The Thing

The Thing ★★★★

Part of Hoop-Tober

“Why don’t we just...wait here for a little while...see what happens."

The cold. That was the first thing he noticed. It wasn’t your usual winter chill. It was bone deep. It’s a wonder the heart kept pumping.

Not far behind was the desolation. Miles and miles of white, whiter than an antebellum cotillion. It was a desert—literally, of course, but also existentially. Isolation wasn’t a strong enough word. More like...abandonment.

Over time, though, the cold and the solitude became bearable. You can become used to nearly any climate if you give it time and a bottle of whiskey. The sense of otherness dissipates, and with it the fear. Of course, familiarity brings with it the bedfellow of contempt. The less you know, the more filled with anxiety—the more you know, the more filled with hatred. A classic win-win scenario, he thought.

So he would sip on his bottle—no point in the decorum of a highball, or even a flask, in this Godforsaken outpost. Play a little Chess Wizard. Grow out his beard. Not much else to do as a helicopter pilot in Antarctica but...wait.

The brilliance of John Carpenter’s The Thing begins with its landscape. Forbidding, hostile, haunting—the Antarctic setting is, not unlike the rural plains of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, uncommonly terrifying because of its wide-open peacefulness. In its openness, it offers no shelter, no place to hide; in its barrenness, it offers no hope of rescue; in its spareness, it offers no relief from its perversely claustrophobic confines.

The Thing is often described as a horror/sci-fi hybrid, and that is undoubtedly accurate, but much of its power comes from a third generic strain—the Western. Setting up his group of macho men at a remote settlement in an unfriendly, unexplored frontier, Carpenter takes the quintessential elements of the Western (they even have a de facto saloon, complete with pool table, jukebox, and poker game) and introduces an alien and an insidiously reasonable paranoia. With no idea what they're fighting, the men are terrified, but the more they learn about their ever-transmogrifying threat, the more suspicious and spiteful they become. With no one to trust and no savior likely to ride into town, Hell is found both in other people and in the absence thereof.

R.J. “Mac” MacReady (Kurt Russell) is John Wayne: laconic, pragmatic, unemotional, sporting a cowboy hat. But he is John Wayne for the Cold War era. He is terse and hides no heart of gold beneath his rough exterior. He looks out for himself; if the rest of the posse can survive with him, so be it, but it’s not his utmost concern. He feels less like a hero we can trust and more like a man we must follow by virtue of a competency superior to his counterparts. Little hope is to be found in the tundra.

Carpenter’s deliberate pacing and emphasis on the lack of escape steadily ratchet the tension, a feeling of cabin fever simmering, then boiling, not only in the dwindling American research team but also within the audience. Supported by Ennio Morricone’s unobtrusively brilliant score (toning down Carpenter’s preference for synthesizers with a dread-inducing orchestral stabilizer) and Dean Cundey’s dark cinematography, Carpenter is frequently ingenious with his subtlety—the initial agent of chaos, a lovely Malamute, wanders the base’s hallways quietly; a block of ice at the abandoned Norwegian station obliquely indicates a terrifying discovery; hot wires dipped in blood, petri dish by petri dish, finding nothing. That Carpenter punctuates these long passages with startling violence (the creature’s explosive, grotesque mutations; a man burning to death in the snow) makes their impact all the greater.

If there were a minor complaint to be had, it is that there is perhaps too intent a focus on the (admittedly striking) effects work of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston. The paramount source of the alien’s terror comes from its inherent deception. It can look like anyone at any time, making trust and camaraderie a luxury no one can afford and opening up the possibility of a threat lurking literally anywhere within plain sight. This, combined with the timeless lessons of Alien and Jaws, might have pointed to a less creature-focused approach than Carpenter uses. The suspense is great—the blood-and-wire test scene is a rightful classic, and an object lesson in the judicious use of effects—but perhaps could have been even greater with more left to the imagination.

Eventually the only refuge from the unremitting cold is fire, man’s first great invention. The repeated vistas of fire amid a frozen hellscape emphasize the neither-here-nor-there predicament of MacReady and his team. They cannot leave, but they cannot stay. They cannot trust each other, but they cannot abandon each other. The obsession with fire recalls madness and pyromania, but also a sensible desire for purity. It is, if not a pleasure to burn, at least not a displeasure. So burn they will. Burn until there’s nothing left. And then? Not much else to do as a helicopter pilot in Antarctica but...wait.

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