Winter madness. Isolation. Paranoia. Claustrophobia. Terror. Alienation. Assimilation.
“If you want blood, go to the slaughterhouse. All in all, it’s a terrific commercial for J&B Scotch.” – Christian Nyby1
“The paranoia is the glue that holds the movie together.” – John Carpenter2
“So how do we know who’s human?” – Childs (Keith David)
In 1982, several landmark and/or famous science fiction films saw their releases, among them Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Burst City, Time Masters, Blade Runner, The Thing, and Tron. Unfortunately, 1982 ended up being the year of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, much to the demise of some of the other films, notably Blade Runner (whose box office returns were disappointing and critics more-or-less polarized at the time) and The Thing (which was an unmitigated box office and critical bomb). The sad truth is that both films were greater than E.T.; their stocks have both risen immensely.
Both films are also extremely different, but have some surprising similarities in their conceptions and executions. They both depend on a simple, but layered story, and on atmosphere. They also deal with the subjects of identity and human nature. Directed by John Carpenter, The Thing likely represents the high point of his career, which slowly began to decline afterwards. The Thing is another one that belongs at the top of the list of movies I consider pretty much perfect. It seems to also be the apex of the horror genre, which has since been in decline.
Released during the midpoint of the first cycle of slasher movies, a genre which Carpenter actually helped to skyrocket in popularity, The Thing was one of a few that was not like most of the horror films of its time. Yes, you could argue that it was released in the wake of Alien, which spawned countless rip-offs. But it was so unlike those films, too. It might partly be the fault of audience’s tastes of the time that The Thing suffered. It’s also a damn shame that the film (and most of Carpenter’s other films) bombed on release, only to find new life later.
“I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit… The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane. Even the original movie’s director, Christian Nyby, was dissing me.” – John Carpenter3
The story is very simple, but extremely creative in its execution. The men of Outpost 31, in Antarctica, bide their time until their camp is disturbed one day by a runaway dog and Norwegians in a helicopter bent on the animal’s destruction. The men soon discover that the dog was harboring an unknown alien organism… capable of imitating those it kills. John Carpenter wastes absolutely no time in building up the atmosphere and starts the story off with a bang.
The film begins with a shot over a desolate, bare, distant, cold and snowed Antarctica. A dog runs across the snow, in a brief moment of calm, before the roar of a chopper is heard above. This opening shot perfectly sets up the coming film: cold, wintery, with moments of calm followed by action, with the total questioning of the unknown. Why are these men chasing this dog? Why do they attempt to shoot at it? This unknown invades the camp of Outpost 31, when they unknowingly and unwittingly shoot the Norwegians and let the dog in.
“First goddamn week of winter.” – R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell)
The winter calm of their desolate camp is shattered wide open when the dog attempts to assimilate other dogs in the kennel. They realize that they are up against a hostile (but perhaps not malicious) organism but do not actually know anything about it. It is an organism ere never encountered. Having seen what the organism is capable of, the camp begins to quickly descend into chaos and paranoia.
“Projection: if intruder organism reaches civilized areas… Entire world population infected 27,000 hours from first contact” – Blair’s (Wilford Brimley) computer
The desolate opening shots serve to set up several different things. First, and most obvious, is the mood. Scenes of winter and the eternal snowscapes have always lent themselves to creepier moods. Wintery movies seem cold, barren and distant. These men might as well be on the moon. This leads to the second, and perhaps more important, facet: alienation, both literal and social. They are alone. They feel alone. This feeling of alienation is not just brought about by the camp’s desolate and isolated setting, but its place at some unreachable, unread and mysterious part of the world.
“Like the Arctic, the ice-covered landscape of the Antarctic was perceived by many as hostile, unearthly, and surreal. Unlike the Arctic, however, the Antarctic was doubly qualified as an sf setting in that it was also remote, antipodean, and uninhabited; almost anything could be hidden in its unexplored regions.”4
The men at Outpost 31 are not only distant from the nearest civilization. While not as overtly thematic or philosophical as Alien, The Thing shows characters who exhibit a sort of ennui and social alienation. The men have little to no bonds with their peers or their work, and seem to drift aimlessly about the camp. We are not even sure what it is they are supposed to be doing. MacReady seems perfectly content killing time by playing chess against a computer… and then killing the computer for being a “cheating bitch”. It is humorous, but it shows his physical and mental distance from the job he is supposed to be doing. He also doesn’t seem to care that he just destroyed (presumably) military and/or scientific property.
The men seem to also suffer alienation from each other, as well. There is not a single time when we see them displaying a sort of camaraderie that is optimistic. This is akin to the characters in Alien, whose only bond between each other, despite the deep space flight and constant rooming together, is that of “coworkers”. In that regard, it is not your typical Hollywood horror film. Carpenter does not invent a silly story where all of the men are great friends and are generally on the look out for one another. The men in this story look out only for themselves, and survival becomes their number one priority.
Even when they do work together, the result seems to speak of a unit of efficiency, with no room for individual error. For instance, the very opening, where they come together to shoot down the pesky Norwegians, their actions seem to be based more on protocol and collective behavior. It seems to be a small difference, but with Carpenter, often the details are in the subtleties.
“I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human.” – R.J. MacReady
Like a lot of science fiction films, The Thing also deals with the question of being human, but in an unorthodox, subtler way. In The Thing, the fear is that the men among the group are not human. That’s where part of the horror arises from. The other part is the alien creature waiting to assimilate you. But there is a subtler type of humanity going on in the film. If Alien was loaded with sexual symbolism and male and female sexual imagery, The Thing is also a fear of a sexuality of a different kind. It is also a clever look at just how individual human beings are, especially when contrasted with the alien creature. The film seems to suggest that we are not as individual as we would like to think.
Human beings seem to have an innate fear of things that are not us, and the prospect of becoming those things. While change occurs on a daily basis in our lives, it is not something we have control over. For instance, you are not the same person you were a year ago, and you will likely not be the same a year from now. These, however, are not conscious changes you made. Most of us do not calculate our identities five years from now. We are, after all, who we are in the moment; we do not think of ourselves as fluid identities. But our identities consistently transform. Yet, we give ourselves the illusion of control, because this gives us comfort.
This fear is at the heart of The Thing, a fear of losing our so-called identities, and a fear of transforming into something to which we are unfamiliar, even though we all do these things on a consistent basis. After all, to limit any changes to our identities would essentially make us robots. And yet, this is exactly what we, and the men of Outpost 31, fear. In the process, they become autonomous survivalists, who will not hesitate to think of sacrificing the others in favor of their own skin. This is not to say that the alien creature is (or isn’t) friendly. But I think that in this film, Carpenter basically forces us to face the monotony of our existences, and how we should make radical changes. He just forces us to do it in uncomfortable fashion.
Who wants to be like the men of Outpost 31 and become unwilling “baggage”, so to speak, in this disgusting, bloody amalgamated mass of alien tissue? Do you, as an individual, want to become combined with a bunch of gangrenous alien tissue with, insofar as we know, a single mind? What’s interesting is that the O31 team is itself almost singular in its purpose, brutally monotonous, with all men having but the single same goal: their own survival. But when the alien being begins to assimilate them one-by-one, into a hivemind superstructure, they begin to fight back, driven by the same thoughts as everyone else, but also as if trying to retain their dregs of their identities and individualities.
The alien invader is interesting in that it does not seem to act out of any intent, but more as a natural predator. It does not attack our heroes because they happen to be human. It attacks because they are in the way. In doing so, it assimilates the humans into part of its hive culture. Carpenter’s film (and Campbell’s original story, by extension) seems to point out numerous flaws with humanity’s existence.
There is, of course, alienation. Another is identity. Whether you want to talk about Marx, or Weber, or Durkheim, or whomever, there is no getting around the fact that these men are isolated, disconnected and alienated from not only society at large, but from each other and their work, as well. This alienation grows exponentially in the face of danger, especially when the bigger threat seems to be the human being next to you, and not the demon lurking outside the camp. But perhaps the biggest threat is oneself. At stake is not just the humanity of the others, but one’s own.
“So how do we know who’s human? If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know it was really me?” – Childs (Keith David)
The question one’s own humanity is, I think, one of the most interesting aspects of this film, one that I feel is overlooked. After all, if one were assimilated and imitated, but the imitation still believes itself to be human, is it, or is it an imitation? When does one start to stop being human? For instance, if a character is so sure of its humanity, even if could quote Descartes and cry out “I think, therefore I am”, and do all the things a human could do, and even think like one, is it not human? Do you, reader, believe yourself to be human? What if you were just an imitation? How could you know?
(Added on March 24, 2013: This issue is similarly raised in Blade Runner; a prime example being Rachael, but also Deckard. In that film, Rachael initially believes herself to be human, while there is speculation in regards to whether or not Deckard is; thus, his memorable line: “How can it not know what it is?” It can also lead one to argue that perhaps we are all human simply because we believe ourselves to be and regardless of whether we really are, just as when a child believes in Santa Claus or a believer in a supreme being, those things come into existence in their minds, even if they do not truly and really exist outside of them.)
On the surface, the only thing seemingly separating the alien organism from our human friends is, well, their sense of humanity. Unlike the organism which, insofar as we know, lacks emotion and seems to function solely on biological processes, the humans, on the other hand, can still emote and try to think their way out of a perilous situation, even though they both want to ensure their own survival. So then how different is the human being from the alien organism? And where is this sense of distinction between the human and the alien if the human was actually an imitation?
None of the men know who is an imitation and who is not (which is where the paranoia and chaos is derived from). The alien organism is perfectly capable of flawlessly imitating those whom it assimilates. This raises even more ideas about how human one is. How spurious and superficial our identities must be if they can simply be copied and replayed. Therefore, the fear not only stems from the possibility that one of the other men is an assimilation or imitation, but that they, themselves, might be. They do not just question the humanity of the others, but their own human nature, as none can be sure if they, themselves, are imitations.
Windows: “Childs, what if we’re wrong about him [MacReady]? What if he’s still human?”
Childs: “Well, then we’re wrong!”
In the end, they concoct and administer a blood test to see who is an imitation and who is not. But the philosophical bit still remains. Invasion of the Body Snatchers also featured imitations, but they were far easier to spot. In Alien, the creature was objectively and obviously vilified as the ‘other’. We knew it was an alien. In John Carpenter’s The Thing, the idea of humanity is the central question, and the one that drives the fear, the paranoia and the actions of both our heroes and the alien intruder. It also leads one to wonder why our heroes are so desperate to cling to their humanity. Do they fear change? Do they abhor evolution? Or do they simply fear the loss of an identity?
The film, and the original story it is based on, has been analyzed from a number of different points: feminist theory, spatial theory, culture theory, and evolutionary theory, etc. For instance, some feminist interpretations of the film (and original story) contend that the Thing is essentially something female-in-form, set to destroy the progress with which the men have come to define themselves. This is exemplified from the fact that all of the major characters are male, and the fact that the only female ‘character’, the computer, is fried for being a “cheating bitch”. However, a look at the monstrosity would dispel such notions, as it seems to be a:
“grotesque profusion of vaginal and phallic forms that renders the Thing indeterminately male and female.”5
Spatial theory is a bit harder to grasp, but the point being that the creature is, itself, an embodiment of the vast continent of Antarctica, come to defend itself. A land that is desolate, mysterious, and for many, holds vast wonders and enigmas yet unsolved. Elizabeth Leane, for instance, while making the connection with feminist interpretations of the story, points out that Antarctica’s virginal territory, yet unexplored and unpenetrated, is beset upon by a group of men:
“The alien at the center of Campbell’s story can thus be read as an embodiment of the continent itself. Antarctica is dis-placed in Campbell’s story in a very literal sense: an undefinable [sic], seemingly limitless place is transferred to the figure of a monster that shares its disturbing spatial qualities – its amorphousness, disrespect for boundaries, and ability to absorb anything in its path – but which can nonetheless be conquered and killed, defusing (at least temporarily) the anxieties it has aroused.”6
Culture theory is a bit more obvious, and can encompass feminist interpretations. The two parties represent different sides in a bitter cultural struggle. For instance, one can interpret the men, the Americans, as attempting to ward off some sort of evil communist threat embodied in this monstrous being. Or, by contrast, you could even interpret it as a sort of jab at America’s cultural invasion, in which the Americans, themselves, must fight against being assimilated into the Thing’s culture.
And finally, but by no means the final way of interpreting the film, is the focus on the film from the point of view of an evolutionary theorist. As White proposes, the:
“polymorphic Thing, capable of absorbing the human as but one among other morphological possibilities in its seemingly infinite repertoire, can be understood, that is, as the embodiment of evolution.”7
“A visually disgusting pastiche of biological possibilities, the Thing in fact amounts to a rendering simultaneous of the entire history of evolutionary process, a spectacle of ceaseless change so horrifying, finally, that by the end of the film the inhabitants of the research station are prepared to destroy their station and themselves – in other words, destroy civilization – rather than consent to a universe in flux.”8
The Thing, it seems, is an illustration of the universe’s constant change, including humanity, which will undoubtedly evolve into something else, or destroy itself. The universe constantly breaks things down, builds things up, and reconstructs everything.
Perhaps, then, the biggest fear, the thing which the men fight, is the total loss of control and/or choice. This idea of control is exemplified in the military base and its crew. The military and science environments are exemplary of very controlled places, for obvious reasons. The Thing, with its grotesqueries and amalgamated modes of flesh, is an embodiment of chaos, seemingly unleashed on the camp. The Thing is a movie about the hallucination of control which is undergone by human beings facing down the unpleasant reality of universe’s chaos. The more the events continue, the more the men become unraveled, and the more they lose their illusive grip of control, their lack of which is gradually revealed.
Human beings readily believe that they have control over the things they come across, a mere mass consensual hallucination that also makes us believe we have the ability to choose things. The illusion of control/choice that men have is shattered indiscriminately when the Thing shows up. We discover that our minds may not submit to our will; that we have no control over our environments; that gender is but a cultural construction; that we cannot trust one another; that we are slaves to our minds, to evolution, to change, to the universe’s will; that we conform to time; that we are constantly changing and the things around us are changing in ways that are totally beyond our conscious control or choice.
Aside from the philosophical and substantive, as a film The Thing lays head-and-shoulders above pretty much every horror film, and the vast majority of non-horror films, ever made. John Carpenter, in my opinion, deserves to be up there with the likes of Kubrick and Scorsese and whoever else has ever gotten more than their fair share of accolades. Even if we did not discuss or interpret the film, as filmmaking bravado, The Thing is a masterpiece.
John Carpenter has said in the past that there are two types of horror films. Imagine a campfire if you will, and a tribal leader is telling us a story. In the first type, he says, the evil is ‘out there’. It’s the ‘other’. Beyond the light of the fire, beyond us, there are beasts, other tribes, creatures… The night. That’s the first type of horror. The second type has the same setup, but the evil is here. It’s in the human heart. It’s us. In The Thing, Carpenter manages to deftly combine both types into a fun, atmospheric and bombastically-terrifying masterpiece.9
After Carpenter sets up the film with the deaths of Norwegians, he begins to ratchet up the atmosphere, tension and mood quickly but quietly. For instance, a trip by MacReady and Copper to the Norwegian’s camp yields some ghastly discoveries. They find everyone dead, their frozen corpses lying about, their bodily rictuses depicting grotesqueries of form and flesh. The mood coupled with the mystery unfolding on screen instills in the viewer that something is terribly, terribly wrong. But what? And what is the dog’s connection to these events?
Even after the camp descends into total chaos, Carpenter does not ever let go of the atmosphere with which he carefully underscored the movie. The tension then begins to increase at a breakneck pace, with paranoia, chaos and terror as its fuel. Carpenter and his cast and crew do this in a few different ways. The first is that the special effects, some of the best ever put on film, get more and more outrageous. Some of these things really have to be seen to be believed and just when you think that they wasted their entire budget on one sequence, they follow it up with another one that’s even grander.
But while much has been said in praise for the special effects, less has been said about everything else. Carpenter does not waste a single shot or a single scene. Every shot is meticulously crafted to illicit the maximum amount of fear from the viewer, so much so that some of the ‘quieter’ scenes are just as terrifying as the scenes with gore. Carpenter and his team do everything to make sure that the feeling that something might happen never ebbs. Camerawork and the crafting of each shot was something that Carpenter illustrated with precision in Halloween, which was virtually bloodless, but still horrifying.
In The Thing, he perfects his style. There are several shots which illustrate his expertise behind the camera. In the hands of a lesser director, many of these shots would have been amateurish by comparison. Some that come to mind: when MacReady is recording his ‘final message’, the open door behind him and the feeling of impending doom that permeates the scene; when MacReady is trapped out in the storm and the others are frantically arguing about to do, the focus instead is shifted on the door handle which begins to turn, is it MacReady, is it human?
The script is also fantastically written and setup. Things are revealed at just the precise moments. Scenes are crafted not only to service themselves, but the entire story at hand. There is a surprising amount of mystery and science fiction in this film. Much of the film is desperation to figure out how the creature functions. This aspect highlights one of the few notable differences in thought processes between man and beast; men must use their ingenuity and brains to figure out how to defeat the creature, and also know the value of sacrifice and emotion, while the creature simply seems to function on its mute biological processes. The men may be alienated, but they are still men.
The cinematography, by Carpenter regular Dean Cundey, and the score (in part by Ennio Morricone) must be mentioned, also. The option to use a lot of natural lighting, and contrast dark with the little light available was a good one. And last, but certainly not least, is the powerhouse acting. These are all actors who look like the characters they portray. There is no Hollywood sheen here. They all look like they have been up for a month, bedraggled, ragged-and-tagged, and exhausted and like they could use a good cup of coffee. When shit hits the proverbial fan, they are either caught in its wake, or hitting back. The film could not have worked without the sheer acting involved from these guys. Kurt Russell, Keith David and Wilford Brimley especially stand out amongst the group, but that is by no means a discrediting to the others.
In short, The Thing is what I consider to be a perfect film (or as close as you can get to perfect). Not only is this film the perfect marriage of atmosphere and gore (horror films tend to focus on one at the expense of the other) it is the perfect marriage of every single party to it. The camerawork, the crafting and setting up of scenes, the lighting, the script, the acting, the mood, and the special effects, there was not one aspect wasted, forgotten or thrown in for the hell of it. Everything about it works and every single element is in sync. If the recipe called for a perfect film, then every single ingredient was mixed in carefully, considerately and in the right doses.
It’s well-made. It’s thoughtful. It’s disgustingly-awesome. It’s terrifying. It’s fun.
It’s The Thing.
Childs: “What do we do now?”
MacReady: “Why don’t we just wait here awhile… see what happens…”
1 Outpost #31 – The Ultimate THE THING Fan-Site, http://www.outpost31.com/movie/trivia.html
2 Jeremy Kirk, “The 36 Things We Learned from John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ Commentary Track”, Film School Rejects, http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/features/the-36-things-we-learned-from-john-carpenters-the-thing-commentary-track.php (July 2011)
3 Joshua Rothkopf, “Street fighting men”, Time Out, http://www.timeout.com/newyork/film/street-fighting-men (August 2008)
4 Elizabeth Leane, “Locating the Thing: The Antarctic as Alien Space in John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”, Science Fiction Studies 32 (July 2005): 226
5 Eric White, “The Erotics of Becoming: Xenogenesis and ‘The Thing’”, Science Fiction Studies 20 (November 1993): 400
6 Leane, 235
7 White, 399
8 White, 400
9 Vince Liaguno, “John Carpenter’s Horror Paradigm”, Slasher Speak, http://vinceliaguno.blogspot.ca/2008/06/john-carpenters-horror-paradigm.html (June 2008)
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