John Carpenter’s adaptation of The Thing based on the novella by John W. Campbell (a deeply problematic writer due to his racism and attraction to pseudoscience) titled Who Goes There? (1938) and premiered on June 25th, 1982—in an event hosted by the queen of scream, Elvira and on the same day as Blade Runner. The film broke new ground in the realm of sci-fi-horror while creating distance from its connection to the original source. Equipped with the magic of the movie make-up and special effects of Rob Bottin, Carpenter’s adaptation brought a sense of realism, gore, and hideous alien monstrosity that stood in stark relief from the Campbell’s novella, as well as Christian Nyby’s previous 1951 adaptation, The Thing from Another World, both of which featured a three-eyed, humanoid alien. It was also a harsh departure from the endearing alien of Steven Spielberg’s E.T., released just a few weeks prior.
Although Carpenter’s contrasting approach from these examples gave The Thing a much-increased sense of tension and grotesqueness, such features were initially seen as more of a detriment to the final cut as they were any indication of his directorial and creative talents. This was due in large part to the visceral effect his “disgusting” and “repellant” alien transformation scenes had on some critics and viewers, even prompting Roger Ebert to call it “the most nauseating thing I’ve ever seen on a movie screen.”
At the time of The Thing’s release, it’s useful to also note that although Carpenter had by that point directed Halloween, The Fog and Escape From New York (also with Kurt Russell), none had achieved the respect and accolades that would be bestowed, bringing him recognition as one of the most revered contemporary American filmmakers. An ascent that made the possessive form of his name, “John Carpenter’s,” synonymous with the best in modern sci-fi horror and making this accreditation within his film’s titles a common feature.
The themes of assimilation and replication that play out in The Thing were especially compelling throughout the 20th century and had been showcased in a variety of forms by the time of its release. Although some critics have viewed Campbell’s and Nyby’s versions as allegorical reflections on the rise of fascism or the Red Scare, in which notions of ideological brainwashing and mind control were being stirred into a frenzy by demagogues in Washington and exerting pressure on Hollywood, the frame of the story also has resonance to the most elemental contexts of human agency, uniqueness and individuality.
In departing from key elements central to both Campbell’s novella and Nyby’s film, such as the number and diversity of the crew of the Antarctic research station, their means of discovering the ancient spaceship and the frozen alien, as well as the departure from a humanoid alien equipped with telepathic powers, Carpenter was able to put his own distinctive socially conscious twist on the narrative to make the story his own, and, in the process, into a bona fide cult classic. Carpenter also seems to be actively pushing against Campbell’s racism within this context through the addition of two African American characters in prominent roles. Finally, in directing what is both an adaptation and remake, he also contributes to a theme taken up explicitly in Jack Finney’s 1954 novel, The Body Snatchers and adapted into several iterations of the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, and remade in 1978, 1993, 2007).
The prevalence of the theme of the malevolent and fatal assimilation of human bodies, minds and identities that occurs in The Thing also connects to a broader set of other books and films that include The Beast Within (1982), Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) Terminator 2: Judgement Day and The Matrix (1999), as well as Under the Skin (2013) and Upstream Color (2013), all of which deal with the corporeal as a site of vulnerability and instability leading to the destruction and/or overwriting of a person’s unique identity. The transformation and loss of the self in terms of individual or group identity has long been a prominent theme of the sub-genre of body horror as stylized by David Cronenberg, while being foundational to classic horror fare depicted through human-creature hybrids such as with Frankensteins, vampires, werewolves and zombies, or even, a human fly.
Likewise, Native, First Nation and Aboriginal writers and film makers have been increasingly active in addressing related themes from their own cultural perspectives through genre fiction and film. In so doing, producing works focused on the brutal history of colonialism, land theft and forced assimilation aimed at the elimination of Indigenous cultures and identity. Mi’qmaq, First Nations writer and filmmaker, Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013), offers an especially powerful take in this realm of historical storytelling through its reckoning with the genocidal legacy of Canadian residential schools. On the literary side, Stephen Graham Jones’ white-hot Mapping the Interior infuses the themes of erasure and dispossession into a story that blurs colonial reality with the spiritual realm through the trope of malevolent haunting.
Added to these, Claire G. Coleman, a Wirlomin-Noongar Aboriginal writer from Australia, broke exciting new ground in her 2017 novel Terra Nullius in producing a stunning reframing and reconceptualization of dystopian/apocalyptic/alien invasion narratives. Through this story, Coleman puts forth a devastating condemnation of colonization that tackles themes addressed by other contemporary Aboriginal writers such as Kim Scott and Alexis Wright, all while conveying a powerful story of human agency and survivance within the contexts of oppression and empathy.
Viewed today and in the shadow of several alarming global outbreaks of diseases from Ebola, avian flu, and SARS over the last few decades, to the latest coronavirus pandemic, Carpenter’s The Thing—perhaps his best film—takes on renewed pertinence and meaning. Alongside the fear and paranoia that also spread like epidemics with the diseases themselves, the specters of prejudice, racism, and hatred appear as all-too-common manifestations of scapegoating as detailed in the mimetic theory of René Girard.
Carpenter’s film features many of the classic elements common to the sci-fi horror genre. Most prominently, this includes the appearance of a grotesque and monstrous alien from another planet bent on human destruction and global conquest, its mode of attack, which doesn’t just entail the killing its victims but also brings about their replication so as to take over their body and likeness. A feature that gives an unexpectedly disturbing psychological twist to the narrative. And with the images set to a spectacular score that Carpenter worked up with Ennio Morricone, the action is superbly tracked in the eerie echo of the music as the tension builds throughout the story.
The thing that really brings this compelling storied framework to life, however, is the performances by Keith David as Childs, Kurt Russell as MacReady, Wilford Brimley as Dr. Blair and T.K. Carter as Nauls. The complex, ambiguous and unexpected interactions they have with each other and other characters, including the alien itself, gets at the anxieties and pressures inherent to all human relations marred by crisis. This, while avoiding the tokenization of African American characters that has often condemned them to early deaths in such films, and also a resistance to the exploitation of racial stereotypes and prejudices evident in many other films of the 80s.
What makes The Thing so nightmarish and unnerving is that neither the origin nor the motives of the alien creature can be understood or reasoned with in any way. This radically othered existence which relentlessly kills and copies the terrestrial living beings it makes contact with is what casts it as so inexplicable and terrifying. Carpenter accomplishes this in much the same way the similarly strange and overpowering alien creature Daniel Espinosa presents audiences with in his unflinchingly despairing film, Life (2017). While audiences can well imagine what is to come when the fisherman opens the landing pod that crashes into the ocean at the end of Life, in the scenario of The Thing, the parameters of this alien’s reach are explicitly rendered by the station’s resident doctor, Blair, as he reads the results of his computer’s calculations in his lab, "Projection: if intruder organism reaches civilized areas . . . Entire world population infected 27,000 hours from first contact."
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In case you are wondering, that works out to be 3 years, 4 weeks, 1 day, 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds. A blink in world history, even on the human scale, but for those living through a catastrophe of such a duration it would make for an exceedingly desperate period of life and death trapped inside an apocalyptic hourglass hurtling towards an ever more pitiless and nightmarish end. But so, too, given the alien’s existence, such a fate could also be seen as constituting a process as natural to the laws of the universe as that of a dying star, the destructiveness of colliding asteroids, comets or planets, or the inscrutability and inescapability of black holes.
While Espinoza’s monstrous ‘thing’ must find a way to Earth via a group of astronauts on a mission “to intercept a research pod from Mars,” Carpenter’s alien crash-landed in its own spacecraft eons ago and was entrapped there, frozen in ice. Putting aside the question of how a creature in such a physical form might create the technology utilized to get from its planet to Earth, a question feasibly made moot by the creature’s inconceivable intelligence, the only thing that grants humans any chance of avoiding global catastrophe through the kind of absolute replication and colonization we see in the bleakest version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers of 1978, is this alien’s landing in the middle of the most remote and unpopulated place in the world: Antarctica. An exceedingly lucky, or unlucky, break depending on one’s perspective!
The subtlety of this narrative context, following that of the novella, in that the means of attack can also take a form that is like exposure to infection by some deadly virus through ingestion, or the mere contact with a fragment of alien material is conveyed to us by the helicopter pilot, MacReady. After witnessing the dreadful transformation of another member of the crew in the film’s most horrific scene, MacReady observes, “watchin' Norris in there gave me the idea that maybe every part of him was a whole, every little piece was an individual animal with a built-in desire to protect its own life. You see, when a man bleeds, it's just tissue; but blood from one of you Things won't obey when it's attacked. It'll try and survive . . . crawl away from a hot needle, say.”
Thus, not only can attack, consumption, and the process of assimilation—a fate made especially unsettling within the context of the cult of individualism that has thrived in Western culture—come about through the conventional means of a physical attack by the alien, the even more disturbing realization is that the mere contact with what Campbell’s narrator describes as a “supremely intelligent” alien life form that “has learned the deepest secrets of biology, and turned them to its use” can accomplish the same result. This is the element that makes The Thing so utterly terrifying and relevant as a reflection of anxieties around the invisible threats posed by burgeoning outbreak of HIV, but so too, those fears formed of ideas and suspicions that get turned against others and were at the heart of the Cold War when this film was released in the Summer of ‘82. Fears and anxieties that continue to haunt us today.
This array of interrelated and compounding themes emphasized in Carpenter’s version becomes the main trigger for the sense of doubt and distrust that quickly infects the camp. Such is the perspective articulated by Childs in his reaction to MacReady’s initial description of the alien, saying, “I just cannot believe any of this voodoo bullshit.” MacReady echoes this skepticism when speaking privately to a tape recorder used to detail their fight against the vicious shapeshifting alien in the event none of them survives. Words that are filled with similar hesitation and uncertainty to Childs as he observes, “nobody . . . nobody trusts anybody now, and we're all very tired,” before signing off with, “nothing else I can do, just wait.”
The story shifts at this point almost as if taking us into some alternate version of The Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” (1960), whereby the crew’s fears of assimilation and death become the primary provocation for their growing sense of terror and despair. Reactions that naturally set into motion the same sort of descent into confusion, paranoia, strife, violence and social chaos directed against whatever unknown thing that one thinks is lurking in the shadows as in The Twilight Zone, albeit by more direct means. This feeling of sustained instability caused by one’s inability to trust their senses, which Carpenter masterfully intensifies by keeping key scenes from viewers’ sight and knowledge, greatly enhances the film’s delicious suspense.
The preference of this alien to avoid direct conflict, if possible, and to attack those who are alone and isolated further contributes to the sensations of entrapment and fear, and not just at the alien creature, but for the human characters with each other. This behavior stands in stark contrast with much of what sci-fi horror audiences had been previously served through the sort of B-movie fare celebrated by horror punk icons, the Misfits, in their debut album “Walk Among Us” (also released in 1982) in films from The War of the Worlds, It Came from Outer Space, The Blob, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and Invaders from Mars, which itself along with the broader genre, were spoofed by Mars Attacks, to Astro-Zombies—the inspiration for the Misfits’ classic track—and through to the Alien franchise. But really, how could we expect anything less from a creature designed by H.R. Giger?
In Carpenter’s film, as long as more than one member of the crew avoids falling into the clutches of the alien and remain human, even if they can’t know who any other real humans may be, there remains hope that the relentless foe can be defeated to, in essence, save the world. This is the sentiment shared by MacReady in one of the film’s most memorable scenes just before he subjects the remaining members of the crew to a blood test that he believes will determine who might not be what they seem, as he says:
“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. This Thing doesn't want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It'll fight if it has to, but it's vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it's won.”
While it’s apparent that MacReady says, “won” in this dialogue, the homonym “one” could also work to signal the potential displacement of humanity’s sense of interconnectivity with the world by the alien presence. As we know, the surviving crew consisting of MacReady, Childs, Nauls, and the commander of the station, M.T. Garry (played by the late Donald Moffat, RIP, and who delivers one of the film’s classic lines) band together to finally destroy the alien—in the monstrous form of Blair—as it is trying to build a ship as a last ditch effort to escape from a now hopeless place.
As the end of the film nears, however, neither of the apparent final survivors, MacReady or Childs (Garry is killed by a replicated Blair while Nauls falls victim to the same offscreen), can know if the other is human or alien—a statement on the inescapable impenetrability of the human psyche and the unique identities we all carry. Yet, the message Carpenter wraps within The Thing’s carnage and destruction is that, perhaps, the nature of trust and the support of camaraderie, which are the bedrocks of authentic community, which holds our greatest vulnerability also comprises our greatest capacities and power. Indeed, their coming together to destroy the alien, necessitating the destruction of their own station base, and with it all hope of survival, constitutes a supreme act of self-sacrifice for the good of their fellow humans.
After the alien has been defeated, Childs and MacReady have a final exchange that is thick with mutual apprehension and exhaustion. Once they’ve expressed their uneasiness, however, each turns away from further reactions based on suspicion and fear with Child’s simply asking, “well, what do we do?” before sharing a final drink together as MacReady responds, “why don't we just wait here for a little while . . . see what happens?”
A small, even insignificant gesture, perhaps, but read another way, this acceptance of each other and their fate is an act that offers the most redemptive conclusion the story allows, if not for themselves, then for us.