Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Shapes of Things to Come: John Carpenter's The Thing

It’s deceptively simple in set up.  A group of scientists doing research in the Antarctic find a preserved specimen.  It’s been buried in the ice for a hundred-thousand years.  It’s not dead though—it’s just sleeping.  Much like the creature they face, John Carpenter’s The Thing, is difficult to categorize; it keeps changing shape.  Part science-fiction, part horror story, body horror, gothic horror, adventure, suspense—Carpenter even mentioned in one of the commentaries for the anniversary edition that he was initially drawn to this film because it reminded him of an Agatha Christie mystery (essentially, Ten Little Indians with an alien).  These genre shifts shouldn’t come as a large surprise though; even a poorly constructed movie can usually manage to engage you on more than one platform.  What I think is impressive though is how deftly this film weaves between these different styles, how seamlessly each of these modes of story-telling are touched upon and are successful, and that they are all anchored by the same themes.  Whether you attempt to read this story as science-fiction, horror or even a mystery, the membrane that holds all these ideas in place is the feeling of uncertainty. 
It asserts that if a group of people were placed in this sort of peril—their lives and the future of all living things on this planet—rather than work together, pool resources and codify a plan, they would by and large turn unrepentantly on each other.  That there’s a savagery, a baseness that still clings to us from our primordial past is far from new in storytelling; how honest and believable it plays itself out in this story is what is so unnerving.  That we would sacrifice others, possible allies, for our short-term survival (even at the potential expense of our long-term survival) is cold, hard and sincere. 
It is in this way, like many other great horror stories, that an essential truth is revealed.  Even accounting for the fantastical elements (in this case, The Thing) you can’t escape this revelation: We are the monster.  We fight it, The Thing, but sadly we also fight ourselves.  What follows is a grave these characters, each in turn, helps digs.
The men are fundamentally incapable of handling the situation for the simple fact that this creature, this thing, and its abilities and reasoning are—in every sense of the word—alien to them.  One point is clear, however, The Thing wants what all living things want: to keep on existing.  The Thing is determined to live and considers all of the humans a threat.

The Thing-Dog Shape The Transformation 1 The Transformation 2
The Transformation 3 The Transformation 4 The Transformation 5
A visual study of the otherness of this creature.  How could the human researchers anticipate a cute, cuddly husky changing into this monstrosity?  

The Thing appears to be part of a race advanced enough to master interstellar travel, but beyond that it is uncertain.  Is it part of a race bent on conquering all worlds—nomads taking the resources they need from wherever they are found?  Maybe The Thing doesn’t even recognize humans as a sentient life-form.  Creatures capable of only one shape (solids as Odo likes to refer to them) maybe don’t register to The Thing, the same way we don’t feel guilty when we crush a few ants underfoot.  Maybe The Thing’s race are peaceful explorers interested in uniting all of the civilized cultures of the universe into a harmonious coalition of learning and innovation and this particular one is just a huge dick that went rogue.  Hell, maybe The Thing isn’t even the owner of that spaceship!  Maybe it was taken aboard as a lab sample and the original crew met the same fate as the Swedes—or Norwegians—whatever the hell they were.  That would explain the crash landing.  The point is that guessing anything beyond the events of the film is vacuous speculation. 
That is the tip of the knife that this film uses.  The underlying theme is not FEAR in bold letters or remoteness or transformation.  It’s uncertainty.  It’s not the broad strokes of a Voorhee’s machete here, but the subtle knife that is used against us.  The characters know so little, and the things they take for granted also come to be challenged (I mean for God’s sake even the blood wants to kill you).  This is important to mention, because it is the corner-stone that the film builds its tone and pace upon.  Fear by itself leads to more reactionary responses and storytelling.  Why are we afraid?  Because something is trying to kill us.  What should we do?  We should kill it first.  Transformation is also an important theme to keep in mind as we watch the film, but it is still a secondary one.  Transformation as an idea gives us expectation.  What are we going to become?  Better; worse?  What will be retained and what will be sloughed off for the incredible?  Interesting questions, true, and the thought of this co-opted evolution (Symbiosis? Parasitism?) adds layers to the science-fiction element.
Yes, these are all valid concerns for this movie, but the primary thrust is uncertainty.  That’s the gateway to the dread, paranoia, anxiety that permeates this film.  Many before me have said that this is a cynical movie.  I’m not quite sure it’s that simple to label.  But The Thing is bleak and certainly bitter, bitter.
I feel there is an element of the gothic at work here too.  Typically, in gothic fiction the heroes find themselves in a remote, isolated setting.  A faraway castle, a lonely inn, a haunted house at the edge of town.  There is an extreme sense of isolation in these types of stories.  What becomes manifest in these tales, more so than in other genres, is that there is no external salvation.  If this were you and The Creature with No Name was inexorably creeping their way toward you, the power to triumph lies entirely with your sense of agency.  Much like the Antarctic crew, characters caught in these stories realize there is no one coming to rescue them.  Yes, characters in these stories have no choice but to save themselves.
I think there is an interesting connection here to this movie and the Frankenstein story.  Dr. Frankenstein pursues The Creature toward the North Pole and hopes that even if he is unsuccessful in destroying it, the ice will hold his creation captive forever.  The Thing, on the other hand, has been trapped in the ice and wishes to fly to more habitable climes.  It seems that nature is the great equalizer in these stories—that despite the power of Frankenstein’s Creature or of The Thing, nature can be just as unforgiving to them as to us.  This is just another way for these sorts of stories to highlight what I’ve already pointed out.  You can’t escape the remote castle, the haunted house, the endless winter of the poles.  Neither can they.  The only solution is to confront the monster. 
This is a very quick and easy way to explain why these stories are so enjoyable.  There is an undeniable sense of catharsis.  Face your fear and do your damnedest to best it.

One of the more terrifying aspects of The Thing, tying back into the major theme, is the personal uncertainty.  It’s never more evident than during the blood test scene.  As each person is proven to be a bona fide human being, the others show relief (obviously), but what’s there and more understated is the relief the character being tested shows.  What does that say about the transformative process?  What does that say about how well we really know ourselves? 
On one hand, dealing with the paranoia of not knowing if the person next to you is going to shape-shift and rip your face off is a burden—granted—but that’s to be expected in this sort of situation.  What no one I’m sure anticipated is the dread it must be to not be able to tell if you are the monster.   Losing one’s humanity, whatever the source: a werewolf attack, zombie bite, biological infection, possession, etc., is worse than dying and scares me more than pretty much anything else.  I’d rather fight the monster and die—gruesomely—than have the essence of what I am stolen from me.  And with The Thing you have the added fear that you may have already been taken over and all it’s going to take is some instinctual, knee-jerk reflex to set you off.
Paranoia is an interesting theme to play with when done successfully.  What launches this particular creature to utterly frightening levels is that this film so clearly rings out this chord.  It’s insidious, truly so, because it takes us over from within.  The Thing’s most effective weapon is the seed of distrust and fear that it plants in the group.  Even when not physically changing the dwindling number of humans, the attacks resonate long after the fact, shattering the ties these men once had.  This multi-layered takeover allows a series of misplaced and ill-directed violence to take place as disastrous as The Thing’s aggressions.  This means that in an immediate sense there is death to the individual (as the self is completely obliterated by The Thing), but also death to the community (as the communal ties are severed one by one either through force [takeover by The Thing] or through a character’s own choice [like locking the still human Blaire out in the shed]).  Guns, flamethrowers, axes, exile and even dynamite are all used to threaten and coerce members.  Even if it isn’t physically changing these men, The Thing still has the influence to invoke other changes as well. 

The collapsing of this group beings at this moment.

Look at the doctor, Blaire.  He is determined, stoic, unwavering—he is by all means a “practical” man.  He is probably the most reasonable man at the camp.  In the scenes where he performs autopsies on The Thing specimens, he is measured and methodical.  He tries to understand it; to make it make sense in the scientific language that he speaks.  They are very slow, plodding scenes and I think it perfectly conveys how practical the doctor is when he performs research. 

A Quick Lecture Predictions 1 Predictions 2

Compare that with its counterpoint, his next scene in the comm room.   It’s utter madness.

Blaire's Transformation 1 Blaire's Transformation 2 Blaire's Transformation 3

"You think that thing wanted to be an animal?  No dogs make it a thousand miles through the cold!  No, you don't understand!  That thing wanted to be us!"  Blaire yells this out as he destroys the equipment.  That’s the turning point in this movie.  The doctor’s breakdown when he sabotages the communication room is the most horrifying transformation in the film.  His computer has just given him the calculations—100% extinction if The Thing ever leaves the ice.  This quiet, determined man sees how big the stakes really are and reacts.  He may not be taken over at this point, but he certainly is changed.  There is mania and an utter sense of desperation in his voice that never fails to set me on edge.  From this point on these men are doomed.  It’s not a giant dog creature with tendrils that bloom full of teeth, but simply one man who chooses to make a stand.  That’s how this film signals that the end for this group is coming.

The closing scene is one of the most powerful.  MacReady has arguably succeeding in killing The Thing, but in the process has sealed his own fate.  As he surveys the rubble that was once U.S Outpost 31, it must dawn on him as it does us that he is not walking away from this.  The term is a Pyrrhic Victory.  He has (if you’re being optimistic) succeeded in destroying an evil that would have over-run the world, but at the expense of everyone’s ruin.  Childs shows up unexpectedly.  They split what’s left of a bottle of whiskey and watch as what remains of their world burns.  But despite this destruction, The Thing is still shaping up to have a pretty stellar ending.  What’s not to love?  Heroes saved the world.  Evil has been slewed.  The conquerors are enjoying the most manly of spirits.  Get ‘er done, fuck yeah, guys.
But the ending is missing a beat.  What is unacknowledged, and what ultimately makes people uncomfortable with this film’s ending, is this—We are not told anything definitively.  We are left with ambiguity as to whether or not MacReady or Childs is a Thing.  Their very muted celebration also leaves ambiguity as to whether or not The Thing was actually destroyed.  It’s a subtle effect, but the tone of the scene causes these concerns to spill out.  It’s possible that both men are still human, just as it’s possible that the monster is gone.  It’s just that audience members dislike not knowing for certain one way or the other.
Carpenter essentially pulls the same trick in Prince of Darkness, however, in that film we’re waiting for the cheap scare, Jason-jumping-out-of-the-lake, Freddy-pulling-the-mom-through-the-window sort of last moment before the credits roll.1  We all roll our eyes, but the reality is those moments are a form of release.  In Prince of Darkness the guy looks hesitantly at the mirror, reaching out to touch the surface, knowing that it is really a thin membrane separating our world from another place filled with unspeakable darkness.  We expect the glass to shatter as he is pulled into the void, our breath caught, leaning in our seats, straining ourselves with the suspense—and it doesn’t happen.  It too is missing that expected beat.  That cheap scare at the end is a comfort because we can laugh about the absurdity of it.  And more importantly because we know where the evil is and how it will try to come for us.  The not knowing, that is what is worst.  Where might it come from and how? 
Denying us that gotcha moment in Prince of Darkness and the Missions-Accomplished-let’s-have-a-Miller-and-put-on some-AC/DC pat on the back that could have easily been the ending moment of The Thing both serve the same purpose even though they enact the effect from opposite directions.  I think this is where the critique comes that this film is a pessimistic work. 
Like real life we do not reach a turning point and then the credits roll.  Nothing ever truly ends.  The situation appears resolved, but can return.  Only time can prove the true measure of success.  Seen by some as extremely cynical, I think it’s an amazingly honest ending—which is what makes it so striking.
It is a moment of extreme disquiet as you leave the theater.  We don’t know if the horror is really over.  But then again, how can we truly ever?

1              For a little more context: The Thing is part one of John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, the others being Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness.  They are all excellent movies and I highly recommend you go out and watch them as soon as you’re done reading this if you haven’t seen them already.  All three of these films deal with an end of the world situation.  Not all of them end happily.
Aside from dealing with a game-over situation, these stories also have a Lovecraft influence.  The Thing has a somewhat similar feeling to Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”.  Both feature a team of scientists exploring phenomena in the Antarctic, both feature ancient aliens that have been asleep in the ice and both feature monsters that somewhat resemble a blooming flower that really wants to eat you.  Both stories also deal with preternatural events with a grim sincerity.
Prince of Darkness deals with, well, The Prince of Darkness.  He’s a Cthulhu type demon who has been slumbering fretfully in an inbetween dimension, awaiting the time that he can enter our world and wreak unimaginable suffering on all of us.  In the movie, when the circumstances have been met The Prince of Darkness attempts to cross the void by using a mirror.  It’s an amazingly evocative sequence and will surely leave you uncomfortable brushing your teeth in your bathroom later that night.
In the Mouth of Madness features a writer whose work drives those who have had prolonged exposure to his novels insane (dangerous tomes is another frequent Lovecraft hallmark) and once again features monsters waiting at the fringe of existence trying to break their way into our world.  This movie more than the others has many sly references to Lovecraft’s works.  Several scenes in this movie make my skin-crawl.
Seriously, go out and rent them all.  Make a night of it.  Invite your friends!


The Thing Poster My The Thing Poster

I love The Thing so much/am such a nerd that I painted this and have it hanging in my living room.

Why is MacReady the de facto leader?  I mean just look at that beard!

No comments:

Post a Comment