Posted by : Patrick | November 6, 2013
Even by the end of the movie it’s hard to tell.
And that’s just it: more and more I realize that pervasive ambiguity is at the center of why I absolutely adore this 1982 John Carpenter film, and why 30 years after its release I’m still debating with other fans what really happened at Antarctica’s Outpost 31 Research Station.
For those of you that haven’t seen The Thing (and there are many, as it was a box-office flop competing against the E.T. juggernaut), imagine Invasion of the Body Snatchers mixed with Alien and you’ve got the basic vibe. A healthy amount of paranoia by way of sci-fi/horror with an ensemble cast (led by the great Kurt Russell) that keeps you guessing at who’s really who, and who’s really goo. A lot of goo. Gore-phobes be wary; with an alien able to imitate any living organism it comes in contact with, metamorphoses get messy in a way only (re)birth could be.
So undefined it can only be described as a ‘thing”, the creature itself is an enigma. A brief prologue shows us how it got here, but why? From where? Its original form is unknown, as are its intentions, and unknown they stay.
Got a problem with that?
Plots these days are starting to seem like gifts. They’re neatly wrapped, tied together with the payoff of a perfect bow on top. Presents are great; it’s nice not to have to work for everything. However, true satisfaction comes from earning your keep.
The Thing leaves you to fill in the blanks, and it provides many opportunities to do so. Characters focus on details that later seem completely insignificant, reactions often seem bizarre, deaths occur (at least I assume they did) without any explanation as to how. A body is found burned to a crisp out in the snow. The characters wonder: did the alien get him? Did he kill himself? They never find out.
When I was young my imagination elicited more true horror than any movie or TV show could possibly ever hope to. I was positive my stuffed animals moved at night. Did the closet door just open wider? I hear something outside the window…
Good scary movies can serve as inspiration for this nocturnal creativity, not by what they show, but by what they don’t. Jaws is a classic example. By keeping the shark hidden for half the movie, Spielberg terrified the audience later, when they were swimming, as they imagined something approaching their own kicking legs…
Primal fears are often exploited in this genre, and for good reason. Death is universally dreaded, but ever-present. We’re all aware of the dangers around us, be they natural or man-made, so the filmmakers don’t need to explain much in order to tap into our instincts. Create a villain with a tireless, single-minded urge to kill, throw in some jump scares to emphasize that evil can lurk around any corner, then spill some blood to remind us of our own mortality. At first glance, The Thing would seem to be just another of these life-or-death gore fests, but science fiction can be different. It allows the writer to fashion unrealistic scenarios for the purpose of exploring less transparent truths.
The characters of this remote polar station exist at the end of the world, a snowy nether realm. Where life does not exist, death is nothing to fear. The ultimate goal isn’t so much the survival of the team as the annihilation of that which would destroy them. A fine line perhaps, but an important distinction. This is a very curious stance for a horror movie, where much of the time living equates to victory. No, what’s ultimately at stake for Russell and his team is something not so black and white.
When anyone could be the enemy, how can we possibly work together? Not without great difficulty, and not without trust. In a situation such as this, that can be hard to come by. Flaws are exposed, misunderstandings emerge, doubt arises… Luckily we, the audience, know exactly who is good and who is bad, right?
Because the film never cuts away from the group, our focus is narrowed and information about this world stays limited. We’ve become accustomed to knowing more than those we watch. We see Michael Myers stalking his prey- don’t go out there! We know Clarice is talking to Buffalo Bill before she does, and we feel anxious for her. But by denying us the big picture, we are left with the same incomplete puzzle as the men onscreen, forced to play detective with a dearth of clues. One result of this is a simultaneous empathetic bonding yet gradual mistrust of the characters. Their confidence in each other is shaken; why shouldn’t ours be? Everyone seems to be telling the truth until their head separates from their dead body and crawls away on spider legs.
And what better way to ratchet up the tension than by keeping us always a step behind, running to catch up, confused as to which new piece of information is useful and which is pointless. This is life itself. The world exists in places we can’t see, can’t control. Frustrating, terrifying? Yes, perhaps. But also full of surprise and fascination.
I can’t watch The Thing without spotting something new, some vital tidbit that may hold the key to the whole mystery. Of course, more likely it’s a false lead, and I’m no closer to discovering the monster amongst us than anyone else in the group.
The thing is, like them I have my suspicions, but in the end I just don’t know.
I love that.
See Stephanie’s review here.