40 years later, “The Thing” still has something to say

1982 was a big year for sci-fi movies: tron, HEY., Star Trek II: The Khan’s Wrath, blade runner, and The thing all came out the same summer. While the merits of some were immediately recognized, The thingThe reputation of seems to have transformed the most, in the way cult hits tend to: poorly received at the time, now considered a classic, with re-screenings, novels and comics, park themed (okay, this one may be an outlier) and a prequel/reboot. Forty years later, John Carpenter’s achievement lies not just in the viscerally grotesque nature of the film’s practical effects and timeless premise, but also in his use of thematic subtext that only enriches the narrative.

The thing begins in the cold Antarctic desert, where the inhabitants of the US National Science Institute, Station 4, are killing time. The crew’s helicopter pilot, MacReady (Kurt Russell), plays chess against a computer. Two of the station’s doctors, Copper and Blair (Richard Dysart and Wilford Brimley, respectively), play table tennis in the game room while the rest of the team lounges. Meanwhile, an alien dressed as a husky runs through the snow, chased by a Norwegian helicopter. The central vanity, and The thingThe main appeal of as a sci-fi/horror work is the titular alien’s ability to shapeshift. It “assimilates” itself, taking the DNA of its host and reproducing it. The discord and distrust this sows within the team drives the film to its explosive conclusion. And while The thingas a creature and as a movie, works as a metaphorical stand-in for many things, like paranoia and fear, or an abstract illustration of Cold War tension, one of its most powerful interpretations is as an indicator of racism.

The characters Nauls and Childs, played by TK Carter and Keith David respectively, present two different representations of a black stereotype. The former is introduced as a wise, talkative cook who glides through the halls of Station 4 on roller skates. Apparently, actor Franklin Ajaye first read for the role and criticized John Carpenter for how Nauls was derived as a black character. By contrast, Childs, a mechanic, is an ostensibly less flamboyant take because his character, written as a pragmatic problem solver, is far more integral to the plot, and because David is a more adept performer.

A lot of The thingThe tension of plays out quietly in furtive glances and searching squints, but a racial paranoia lurks beneath the surface. The crew quickly fractures, each member distrusting the other, with colder derision directed at Childs and Nauls. The question is whether it is simply the result of fear or something buried deeper. It’s certainly true that you could place just about any heavy social evil in the metaphorical space of the alien. Some of the most meaningful and enduring stories offer parallel interpretations that don’t rely too specifically on a thematic aspect. This is usually the reason why gender fare is the chosen vehicle for this. But The thing opens up to this specific reading not just because of the demographics of its cast, but in the context of its source material.

The thing operates at two levels of adaptation: the 1951 film The thing from another world, which was itself a free adaptation of a 1938 short story entitled “Who goes there? written by John W. Campbell. As well as being a foundational modern science fiction writer, Campbell was an outspoken racist. Friend and fellow author Joe Green said: “[Campbell] pointed out that the much-maligned “peculiar institution” of slavery in the American South had in fact provided the Negroes brought there with a higher standard of living than they had in Africa…” The novel by science fiction author Samuel R. Delaney Nova was rejected by Campbell, who cited the inclusion of a black protagonist as having no connection to his readership. Campbell also wrote numerous editorials. From “Segregation” (1963): “The Caucasian race has produced super-geniuses by the dozens during the last five thousand years; the Oriental race has them too. The black race has not.

In the second half of the 1982 film, a desperate need for some sort of human/non-human test is established. It is no longer enough to trust your eyes and ears. The sensory world is forcibly abandoned and they have already been deceived; they have to search deeper. After one of the scientists, Windows, is chosen to work on such a test, he is almost immediately killed by the creature. MacReady, newly in command, is left in the searing darkness to fend for himself, with any attempts at methodical elimination averted. The result is some sort of crude blood test: a bound suspect, a severed finger, blood exposed to a hot wire. Since the alien has demonstrated that he can and will do anything to protect himself, with unsettling command over nearly every component of his body, the remaining crew assume his blood will react in some visible way.

While Carpenter acknowledges in the film’s commentary that the ongoing AIDS epidemic and the need for blood tests have provided a thoroughly modern subtext, blood has a long and storied history of use as a charged symbol. of heritage and personality, from medieval notions of the essence of life to Rules at a drop from the Jim Crow era. As Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields elucidate in their book Racecraft, “…metaphorical blood can dispense with the moving parts of natural blood and has always had everything to do with human groups…It can consecrate and purify; it can also profane and pollute. It can define a community and control its boundaries.

In The thing, the pilot-commander MacReady is probably the last survivor. The crew were all killed by the creature and the camp was destroyed. MacReady stumbles through the smoking rubble of the station, wrapped in a blanket, alcohol in hand. Childs, presumed dead after abandoning his guard post inside the station earlier, reveals himself just as MacReady sits down. The two men are seated opposite each other, faces changing in the shadows. MacReady hands his bottle to Childs, smiling slightly.

Carpenter cuts The thingso the audience can’t confidently assume where either man is from and therefore whether they’re still human. MacReady seems to materialize, as does Childs. It’s often a trap to read what in this situation comes across as a stark racial dichotomy, though Carpenter makes it hard not to do so here. One of the reasons it works so well is that in the absence of any overt thematic guidance, basically, The thing strives to illustrate the destabilization of the body and the destabilization of identity at its very core through mutilation, injury, mimicry and primal despair. Carpenter remarked that paranoia was the glue that held the film together, but it was also the literal and metaphorical malleability of the alien and the levity of Carpenter.

Repeated efforts since 1982 to produce a sequel finally resulted in the 2011 film, also called The thing. There is no suspense left from the original. The 2011 film is a prequel that ends where Carpenter begins, with the alien in dog guise and a boring cast of characters whose fates are even more hopelessly assured than that of the original. There’s nothing uncomfortable about the prequel and you can’t read anything significant in it, a normally uncontroversial aspect of many films that nevertheless has no good reason to apply here. 1982 The thing succeeds in part because, although you don’t have to look any deeper, its elements move around and allow you to do so, a new view from every angle.

Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music and The Point, among other publications.

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