well, yes it could be. That is one of many things in this story that is not satisfactorily resolved – or satisfactorily left mysteriously unresolved. The rational/irrational explanations for what appears to be happening are juxtaposed pretty predictably and the ambiguous finale is deeply ridiculous. Shyamalan’s previous film, the excellent horror-thriller Old, showed that he is certainly capable of maintaining a good idea to the finish line. Sadly, though, not this time.

• Knock at the Cabin is released on 3 February in the US and UK.