I know what you’re thinking. What does John Carpenter’s 1982 cult hit “The Thing” have to do with Olivia Wilde’s 2022 project “Don’t Worry Darling”?
Well, for one thing, I happened to see both for the first time within the last week.
For another thing, both have a certain element of mystery to them, yet have very different strategies for their storytelling.
Spoiler alert: one of those strategies proved far more successful.
Speaking of spoilers, yes, from here on out I’ll be including spoilers of both movies.
The Thing is about a group of men living at a remote research center in Antarctica. A weird alien monster arrives, and this monster is capable of imitating any other lifeform. That leaves the men pointing fingers at each other, living in constant paranoia that any of the other men alongside them could actually be the monster in disguise.
Don’t Worry Darling is about a picturesque mid-century world where men go to work for a mysterious “Victory Project” but can’t tell their wives any details about their jobs. One of those wives seemingly has a mental breakdown, but our lead heroine, Alice, thinks there might be something to her warnings that the world isn’t what it seems. Turns out, the whole thing is actually a virtual reality simulation where modern day men can “live” in the past with their sexy, stay-at-home wives who don’t suspect a thing.
The main difference between these two movies is the pace at which they reveal the true nature of what our protagonists are up against.
The Thing has a relatively simple premise, and doesn’t waste a lot of time telling us what that premise is. By the end of Act 1, we know the main schtick that’s going to set this movie apart from other monster movies: this monster can perfectly imitate humans and animals. We know that fire kills it, and we know that the longer a human is exposed to The Thing, the higher the chances are that The Thing can imitate them.
Now that we know the nature of the beast, we can spend the rest of the movie trying to slay it. We the audience get to play along with the characters, guessing who may or may not be the monster in disguise. We get to wonder if the various strategies our heroes come up with for sussing out the monster will actually work. The story is free to make whatever twists and turns it wants as long as it doesn’t break its central premise, and we’re happy to be along for the ride.
By contrast, Don’t Worry Darling doesn’t reveal what’s happening until quite late in the story. We probably are at least 90 minutes in before the big reveal that the world we’ve been watching is fake, and our main couple has an entirely separate life outside of it in the modern day.
In the meantime, we spend a lot of time just knowing that… well… something is up? The movie keeps reiterating that something strange is afoot, but that’s about it. It wants us to feel like Alice is in peril, but has zero interest in telling us where that peril comes from, what might happen if Alice can’t escape, or what that “escape” would even look like.
The Thing understands what Don’t Worry Darling doesn’t: that fear of the unknown can only last so long. At some point, it becomes far more effective to know that there is a monster that can hide in plain sight; that our heroes have almost zero chance of successfully vanquishing the monster; that we can no longer trust the people we thought we could; that guessing wrong means certain death for an innocent person.
Don’t Worry Darling has the strategy of “omg we have an amazing premise. Just wait til you find out!”
The Thing has the strategy of “okay, here’s our premise; now that you know, let’s have some fun with that premise!”
Therein lies the rub. Don’t Worry Darling never really lets us have fun with the premise of a heroine trying to escape and dismantle some weird MRA Matrix-like computer simulation. The movie was too busy saying “You won’t BELIEVE what happens next!!”
I don’t necessarily think it’s fair to call Don’t Worry Darling a straight up BAD movie, as I was still intrigued and entertained by it… but it’s hard not to feel at least a little disappointed by it. I love the idea of a sci-fi psychothriller that explores how problematic it is to romanticize the days when every woman was a housewife and darn happy about it. The problem is that by the time Don’t Worry Darling actually becomes that movie, it’s practically over.
I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that every movie needs to answer every question it raises, but damn, some of the unanswered questions of Don’t Worry Darling are a hell of a lot more interesting than the movie itself. What about these other women in the virtual reality? Who are they in real life? Is there anything Alice can do to help them?
This choice to backload the big reveal inevitably means that Alice never gets to be the proper hero that MacReady was in The Thing. She’s not defined by bravery, intelligence, or heroism the way that MacReady was, even if she does possess those traits on some level. Instead, she’s just confused and suspicious. By the time she does learn the truth about the Victory Project, what does she get to do? Yell at her husband? Drive a car really fast?
Imagine the version of Don’t Worry Darling that was structured more like The Thing; one where we learn that this world is a computer simulation around the halfway mark if not earlier. Alice and Margaret can form an alliance to try to escape/destroy the simulation. They have to figure out which women are imprisoned against their will, and which ones are more like Alice’s friend Bunny, who knowingly chooses to live in the virtual reality for her own benefit even if it means complicity in the imprisonment of others. Maybe we learn more about what takes place in the real world. How did Jack get Alice into the simulation in the first place? Did anyone else in her life notice she was missing and try to do something? Are there more women in danger of being “put under” if Alice and Margaret can’t expose the Victory Project for what it is?
We could watch our villain, Frank, go to greater and greater lengths to silence the dissenters and protect his vision, both in the fake world and the real world. We could see how neutral third parties give him the benefit of the doubt at the expense of his victims. The stakes get higher and higher, the odds of our heroes winning lower and lower. As we go deeper and deeper into the story, Alice, Margaret and any other women that might join their ranks gradually unravel the ins and outs of how the Victory Project works, and figure out how to stop it. We build up to a climax where the good guys (or in this case, good gals) win, and the bad guys lose.
Of course, movies aren’t failures just because we can imagine alternate versions of them that we’d rather see. However, I still think this thought exercise proves a point. It’s easy to think that when writing mystery stories, it helps to keep the audience in the dark. The Thing and Don’t Worry Darling together prove that isn’t the case. The best mysteries are the ones that let us believe we understand, then prove otherwise; the ones that stay one step ahead of us, not 30; the ones where big revelations don’t satisfy our curiosity, but simply give us something new to be curious about. I absolutely loved the moments of The Thing where I thought MacReady was the monster, and I absolutely loved the moment I learned I’d been duped. Don’t Worry Darling never pulls off such a bait and switch; it’s too busy reassuring us that it is in fact a mystery. By the time we can start pulling back the layers of its onion, it’s rolling the credits.