The Thing

The Thing raises some important questions about human nature, universe, god. Wow, I can't believe I just wrote those three words in the same sentence. My old English teacher would unflinchingly and unhesitatingly condemn me to hell on the sheer pretentiousness of that one sentence. However, I will stick to my point.

Review by SAndman
April 10, 2009

The Thing Movie

Director: John Carpenter

Writers:
story: John W. Campbell Jr.
screenplay: Bill Lancaster

Cast:
Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady
A. Wilford Brimley as Dr. Blair
Charles Hallahan Keith David as Childs
Richard Dysart as Dr. Copper
Donald Moffat as Garry
David Clennon as Palmer
Charles Hallahan as Vance Norris

Released: 1982

MacReady: Nobody... nobody trusts anybody now, and we're all very tired... there's nothing more I can do, just wait...



The Thing is a superb and disturbing anthropological study of group dynamics. You put any number of people in a confined environment and things are bound to happen. Add to that a source of fear, or shall I say, a very powerful and very real source of fear, and, as they say, hilarity ensues.

In this case, the human group is a scientific expedition, working out of a base camp in the South Pole, which come across a deadly alien life form which has been buried in the ice for thousands of years. The alien starts killing off the team members one at a time.

It takes over the host organism, be that a sled dog or a human, and once it assumes control it imitates its outer appearance as well as bodily functions. The transformation if so complete that the alien takes on even some higher mental functions of its host, as evidenced in the movie when the infected humans go about their business without knowing they have actually been infected.

As for the team members, it takes about five minutes to figure out that the characters in The Thing are your basic human beings with all the usual inconsistencies of character. They are forever bickering and carping about this and that.

Oddly enough, though we learn next to nothing about their backgrounds, the scientists and technicians that make up this dysfunctional human group never come across as two-dimensional. The impression you get is that of perfectly drawn out, albeit flawed and unappealing, characters.

Body Politic

One of the issues that provide a constant source of tension among these individuals throughout the movie is the problem of authority. Which authority the team members should follow, the formal authority, which is based on rank and official position within the team, or the personal authority, which revolves around one's assertiveness and leadership qualities. Maverick that he is, Carpenter clearly sides with the latter position and takes his pick early on.

Another issue that The Thing tackles is the system of government. Cut off from the outside world and beset by the killer alien, the men turn against each other as mistrust and paranoia set in.

As the social compact falls apart the characters discover they can barely cooperate, at least they can barely cooperate on a democratic basis - the actions of the individual characters in The Thing demonstrate that men often behave erratically and self-destructively, and fear and concern for personal safety override all other considerations, to the point of jeopardizing the survival of the group.

The only logical alternative is a kind of autocracy. The strongest and the most assertive individual assumes control and starts an all-out war against the alien intruder. And the others go along with this! They universally, though never completely, accept the authority of the strongest character - MacReady turns out to be the alpha male of the group though Childs could just as easily vie for this position. The fact that the actions of the characters in the movie seem to legitimize the autocratic leadership style is arguably the most devastating conclusion The Thing arrives at.

Alien as Jesus Christ

Another interesting aspect of the Thing is the movie's rather peculiar take on religion. There are a number of overt and covert references to religion and Christianity in particular in the movie. For instance, at one point the character of Palmer, the screwball pot-smoking technician obsessed with conspiracy theories, drops the phrase "the chariots of the gods" to refer to the alien. He goes on,"They been dropping out of sky like flies. The government knows all about it."

The phrase "the chariots of the gods" is a title of the famous book by Erik Von Daniken. Now I don't know if Carpenter actually subscribes to Von Daniken's theories, or was influenced by Daniken at the time he was working on The Thing, or whether the reference was used simply as a very effective character exposition device in the script, but it is one of the many hints at religion and the concept of deity in the movie. This is not a place to explain Von Daniken's theories but it is enough to say that they largely undermine some of the core tenets of the Christian dogma.

In my view, there is little doubt as to the generally nihilistic and atheistic, or more accurately, anti-Christian, overtones of Carpenter's movie. MacReady, the central character in The Thing, says to Blair, after he has just confessed that he can't trust anybody anymore,"Hey, why don't you just trust in the Lord." and passes him a bottle of spirits in a mock re-enactment of communion.

At the beginning of The Thing we find MacReady playing Chess Wizard. Just when he thinks he has played the program to a check-mate the program check-mates him, which results in MacReady spilling the whiskey over the housing and cursing,"You cheating bitch." This little scene doesn't take more than a few seconds, and functions as a funny exposition of MacReady's characters. But it also works on a more subtle level - it is an effective hint that this movie will be about a high-stakes game against a superior intelligence, a game at which a human, regardless of how smart or resourceful he is, just can't win.

The blood serum test could be yet another ironic reference to the Christian dogma, re-enacted by MacReady, the rugged loudspeaker for Carpenter's anti-religious outlook in the movie. This scene works as a parody of the concept of transubstantiation. Basically the idea is that the bread and wine, through divine intervention, become transmuted into the actual body of Christ. In the ironic twist on the idea of transubstantiation the blood of the hapless human victims has been compromised and instead of salvation the involuntary subjects are facing the most gruesome death.

By the way, did anyone notice that there are twelve men on the team?! Twelve team members for the twelve apostles. We can take the metaphor even further and assume that the Thing, the alien, functions as a ghastly substitute for Jesus, who has returned from the dead, and will keep coming back despite the best efforts of the humans to put it to rest once and for all.

Another hint at the Jesus metaphor could be the scene in which the Doc and MacReady, foraging the Norwegian base, come across a mysterious find: a block of ice from which something has been cut out – presumably the alien. I don't know if it's just me but the block of ice with a hole in the middle reminds unmistakably of an empty grave.

Furthermore, when they bring the charred remains of the alien to the American base, the first words that one of the character utters is," Jesus Christ." A little later when MacReady and Norris make another trip by chopper and fly over what appears to be a huge hole in which the alien space ship had lain preserved in ice for thousands of years, MacReady gasps out guess what words – Jesus Christ!

Alien and the Subversion of Language

The concept of a hostile alien intruder is probably as old as the SF genre itself and there have been many notable examples of the extra-terrestrial adversary before and since The Thing. However, what makes this take so compelling is the way it was depicted in the movie.

There are two ways we learn about the creature. Through what the characters tell us about it and through the way they react to it. Both yield surprising insights into the structure of the movie and the director's mindset. I would like to add that just as it is important to note what the characters tell us about the alien creature it is equally important how they tell us about it. Language, or rather a peculiar use of it is something which makes Carpenter's creation stand out from other movies about extra-terrestrial killers.

The lethal alien, like its many counterparts from SF movies, possesses unique physiology and mode of attack. The creature appears to be a shapeshifter inasmuch as it can assume the outward form as well as bodily functions of its victim. As for the mode of attack, Blair, the scientist in the movie, points out that it "must be alone and in close proximity to its victim. The chameleon strikes in the dark". At another point in the movie MacReady concludes that it "penetrates through the clothes of its victims".

These random observations, plus a few more comments scattered throughout the course of the movie by different characters (my personal favorite is the one spoken by the character of Clark, who, confronted with the thing in the kennel, says, "I don't know what the hell's in there but it's weird and pissed off"), provide the sum total of our knowledge of the creature's abilities. From all these comments one thing becomes obvious - the humans just can't get at the nature of the alien. The creature eludes definitions. It is never more than "IT".

As the movie progresses and the battle grows fiercer by the moment the creature displays the full spectrum of its protean powers. It sprouts spider-like legs, it turns Norris's chest into a set of mouth and teeth, it grows to gigantic proportions. Every time the humans come up with some sort of explanation of its nature, the alien surprises them with another as yet unseen monstrosity. By the very end of the movie we get the impression that its capacities for imitation of a host organism are limitless, just as we get the impression that the creature is sentient and highly intelligent. And yet if intelligent we can't tell what kind of intelligence it possesses. And if sentient, can it feel emotions? Fear?

By the way , the climax cascade of money shots, each scarier than the one before, has always been the mainstay of such movies, but in The Thing it is much more than a cliche. It is intrinsic part of the alien's nature and it underlines the basic human vulnerability, as each incarnation proves more difficult to dispose of.

The Thing is rather interesting in what I see as the subversion of language. The characters say things which seem perfectly logical in the given context but upon closer examination turn out to be absurd and meaningless.

At one point MacReady says,"I know I am human." This may be in accord with his character, his rugged individualism, and later in the movie, during the blood serum test, it turns out to be true, but that is beside the point. At this point in the movie his statement sounds outrageous. Knowing what we know about the alien and its capacity for imitation we feel certain that MacReady has no way of knowing whether he is the alien or not. The language and reality are clearly not in sync here.

Another emblematic instance of the subversion of language in The Thing is the autopsy scene (the first one) when Blair is dissecting the burned remains of the alien MacReady and the Doc found in the Norwegian camp. He concludes the examination by stating "What we got here appears to be a normal set of internal organs, heart, lungs, liver..." As he spouts on the camera pans over the grotesquely charred remains and we can see for ourselves that the thing on the table is anything but normal. Clearly the scene is yet another illustration of the gap between the language and reality in the movie. The two are at odds and cannot seem to be reconciled.

This discord between language and reality is brought on by the alien's existence. If anything the alien is the other. Otherness is its true nature. And by being the other the alien cannot but subvert the human language, which is inept at expressing otherness. In a way, this ties in with some mystic interpretations of the concept of divine. Language proves inadequate at describing the essence of god and we end up with what some mystics referred to as the Cloud of Unknowing. By the way, as Blair makes the first incision in the mess of ruined tissue and limbs and pulls out the viscera he sighs, "Oh, my God!"

In the second autopsy scene Blair ventures on an even longer discourse on the alien's physiology. He says,"You see, what we got here is an organism that imitates other life forms. And imitates them perfectly. When this thing attacked our dogs it tried to digest them. Absorb them. And in the process shape its own cells to imitate them. This, for instance. That's not dog. It's an imitation. We got to it before it had time to finish...Finish imitating these dogs."

As he speaks the camera shows the twisted and misshapen bits of the dog's bodies fused with the unrecognizable mess of limbs and muscles of what could only be the surreal alien physique. All this makes Blair's pronouncements sound redundant and even ridiculous. But of course it is not a dog. We can see it is something else. An alien life form. Personally, I could never watch this scene without laughing. Not only it falls short of being scary, in my view this scene is either getting at something other than provoking fear or completely misses its point.

So why is Blair treating his audience as though they were idiots? Why does he go on stating the obvious?

It seems to me that the scene works as an ironic take on the know-it-all scientist motif so common in SF. More often than not such scenes function as an opportunity to provide scientific verisimilitude to what evades rational or scientific explanation. In this scene we do recognize the pseudo-scientific language for what it is – mere gobbledygook. A whole lot of nothing coached in fancy terminology. Furthermore, Blair's authoritative voice and his position of the team's biologist, as well as his bespectacled face and ruffled mane of a caricature scientist, seem to have entranced his audience, which look on at the charred remains of the "undigested dogs" in a group shot that comes across an allegory tableau of human ignorance.

Conclusion

Ever since I first saw The Thing I have been fascinated with its complex and layered plot. In a way, what I found the most fascinating about the movie was that to me the subtext seemed to offer much more than the actual physical action, the proverbial money shots and all the familiar mechanics of a science fiction thriller. These are but a few random observations inspired by The Thing but they just about sum up my thoughts on this ageless masterpiece.



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