THE THINGs we
fear

John Carpenter's "The Thing": A modern Review

“Nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired. Nothing else I can do, just wait…”
— R.J. MacReady

Last June marked the fortieth anniversary of John Carpenter’s science-fiction horror film, The Thing, with fans treated to a rare two-day re-release at select theaters nationwide. Notwithstanding technical complications and the film’s first viewing landing on a Sunday, The Thing managed to claw its way into the box office top-ten, with critics lauding Carpenter’s genius every step of the way. It was a feat that would have seemed impossible in the final weeks of summer in 1982, when The Thing was officially declared a flop.

The reasons for the film’s mediocre performance at the box office forty years ago are easy enough to explain. The Thing had the misfortune of competing against a long list of strong contenders within the same genre, including Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist, Conan the Barbarian, Blade Runner, Tron, and of course, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.

But where audiences were aloof to The Thing’s dreadful charms, critics were downright resistant — if not hostile. And that is more difficult to explain. The range of criticism was indeed broad, from “boring” to “wretched excess” to “bereft, despairing, and nihilistic.” Roger Ebert ridiculed the film’s “superficial characterizations,” accusing Carpenter of prioritizing special effects over storyline and character development. And after lambasting The Thing for being “devoid of either warmth or humanity,” Alan Spencer of Starlog declared Carpenter unfit to direct science-fiction movies altogether, urging the director to dedicate himself to more fitting pursuits like directing “traffic accidents, train wrecks and public floggings.” The critical backlash caught John Carpenter off-guard, who later confessed his shock at the boundless hatred for The Thing — a film he has since declared to be his proudest achievement amongst an expansive body of work.

But The Thing is a masterpiece and quite possibly John Carpenter’s greatest movie to date. And I suspect that future audiences will come to see the film as prescient, if not predictive, even as the West becomes more bleak and alienated from itself — not unlike the beleaguered Outpost 31 in its Antarctic waste. The Thing still speaks to us, and at an intensifying volume, because it communicates a kind of horror we all feel but dare not mention — the claustrophobic terror of being trapped in a shrinking space with familiar faces we just can’t trust. Or worse, our ability to recognize the gnawing dread of the condemned men of Outpost 31, who know deep down that it just might be too late. Expertise is fruitless, numbers have no strength, and except for a rusty flamethrower, technology is simply no match for the thing. There is no use in studying it. There is no compromising with it. There is no escape. We have to win, or else…

***

The Thing’s plot is simple, and the story moves dangerously fast. A team of American researchers at a remote outpost in Antarctica is surprised by a Norwegian helicopter firing at an Alaskan Malamute. The dog races into the American camp, seeking refuge, while the helicopter lands and the gunman continues to take desperate shots at the animal. A bullet grazes one of the Americans, prompting the commander of the US research station to kill the gunman. The surviving Norwegian pilot then tries to lob a grenade at the dog, but he fumbles the device and accidentally kills himself. Stunned, the Americans retreat into their camp with the new sled dog, confused by the day’s events.

The dog is allowed to roam free about the camp, while the team attempts to radio the nearby Norwegian outpost. Unable to make contact, the camp physician and one of the helicopter pilots, R.J. MacReady (played by Kurt Russell), decide to fly to the Norwegian camp to investigate. Once there, the pair finds the outpost destroyed, a cadaver showing signs of a hasty suicide, and the smoldering remains of an enormous creature with human characteristics. MacReady and the physician return to their outpost with the remains, and the camp’s senior biologist performs an autopsy. Much to the team’s surprise, the monstrous corpse has human organs.

John Carpenter's "The Thing" (1982)

Later that evening the rescued dog is kenneled with the camp’s other sled dogs. But sometime in the night the team is startled by frantic barking from the kennels. There they find a hideous creature with canine features clutching the writhing bodies of several sled dogs in its tentacle-like protrusions. The creature tries to attack the men, but fortunately MacReady is able to torch it with a flamethrower. The camp’s senior biologist performs another autopsy, but this time he discovers canine organs.

To their horror, the research team slowly realizes that they have invited an alien lifeform onto their camp, a parasitic creature with the ability to seize, digest, and imitate other living beings. After the thing’s quarry has been devoured and successfully assimilated, it is virtually impossible to detect. Therefore, a colleague or even an old friend might actually be an enemy. There is no way of knowing for sure.

Hundreds of miles from the nearest outpost, with deadly winter temperatures fast approaching and no ability to communicate with the outside world, the research team struggles to grasp their terrifying new circumstances. Despite close physical proximity, the men are already alienated from one another — and clearly have been for some time. The looming presence of the thing only inflames their disunity, isolation, and paranoia. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.

When confronted by a foreign enemy, humans naturally bind together to defend against or neutralize the threat. But in these conditions, when that same survival mechanism is rendered a vulnerability — whether by disease, betrayal, or something worse — formal lines of authority dissolve and personal relationships break down. A new hierarchy tends to emerge, but without deeply rooted cohesion, it too will collapse.

***

As we watch MacReady and his companions desperately contend against the thing, all the while keeping a watchful eye on one another, we are reminded of our own unhappy circumstances. Like the team of researchers, who have retreated to the farthest corners of the earth, there is no true escape from the primordial emotions that paralyze the most civilized places. In a time of widespread fear and distrust brought on by global terrorism, mass surveillance, racial strife, pandemic disease, and every kind of misanthropic project dreamed up by a total state, the desire to escape and find some kind of refuge is palpable. And yet even when we retreat into supreme isolation, the same problems obediently follow — danger still licks at our heels. Our alienation also makes us weaker and more susceptible to infection. Like the men of Outpost 31, when the thing finally does come for us, it finds us woefully unprepared.

The Thing always had all the right ingredients to become a cult classic, and there’s something to be said for its devoted fan base, which is easily the most dogged and hard-nosed tribe in the subgenre. But unlike other science-fiction horror movies marooned during its era, Carpenter’s horror story becomes more accessible with time. The typical obstacles that dissuade new initiates — crude special effects, a synth-heavy score, shopworn lines and mawkish dialogue — are minimal. And the nature of the monster itself, while simple enough for the most unsophisticated audience to grasp, remains frighteningly conceivable even after forty years of technological change.

Yet most importantly, The Thing becomes more relatable with time for all the wrong reasons. In fact, it is because of the film’s coldness, bleak simplicity, and cautious character development that The Thing feels more relevant today than Conan, E.T., or even Blade Runner. It speaks to the genius of John Carpenter, who, contrary to the accusations of early critics, anchored his story in the emotions of his characters rather than the spectacle of violence wrought by the monster.

The greatest villains are those who imitate us and gain our trust, only to ambush us when we are at our most vulnerable. The Thing plays with that fear expertly. The blood and slaughter, the ungodly sounds, and the contortions of bone, sinew and flesh are nothing compared to the anxiety that floods every corner of Outpost 31 — an angst borne of deep distrust. You want a team, you need a friend, but the only thing you can count on is that ancient, lower region of your brain. And even then, can you be sure it belongs to you and to you alone? In a world where every rampart has been breached, every sacred thing defiled, and every man suffers in crowded isolation, Carpenter’s shapeshifter and the fear and paranoia it breeds are just all too real.

Lafayette Lee is an American writer and veteran.

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