John Carpenter’s eighth feature – and his first for a major studio (Universal) – The Thing is an adaptation of John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, and a loose remake of Chris Nyby’s adaptation The Thing From Another World (1951) – scenes from which could be glimpsed on a television set in Carpenter’s earlier Halloween (1978). By coincidence, it opened in the US on the same day (25 June, 1982) as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – and both films would take some years to win their canonical status in the sci-fi pantheon after an initial drubbing from the majority of critics, who at the time were in thrall to Steven Spielberg’s alien-positive E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial, released two weeks earlier.
Yet The Thing fell under the far more sinister influence of another Ridley Scott film, Alien (1979) – a similarly hybridised mutation of SF and horror in which an isolated working crew has to deal with a deadly extraterrestrial menace with no outside help. So remote from civilisation is the US National Science Institute Station in the Antarctic that it might as well be in space – and the small team operating there finds itself under attack from within by an alien (unearthed by Norwegian researchers from a nearby base) that can rapidly adapt to its environment and makes perverse use of its human hosts to disguise its own presence. In the ensuing mayhem, the base’s delicate ecosystem begins irreparably to break down, as the very team who must work together to confront this insidious threat find themselves no longer able to trust each other.
There are significant differences too, though. For where Alien boasted an on-board computer nicknamed ‘Mother’, a female protagonist and an egg-born nemesis, The Thing is set in an all-male environment, and is as much a study of masculinity in crisis as an update of the sort of siege scenario that Carpenter had already played out in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). The first time we meet chopper pilot and hero R.J. MacReady (Carpenter regular Kurt Russell), a loner who lives apart from the rest of the crew’s quarters in a shack outside, he is in the rec room, pouring himself a scotch on ice, and resuming a game of chess – not with one of his companions, but with the computer. “Poor baby, you’re starting to lose it,” he comments, before the Chess Wizard checkmates him. With his masculine ego damaged, MacReady’s response is to pour his drink into the computer’s circuitry, frying it with the words, “Cheating bitch.” It is a misogynistic slur (accompanied by an absurd destructive act) against the only presence on the station that might be deemed female – for the Chess Wizard, despite its masculine name, has the distinctive voice of a woman (in fact Carpenter’s then wife Adrienne Barbeau).
With that word ‘bitch’ still ringing in the audience’s ears, Carpenter cuts away to the husky outside, racing from its armed Norwegian pursuers to the relative shelter of the American station – and through the magical implicature of editing, we infer that this new arrival is also a bitch, come to invade this male community with her feminine otherness – even as it smuggles in all the alien cells that will be these men’s ultimate undoing. What follows is a very modern witch-hunt, as the station’s men attempt to weed out any trace of that femininity from their ranks, and keep replicating MacReady’s angry attack on the computer with a self-destructive scorched earth policy that will eventually see them burning their whole base down. In the end, only the manliest, most rugged individualists will be left sort-of standing, but even they still eye one another with mistrust and suspicion. After all, nobody is all man (or all woman), and no one can fully escape the alterity within.
The Thing is rightly adored for its lived-in ensemble performances, its extraordinarily grotesque practical effects (from Rob Bottin, with a little help from Stan Winston), its mood of paranoid claustrophobia, and the pulsing electro-tension of its score (Ennio Morricone does Carpenter!). Yet there is also an appealingly existential quality that comes from the solitude of its setting, the chill wintriness of its climate, and the bleak desperation of its characters’ predicament. For these men are pitted not just against the elements, but against each other and their own inner, hidden selves, in an utterly unforgiving milieu. “There’s nothing else I can do, just wait,” concludes MacReady, halfway through the film, on a private recording that he makes as testament, should they all perish, of what has happened. This is re-echoed by his last words in the film, delivered as he sits outside, illuminated by the fires of the burning camp: “Why don’t we just wait here for a little while, see what happens.” All this waiting, for what? For the death that he knows is coming? For God – or Godot? For a sign of whether he and/or the other survivor have been overtaken by the alien, or have been stripped down to their own true selves? In any case, MacReady’s last gesture in the film is to pass his bottle of J&B to the other survivor. This gesture represents a kind of checkmate: if either one of them is by now not human, the other will inevitably be infected from sharing the bottle. Yet, paradoxically, the gesture, as a signifier of trust and communion, proves that a spark of humanity, if not quite of hope, remains.
© Anton Bitel