The Thing has been thesis fodder for years, as much so as any given pre-1990 Cronenberg movie, and has popularly been seen as a metaphor for AIDS and even climate change. Now, of course, provided we’re still in a world where film is studied in the aftermath and we haven’t ball been assimilated in one form or another, such staples are sure to be scrubbed away by an inundation of bids to apply the Coronavirus to any given text (much in the way Trump has been popularly overwritten onto any particular invidious fictional figure you care to mention in the most tedious shorthand). And sure, there’s fertile ground here, with rampant paranoia and social distancing being practised among those in Outpost 31 (the “virus” can even be passed on by pets). That flexibility, however, is the key to the picture’s longevity and effectiveness; ultimately, it is not the nature of the threat (as undeniably and iconically gruey and Lovecraftian as it is), but rather the response of those affected by it.
Because it’s fear, paranoia and panic that give The Thing legs (that and versatility, when it comes to sprouting them from a severed head). Carpenter referred to the picture’s “sombre inevitability” with regard to its end-of-the-world scenario, almost as if “there’s nothing you can do”. He related that to two very palpable themes, that “it comes from within you” (more Bechamp’s theory of the virus than Pasteur’s) and “the lack of trust that’s in the world now”. Even those registering fear in a more existential than visceral manner (Wilford Brimley’s Blair) are ultimately undone by a drastic response to the enormity of the threat faced; had calm and reason won out, Blair might not have been locked up and so become easy pickings.
We also saw these responses in a much more genteel manner in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers a few years earlier, whereby the considerate alien ensured, for the most part, that its victims didn’t even realise they’d been taken over until they had. But the nature of the Thing remains elusive – what it thinks, how it plans, aside from its capacity for building designer spacecraft. Is it just a mimic, or is it simultaneously a mixture of the untameable and frenzied – whenever it reverts to its monstrous otherness – and the unassumingly calculated?
That more explosive side is as much about the sudden punches of editing that put Rob Bottin’s creations in centre frame, inviting us to gawp at the still mesmerisingly icky creativity on display. Occasionally, there are lapses in these sequences, but their starkness (such as Palmer suddenly switching from David Clennon to his grotesque facsimile) rather underlines the uncanniness of it all. The lack of knowing – the unknowability – is essential to the fear the creature imbues, its terrifyingly ungraspable nature, other than its primary impetus to take over its host (the “science” of which is underlined by the analyses of Richard Dysart’s Dr Copper and Blair, the latter with his early computer modelling sequence of the spread of the space plague and its impact on humanity).
Crucially, it’s also left open just how much contact, or rather how little, is required to be taken over. Fuchs suggests merely a molecule is needed, hence the invitation that everyone prepares their own food, but it’s never definitively determined that he’s right; it’s enough that his suggestion fuels paranoia effectively, though.
Such a conceptualisation is tempered in practice. If mere skin contact were sufficient (as suggested by the prequel), the dog could simply have played tag as soon as it arrived. There’s speculation that a toke on Palmer’s joint would have been enough to infect Childs, yet the blood test suggests otherwise. The same with Blair putting the pencil to his mouth (it makes much more sense – to me – that he smashes up the communications room because he realises the threat, and that he’s only definitely the Thing later, when he tells Mac he wants to be let out of the shack). Then there’s the “doh” moment that always gets me: Windows wiping the bloody scalpel on his trousers before cutting himself.
Further speculation concerns the speed of infection and/or of the infected realising the same (they can be passive carriers?) There’s an assumption the “right” kind of contact would have to infect, but does it necessarily have to? It seems reasonable to assume that, to enforce some restrictions preventing the Thing from super-speedy infection and assimilation, it ought to come via methods requiring a little exertion, such as saliva or open wounds etc. However, I still tend to fall on the side of the argument that we only know for certain direct assimilation works, and that any other means would have given the Thing too many opportunities for success and so less need to be so covert in its strategies.
All this is part of the fun of The Thing, and why attempts to pin down iconic pictures definitively, usually by sequels or prequels – both The Thing and Alien have been subjected to this – tend to miss the point, if not actively diffuse what makes them special. The mechanism of the Thing and the Xenomorph (in the first Alien) are subject to debate (hence the deleted Brett egg scene), fuelled by shadowy events preceding the picture (the Norwegian – “crazy Swedes” – base and the derelict).
That said, on the other end of the scale, arguing that speculation on whether Mac or Childs is the Thing in the last scene is pointless – because, like Inception, the point is that you aren’t supposed to know – is being something of a killjoy. The “Childs’ breath” theory (as one can see on the 4K transfer) may have been shot away, but the idea that Mac passes him a bottle of petrol (for the Molotovs), hence his chuckle, is quite an attractive one, albeit shot down categorically by Kurt (if I had a preference, it would be that neither is the Thing, and, faced with the end of the world, and the end of themselves, their rueful stoicism is the way to go).
Is it a coincidence that the two action-orientated alpha males, between whom there has been an undefined competitiveness throughout (perhaps simply because they are alpha males) are the ones to survive? Certainly, the theorists soon fall by the wayside, either through compassion (Copper) or profound realisation (Fuchs’ self-immolation). And if you’re a wannabe alpha (Richard Masur’s Clark, Donald Moffat’s Gary), you don’t have what it takes, and you’re getting to get shot or taken over just the same.
I always really enjoy Clennon’s performance, particularly when, in retrospect, one sees him stirring up Windows, and the famous line as a deflection of his own culpability – although, conversely, it raises the question of whether Things necessarily know they’re Things: yes, seems to be the answer – and his establishing the picture at the tail end of the ’70s (“Chariots of the Gods, man. They practically own South America. They taught the Incas everything they know”).
Of course, Antarctica remains ripe for mythologising, from Admiral Byrd’s expedition to alien craft reported there, courtesy of Google Earth (only skimming the surface of that story). Palmer’s stoner take on the reality of it all, as opposed to “voodoo bullshit” or “pure nonsense” is a testament to the value of credulousness, even if it’s commonly held that he’s the first of the group to be assimilated, so fat lot of good it did him.
Every performance in the movie is first rate, of course; like Alien, the picture was criticised for thin characters at the time, but it’s an economy of sketching that rewards repeat viewings (it loses little of its power in that regard). Dean Cundey’s cinematography is superb, Carpenter’s Steadicam peerless, the decision to go for authentic temperatures, on top of the prosthetics, adds layers of verisimilitude the prequel with its CGI breath and creature effects could only dream of (that said, I don’t mind that movie for what it is, but I don’t really wish to attach any “canonical” status to it). Carpenter’s augmentation of Morricone’s score is hugely beneficial to the overall atmosphere (I’d really like a release of his “sound effects” as he puts them, as they’re a vital element).
Higher quality home releases don’t always do the picture favours: Albert Whitlock’s matte paintings, as superb as they are, are not nearly so seamless as they were on cheap VHS (of which, I’ll always prefer the lurid video sleeve to the rather clunky Drew Struzan poster).
Kurt doesn’t get to be very funny in this one – “Fuck you too!” might be the extent of it, besides calling the Norwegians “Swedes” and the only female character, his chess computer, a “cheating bitch” – but there are cheeky moments throughout besides Palmer, from Blair’s “I’ll kill you!” (never the same after you’ve heard Russell’s mirth on the commentary track), to Garry’s response to his chair, to the pre-Evil Dead II smashing lightbulbs with a flailing body.
And while Bottin’s effects are rightly the star of the show, my favourite scene is probably the left turn no one saw coming with Blair’s miniature spaceship. It’s a “just when things couldn’t get any odder” moment that is positively inspired (albeit, one deriving from the short story).
And it gets you wondering. If you were a Thing not prone to overreaction, a considered and prepossessed thing inclined to plan ahead, you might judge the ideal way to mass access the Earth’s population would be telling them there was a Thing threat out there, and they should all just stay at home until they could be vaccinated against said Thing threat, while surreptitiously putting said Thing threat in a vaccine. A Thing intent on instituting a one-world government, on the way to a one-world Thing, a one-Thing population of 7.5 billion. Problem solved. That would be paranoid, though. Only a Thing would think that way.
There’s a new version on the drawing board from Blumhouse, complete with a lengthy establishing introduction via Frozen Hell, John W Campbell Jr’s long form original version. I also quite like Peter Watts’ skewed perspective in The Things, even if it falls into the usual fan-fic trap of establishing too much in the way of whys and wherefores. The bigger problem with a new version is that it’s on to a loser whatever it does. It may well turn out to be perfectly serviceable, and you inevitably can’t leave a property with such a fanbase alone for very long, especially if you can do it cheap (unlike Blade Runner 2049), but can you add anything worthwhile to it? To justify it? Carpenter’s The Thing stands alone.