Few movies have risen from the ashes of total box office and critical failure on release to such tremendous universal acclaim decades later. In 1982 Carpenter was labelled a ‘pornographer of violence’ for his remake of Howard Hawks’ classic THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, yet now it is his version rather than Hawks’ 1951 effort that is considered one of the finest horror movies ever made.
The film sees Carpenter favourite Kurt Russell star as R. J. MacReady, a ready-for-anything helicopter pilot who finds himself appointed leader of a group of American scientists at an Antarctic research station as they are beset from without and within by a shapeshifting alien entity. It is a story that has become part of sci-fi canon, spawning countless imitators and homages (most notable in my opinion being the excellent first season X Files episode ‘Ice’).
One of they key elements established early on is isolation. This research station is remote, both in physical terms (it’s in the Antarctic) and in more nebulous terms (the radio is down). The level of isolation from the rest of the world gradually builds throughout the film, as the helicopter and other vehicles are eventually dismantled altogether.
When the crew are outside in the early portion of the film, the vistas are gorgeous and stark, almost monochrome with sharp, black mountain crags the only landmarks on otherwise barren plains of ice. As peace turns to chaos for the scientists inside a literal storm sets in outside, and the expansive shots of the first half hour are replaced with dark maelstroms of snow and wind.
The inside of the research station is portrayed masterfully, with low-slung (alien level…) group shots, claustrophobic journeys down narrow corridors, and successive images of empty rooms building tension and mystery with great success. By showing a series of empty rooms Carpenter shows us where the creature isn’t, but never where it is. We feel as trapped as the scientists on the base.
Paranoia is key. For the members of the station, the mistrust created by the arrival of the alien merely stirs up trouble that was brewing under the surface already. Nauls ignores Fuchs’ request to turn down his music even though Fuchs has just been shot, Palmer and Windows argue over trying to establish radio contact with the outside world… this is a bored, fractious group of people who have been isolated for a long time.
This isolation has also made them selfish and wasteful, even their leader and hero MacReady. One of the first scenes shows MacReady playing chess (read: wasting time) and breaking his computer out of frustration when he loses. The rest of the team members smoke weed and watch game show re-runs.
None of these characters are really likeable, and none of them really like each other. One reading of THE THING is that the alien brings out in its victims their true nature, that these people are all emotionally shallow and self-serving in the same manner as the intruder they are so terrified of.
While it is easy to dismiss this possibility as overly negative and therefore unlikely, it is important to keep in mind that nihilism plays a key part in many of Carpenter’s films. In ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 it is the nihilism and reckless abandon of the attacking gang that make them so terrifying. In ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, even those incarcerated in New York were scared of the ‘crazies’, those prisoners who had lost all grasp on rational thought and acted only on mindless, violent impulses.
I would argue that THE THING is actually the most nihilistic of all Carpenter’s films. Throughout, every attempt by the survivors to stop the insidious alien is thwarted, every positive moment darkened before optimism can set in. Midway through the film the surviving crew members are burning what they believe are all the infected corpses outside on a pyre. This should be a hugely positive moment, the eradication of the threat after so much death, and yet pathos is achieved when it is revealed that Blair is missing, and with that the implication that he could be infected.
Likewise, Bennings is infected immediately after thinking that the team’s discovery of an alien body might win the Nobel Prize. Carpenter never allows his characters any positive thoughts, tempering every success with a failure of at least equal magnitude.
The ending is perhaps the biggest example of this. The perfect expression of paranoia and nihilism is unresolvable ambiguity, and by ending the film where he does Carpenter ensures that there is absolutely no closure. Childs could be infected; MacReady could be infected; the alien could have survived the fire hidden away.
What is most depressing and empty about this ending however is that even the BEST case scenario involves the two survivors freezing to death in a matter of hours. MacReady bleakly predicts this 20 minutes before the end of the film, that whatever happens none of them will make it out of the station alive. That he is proved correct is the ultimate negative statement: the hero knew that their plight was hopeless and survival impossible, but Carpenter doesn’t stop there, ending the film with the creature possibly having survived, rendering MacReady’s struggle not valiant but pointless.
This is ultimately what I think Carpenter was getting at in THE THING: that some situations are hopeless. I don’t think the fact that the characters are inherently unlikeable is a grand karmic statement, I feel that they are made selfish and wasteful because they are meant to be relatable, acting as any of us would stuck in a remote base for so long.
An ending that comes to mind when talking about THE THING is the similarly nihilistic ending to Polanski’s CHINATOWN, where the message is that sometimes despite our best efforts it’s impossible for the little man to beat those with money and power. I don’t see THE THING as an anti-capitalist work as some do, I feel it’s statement is broader.
These are ordinary, bored people, full of imperfections, who are thrown into a situation from which they cannot escape. Sometimes nothing makes sense and everything goes wrong, and it isn’t destiny or justice or corrupt capitalism that is screwing them over, it just happens.