Considered a creature feature by some, a lifeline by others, John Carpenter’s The Thing almost derailed the filmmaker’s career. But there’s much to be learned from the film’s understanding of global threat and collective responsibility – Arden Fitzroy goes back to where it all began.
A Norwegian helicopter chases a dog across the cold desert of Antarctica. The pursuit is relentless, the helicopter’s passengers repeatedly firing with an intent to kill. Eventually, the dog reaches an American research station: US Outpost 31. The pursuers are taken down by the Americans in a shoot-out fuelled by frantic desperation to kill the dog. This is the only film that makes you root for someone who wants to shoot a dog. A first-time viewer may be forgiven for joining the Americans in feeling relieved for the dog – unless they speak Norwegian. The last thing the Norwegian pilot screams at the crew of US Outpost 31 before receiving a bullet between the eyes is, "Get the hell away! It's not a dog! It's imitating a dog! It's not real! Get away, idiots!” What a different film this might have been were he understood – and believed.
This somewhat unhinged opening is the first of many shocking, immortal set pieces in The Thing, and every time you think it couldn’t possibly escalate further, it does. Events unfold mostly from the point of view of Vietnam-veteran pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) as he and the team try to discover what happened to the Norwegian base. When their investigations lead them to an incomprehensible humanoid corpse amongst the ruins of the base, they come to realise that the reason for the Norwegian incursion may be more than just cabin fever. It also hints at a better explanation than cook Nauls’ (T. K. Carter) suggestion that perhaps the USA is at war with Norway, which is not only a great reflection of the climate of paranoia gripping a world at the height of the Cold War, but a premonition of the way this climate will soon manifest within US Outpost 31.
While the salvaged corpse is unrecognisable as human, the autopsy shows it had what appeared to be a normal set of human organs. Later, they find their new dog-friend transformed into a strange creature, attempting to absorb the rest of the kennel. Thankfully, chief mechanic Childs (Keith David) appears with a flamethrower just in time, and incinerates it. An autopsy reveals that the supposed stray dog was a bodysnatcher that replicates itself by perfectly imitating, and murdering, its host. Data recovered from the Norwegian base leads them to find an alien spacecraft, revealing that the Norwegian research team had unburied and awakened this creature after 100,000 years in the ice. The final piece on the board is set when senior biologist Blair (A. Wilford Brimley) runs a computer simulation indicating that should the Thing find a way to reach civilisation, it could assimilate all life on Earth in just over three years. And the probability that a member of the crew has already been infected? 75.
The team has a new objective: contain the Thing, by any means possible. Tensions arise. Paranoia is rife. Blair’s first move is to destroy all vehicles and communications systems, and to kill the remaining dogs, to prevent anyone from getting out. Everyone is a suspect, and nobody is safe. Minor personality clashes and rivalries are heightened. Every suggestion is met with distrust – after all, there is no way to know if a human suggested it, or something else.
The Thing is a humanist drama, a tribute to resilience and hope in the face of despair – it’s also so much more than the throwaway creature feature that many critics wrote it off as back in the ‘80s. When it premiered 40 years ago, it flopped at the box office and almost derailed John Carpenter’s entire career. Coming off Escape from New York, this was the director’s first film produced with the backing of a major studio, so financial expectations were high. Ennio Morricone’s score was inexplicably nominated for a Razzie for Worst Musical Score – which is something to remember for anyone who has ever felt under-appreciated in their field.
Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Greatest-of-All-Time list of horror or sci-fi films that doesn’t include The Thing, or its score. So, what happened in 1982? Complaints at the time mostly referred to the film's goriness and nihilism, released during the same summer that saw the wild success of E.T. – a more upbeat take on humanity’s first contact with a friendly extraterrestrial. The historical context would have influenced the reception of The Thing at home, too. It was a new decade, and in the West, hope seemed to have no upper boundary: America was “winning” the Cold War, greed was good, and an even brighter, wealthier future was just around the corner – if you only voted Reagan. In 1981, NASA successfully launched the space shuttle Columbia. The feeling was that humanity (or at least a small part of it) really had it all, had mastered the Earth, and now it was heading to conquer the stars.
Anti-Reaganism ran through John Carpenter’s work, from Carpenter turning down the Top Gun script for being jingoistic propaganda—“What is this garbage? He fights the Russians? Come on! Stop it. If he goes off and fights the Russians, this is a huge deal!”—to They Live’s critique of yuppie culture and unrestrained capitalism, which depicted the ruling elite as aliens using the media for mind-control to drive the culture of conspicuous consumption, in a way which in hindsight is rather prophetic of today’s social media advertising algorithms. The Thing definitely challenged this cocktail of Reagan-era imperial exceptionalism, where the good (American) guy always wins, everything is clear-cut, more people than ever before can afford the American Dream, and nothing bad ever happens to the hero that can’t be stopped with a .44, or a lawsuit. In other words, not only did The Thing not read the room, it actively proclaimed that it hated what the room was writing. Worse than that: it asked people to step outside the room and think about what the price of this indoors mindset might be.
There are so many different departure points on the scale between absurdism and nihilism to take from The Thing and run with. It stands on its own as an excellent creature feature, which is what critics initially hated about it. It could also be interpreted as a portrait of the ultimate cosmic-horror, the eldritch-abomination Other, uniting humanity against a common threat. It could also be interpreted as a comment on climate change. The film shows beautiful vistas of Antarctica, the final frontier for wide-scale industrial activity on Earth. It shows us the colonisation of this space by humans, tearing up this landscape and leaving charred ruins and plastic waste behind, polluting the Earth.
I’m interested in what the film says about the ways we respond to threats, the ways we take on responsibility in the face of adversity, and what it says about pandemics. The Thing hits differently when viewed through the lens of the Covid-19 pandemic. People living in containment, coming to face a virus. The crew of US Outpost 31 watching the same episodes of recorded daytime TV a dozen times. MacReady cutting the Gordian knot of trying to win against a computer at chess by pouring whiskey in it. Such behaviour is a lot less abstract now, no longer the sort of thing only experienced through films, features and documentaries on astronauts, lighthouse keepers, and, well, scientists wintering in Antarctica. More things we are now closer to: the paranoia born of uncertainty. What would you do if you were showing symptoms? What if there aren’t always symptoms? How can the spread be controlled? And what is driving your response to these questions: is it you (what are you?) or is it the ascendant consciousness of the Thing taking over your mind (what is your mind?) and driving you to make decisions that will create more Things? All but the latter are questions that were never far from our collective minds, and will remain with many for a while yet.
Never is this parallel more apparent than in the blood test scene. MacReady, having watched a Thing’s head come off and scuttle away from danger, hypothesises that in an infected person, the smallest part of the Thing will fight back, on a cellular level. Therefore, the Thing would respond to a sample of its blood being touched with a heated wire, thus revealing itself. It’s difficult to watch this scene without feeling déjà vu – with the arguments the team gets into about whether they should do the test, whether or not it’ll work, or whether MacReady is fear mongering in an attempt to draw suspicion away from himself. The film plays with tension and expectations on who the Thing might be, based on their reactions, masterfully. There would be far fewer Covid deniers if the results were this stark: heads are chomped off, the flamethrower has to come out, days are ruined.
A source of horror comes from the othering of the infected as an object of fear. To the very end, our perceptions are consistently misdirected. But go a little deeper, past the same old alien invasion metaphor, past that genre’s conventional reflections on xenophobia: how would you behave in a certain death situation that you have no control over? What does a person’s response to knowing they are going to die, and that Earth will beyond a doubt be assimilated, say about them? It would have been simple to make this another Lord of the Flies scenario, where people are pitted against each other by desperation, and the viewer is left with a vision of life outside the established order as nasty, brutish, and short. Instead, The Thing shows survivors, some of whom outright despise one another, coming together to do what they can. Even though The Thing presents us with a scenario of truly uncompromising desolation, even amidst fear and despair, there is always hope.
Having blown up the Thing’s biggest manifestation yet – and the entire station with it – MacReady sits in the burning ruins with a bottle of scotch, thinking himself the sole survivor. He is joined by Childs, who he hadn’t seen during the explosive events. Childs claims he got lost in the storm while trying to follow a remaining member of the crew. MacReady is unconvinced, and as he takes a drink of scotch, Morricone’s score kicks in. With the storm intensifying, and with no way to determine who – if anybody – is still human, they share a drink as the station continues to burn. Awaiting their deaths, yet each not taking his eyes off the other, even though there’s no longer anything to be done about their distrust.
Every fan of The Thing has a theory about who might be what in this ending, and each of those theories involve subtle details such as the reflectivity or opacity of eyes, the misting of breath or lack thereof, or whether the scotch is actually gasoline MacReady tricked Childs into drinking, assuming the Thing is not a connoisseur of spirits.
Even in that ending, in the freezing darkness temporarily lit up in flames, even when one or both characters have hours or maybe minutes to live, the film keeps hope suspended, to the fading heartbeat of the score. Even if Childs and MacReady somehow survive winter, if a rescue team comes to check on them and the Thing still lives in one or both, it's game over for the planet. Much of the ending’s bleak power is in not knowing whether they succeeded, after watching MacReady and the team try everything they possibly could to contain, then eliminate the threat.
Maybe the Thing is one of them, maybe it’s both, maybe it’s neither. Maybe the worst comes to pass and the Thing infects the whole planet. Maybe it ends up doing a better job of living here than we are. But maybe the threat was successfully contained by US Outpost 31’s attempts to save humanity at any cost, even at the cost of their own lives, and maybe that’s the point: at the end of a day, a creature just wants to ensure the survival of its species.
Arden Fitzroy (they/them) is an actor, writer-poet and producer, who believes in experimentation and blurring the boundaries of genre, gender and art forms. Their writing has appeared with the Royal Society of Literature, Untitled Writing, Stone of Madness Press, UCL Culture, Rejection Letters, The Final Girls and more. They were shortlisted for the London Writers Award in Poetry 2018, the Creative Future Writers’ Awards 2020, the VAULT FIVE 2021, and the Streetcake Experimental Writing Prize 2021, and have opened for Saul Williams on the Roundhouse Main Stage. You can find Arden on Twitter and Instagram.