Our Favorites: The Thing

Posted by : | November 6, 2013

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Even by the end of the movie it’s hard to tell.

the-thing-1982-movie-stream-i13And 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.

0533704_20643_MC_Tx304Neither do we.

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-Thing-1982The 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?

Um…maybe?

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.the-thing-1982-pic-41

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.

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.

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  1. Posted January 28, 2015 at 3:29 am | Permalink

    http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/watts_01_10/

    Check out this short story by Peter Watts, it’s a retelling of the movie from the point of view of the creature.

    • Patrick
      Posted January 29, 2015 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      Thanks for posting that link! Very cool perspective. Well thought-out and creative.

  2. Lisa
    Posted December 4, 2013 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    Great choice and great review. The creature didn’t scare me nearly as much as how the team’s trust for each other completely disintegrated into paranoia. Didn’t think SciFi was my thing, but this was really well done.

    • Patrick
      Posted December 4, 2013 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

      Glad you liked it! It’s slowly been making its way into Top Ten horror lists over the years, so hopefully more people will get around to seeing it. Plus, it has Kurt Russell. I mean, c’mon.

  3. Posted December 1, 2013 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    Nice analysis! Deaths of characters were rarely mourned. And Fuchs’ death was met with a “Great. Now what to we do?” Garry is the only one who shows some emotion when someone dies–namely his friend of 10 years, Bennings. (Do they even have any lines together?) But there’s no reason to shed a tear …because after all, “it isn’t Bennings”

    • Patrick
      Posted December 4, 2013 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think they ever say a word to each other. Not exactly a movie about personal relationships, is it?

  4. Allegra
    Posted November 23, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Good piece. I like how you manage to fit Jaws in too. There’s always a place for a shark in any SciFi (or SciFi review) nowadays.

  5. Timpaler
    Posted November 18, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Great picture of Mr. Russell with the flare. Great movie and I expect no less from Kurt. Even John Leguizamo and Halle Berry couldn’t ruin it for me

  6. Posted November 15, 2013 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    I’m looking forward to My Fair Lady.

    • Patrick
      Posted November 16, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      You caught that, did you? Ugh. Fair is fair I suppose…

  7. Stephanie
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I really like your point about being one step behind the action in this film. I think that’s why I liked it too. It’s almost like the movie does half the work of creating the tension and our minds do the rest. I wonder if more movies went this route and quit, like you said, tying up plots in perfect little bows, that we’d all become more sophisticated audience members and just say no to another Hangover movie? Or worse yet, movies that glorify the perpetual man-child like GrownUps2.

    • Patrick
      Posted November 12, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      There’s a place for both kinds of entertainment, but within the last 20 years this sort of story structure has been replaced by ones that offer more cheap thrills. That sells. Remember, this was a box office bomb. Not exactly something that would inspire studios to do more like it. The audience needs to pay to see stuff like this if we’re going to bring this style back.

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