1. The Thing (1982) – Dir. John Carpenter

the thing coverJohn Carpenter’s 1982 remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (1951) resides today as a somewhat unique entry into cinematic canon: a ‘remake’ that can legitimately claim to match (and indeed, it is suggested, surpass) its parent in its portrayal of human isolation, suspicion and alien usurpation of the human being. It could, however, just as readily be argued that they are two different texts from two eras with varying agendas and that the comparison is of little value; therefore no continuous comparative study will be attempted here, but regardless, this is a notable claim of the text – a effective and powerful remake of an already important science fiction text. What Carpenter’s text accomplishes is a fitting homage to Hawks’ original whilst taking its core ideas and fashioning a new, incisive and important text which needs no reference point to its ‘mother’ work to cement its meaning.

Set in a remote U.S Antarctic research base, the narrative focuses upon a group of immediately incompatible individuals living and working in an isolated environment and in total detachment from any sense of ‘humanity’, actual or metaphorical. From the first frames where the text’s protagonists are established, the tone is solemn, distant and remote: voices are hushed and excitement is purposefully limited – establishing an immediate sense of disquiet between ‘reading’ audience and cinematic world. And Carpenter’s use of his characters is fundamental to his film’s sensibilities and its themes.

To begin with, his characters are temporal and synchronic – we learn nothing significant or particularly interesting of their professions or vocations (other than references to their basic functionality in the base – doctors and security chiefs etc), their histories or their futures. They have no family, no cause and no apparent motivation in a traditional cause-effect-narrative sense; their specific purpose for being is not even immediately apparent other than they, like the audience, are present and will be participants in what will follow. This in itself establishes a fraught and vacuous nature to the narrative with Carpenter actively seeking to hold his audience at arms’ length from his protagonists through any lack connectivity to their cause or emotions. It is difficult – almost impossible – to become attached or form ‘textual’ bonds with them when so little is offered as means of anchorage. Compare this character establishment to many ‘star’ or character-driven narratives which classically offer undeniable cause or personal urgency to their protagonists: In Ridley Scott’s spectacular Gladiator (1999) for example Russell Crowe’s character is given powerful motivation through the trauma of his family’s murder whilst the vast canon of ‘Classical’ Hollywood productions like John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) revolve around the personal crises of their ‘star’ centrepiece – John Wayne in the case of Ford’s text. Carpenter’s text belligerently ignores such logic in its presentation of not only ‘anti-heroes’ but moreover, ‘non-characters’; individuals constructed with the express purpose of denying information to the viewer.

Even the one relative ‘star’ addition to the cast in The Thing – Kurt Russell – is introduced to the viewer as belligerent, short-fused drunk – losing poorly to a computerised chess game and spending much of his early on-screen time in less than blissful isolation from his colleagues. The rest of the ensemble cast occupy the early minutes of the narrative morosely playing cards and pool in a sombrely lit recreation room and rarely stray beyond these boundaries; conversations are muted and charisma is a negligible. So with these initial sequences we, the audience, find our ‘heroes’: little to root for in the traditional Hollywood convention; no great mission or agenda; no specific purpose or defined characteristics. Therein, however, lies the brilliance of Carpenter’s narrative: it is cold emotionally and stylistically; featuring characters who reside in claustrophobic space and mise-en-scene that offers no warmth or solace for the viewer. Whether we wish to or not, we are immersed amongst these individuals and their constricting world and must infer and share in their diminished perceptions and their paranoia. There will be no hero to root for in this text; no beacon of safety or visual harbour for the audience to take refuge in. Cold, lifeless ice and snow are the only boundaries of the ‘world’ of these characters, and our protagonists will share our trepidations and ambivalence, never transcending expectation or asking us to suspend our disbelief at their superhuman feats of altruism.

Carpenter’s greatest feat in this text is to take this set of almost ‘vacant’ personalities and rapidly displace them into a climate of utter fear and introspection; and seldom has a science-fiction narrative achieved this so powerfully and with such swiftness – the film-maker aided by the absence of any need to provide character exposition or development. Carpenter’s primary method of achieving this descent into terror though, lies in his subtle but crucial combination of disquieting moments twinned with outrageous cinematic violence.

The Thing has been remembered primarily it seems for the set pieces of ostentatious animal and human mutilation as the alien creature infests and attempts to modify the genes of other life-forms in order to replicate them. No doubt, the Rob Bottin-led visual effects are spectacular, groundbreaking and utterly repulsive – crafted with such love and attention that they resulted in their chief creator suffering from exhaustion upon their completion – but it is their juxtaposition with the sinister moments of silence and eerie calm that achieve the film’s overriding sense brooding malevolence. The segments where we encounter characters alone bring some of the most memorable and chilling moments to the narrative and are the sequences that live longest in the memory after repeated viewings.  They are the lulls between the visual carnage on display and add vital depth and pause for consideration and conjecture; narrative ‘time’ that the viewer requires in order process events and, furthermore, anticipate what may follow.

The very fact that we are ostensibly not dealing with what could be termed ‘rounded’ characters in a narratological sense only lends these sequences more intrigue through disconcertion. The viewer understands little of their protagonists’ personalities other than vague traits and loose impressions provided, and this allows the audience to independently fashion their own perceptions and suppositions as to their authenticity as the alien takes control of them one at a time. Had Carpenter developed his characters further in a more orthodox fashion the audience would have a greater amount of information by which to ascertain flaws and differences in them and therefore ‘play’ detective more effectively. Instead, Carpenter wants us confused and uncertain and uses dashing periods of disquiet to enhance this sensibility.

One of the most sinister examples of this occurs early on after the ‘dog’ is brought into the station following the opening melee with the Norwegian’s. Left to roam the station – this again suggesting a melancholy within the personnel of the station who initially seem unconcerned by unfolding events – the camera tracks the rogue, suspect animal as it wanders purposefully through the labyrinthine corridors of the station apparently seeking a new victim (the audience are much more aware than our protagonists at this point; crucially building suspense). Steadily and unashamedly the camera tracks the dog carefully making its way through the walkways of station; there is no pensive soundtrack or deliberate tension created through non-diegetic means – Carpenter lets the pace of the animal dictate the sequence; its natural sense of purpose generating both anticipation and uncertainty in the audience – the angle of the camera intentionally kept at the height of the animal to position us near to it. This sequence culminates in the dog turning into an opened doorway where on the adjacent wall we see the silhouette of a figure which turns around to greet their unexpected visitor. The shot then dissolves to black before a prolonged cut gives way to the following scene. This is a very simple but powerful sequence which serves to sow the seeds of doubt amongst the viewer as to the identity of the ‘transformed’ individuals, mirroring the growing unease amongst the characters within the text. We are denied clarity and denied information with which to construct any ‘reading’ of events. In this scene we are provided so little information that the viewer may form an almost unlimited number of permutations from the given information. It is only later in the text when more events unfold that we may return to earlier images and perhaps begin to forge some solidity; along with other traits, The Thing successfully delivers elements of a ‘crime’ narrative.

the thing ice scene

Another defining feature of this text is in the absences that it deploys within the narrative to further isolate and alienate the viewer. There are huge crater-sized voids at the heart of the narrative that forge a message of wantonness and fear of ‘the other’; they unsettle, disrupt and fragment the course of event. As noted above, the protagonists are devoid of motivations that we typically identify within Hollywood texts; characterisation therefore can be said to be essentially ‘absent’ – this, one important gap that we must do without. Aligned with this, the visual environment – the mise en scene – is hollow and cool; largely bereft of any colour or vibrancy which the audience expects will populate a cinematic narrative. We fundamentally understand cinema as representation of our empirical world and texts which radically ignore or fail to conform to our notion of the ‘real’ cause disquiet and uncertainty. In The Thing – because of its setting – all that resides outside the station is a white emptiness and as well as it being non-conformist in a realist sense (we do not, even in the harshest winters, ever gaze upon such utter paucity of colour or cultural signifiers of western civilisation such as cars, buildings, trees etc) and this blankness serves as a means of spatially trapping and then framing the characters within their paranoid world, heightening narrative tension (this is exemplified through the recurring dialogue about them being unable to reach “shit” on their transmitter radio which culminates in Blair destroying said equipment to permanently render them disconnected from humanity). Even within the station where we might expect some reprieve there is no warmth; only a network of narrow, cluttered corridors and sparsely furnished rooms; simple functionality without personality or trace of human caprice (and a motif to be explored further in Alien).

When McReady and the Doc journey to investigate the Norwegian’s abandoned station (whom McReady persistently refers to as ‘Sweden’ even after being repeatedly corrected in another jesting intermittence which underpins a malcontent and ignorance at the heart of the text’s ‘hero’) all they discover of the alien creature is a huge hollow rectangular block where it once lay – more emptiness to be concise (and incidentally a nice nod to Hawks’ original film which used a similar visual signifier of the alien lifeform’s emergence). Later, they discover another huge recess fashioned from the ice nearby the abandoned space vessel, where the creature had been dug from (although this, befitting the text, is never explicitly confirmed or ratified) – yet more gaps and spaces with which to frantically populate with conjecture and supposition from the viewer. Even when we are provided with visual ‘confirmation’ of an alien entity in the form of the gruesome transformation scenes, such tangible evidence is still denied us in any satisfying way through their explicit representation of the incomplete and the partial. Critically, we never see the alien take control of its victims fully whilst on-screen – the process always disrupted and aborted due to interference, resulting in the hideous creations and mangled assemblages that have defined the text. The ‘successful’ transmogrifications, it must be extrapolated, occur off-screen – only emphasising the theme of textual absence and forcing the viewer to ask further questions of temporality, legitimacy and notions of ‘reality’.

To develop this point, the viewer never sees the creature in any defined or tangible form and, significantly, the text is no worse for this; an abject lesson for many modern film-makers in the age of computer generated excesses and hyperbole. There is effectively no ‘thing’ in an empirical sense like ‘the creature from the black lagoon’, ‘the Swamp thing’ or even ‘the thing’ in Hawks’ text which is manifested as a giant humanoid creature with claws. Carpenter compensates for this absence through his caustic mixture of narrative spaces and moments of ludicrous visual abhorrence. As the narrative progresses the viewer is left wondering if they will ever see the creature and from what dark corner it will emerge in its true form. But this is not the point of Carpenter’s text. No such speculative creature exists to frighten us. Carpenter does not need to show us his monster because the ‘monster’ – the threat – is inside each of his characters – and by extension, inside us the audience. This text is about fear: fear of the other, fear of isolation and fear of human weaknesses under intense pressures. Carpenter constructs a scenario where he contrives to place his characters where he can test their weaknesses to the maximum. A true example of the potential of science fiction as a mode of expressing the irrational and the unquantifiable: human frailty transposed into speculative realms where reality is suspended and the extraordinary wreaks havoc.

Whilst championing the brilliance of the text it is only fair to also note some instances of weakness which hamper The Thing. One most notable example of such is during the denouement of the narrative where Carpenter’s accumulated latent fear erupts into an action-centred end sequence – a release of pent-up energy that literally ignites the text as fire rages through erstwhile whiteness. Upon discovering that the isolated ‘doc’ Blair – placed in the storage room after running amok and attacking his colleagues – has been digested and transformed by the creature and has fashioned a ship from stolen parts (a nice touch where various fragments of plot from throughout the earlier text such as the ransacked helicopter are united and reconciled neatly), McReady and the other survivors decide that in order to stop the alien lifeform hibernating again and being transported into the human population, they must destroy the station thus killing themselves but, in the process, the creature too. This development feels slightly contrived within the context of the narrative and ill-fitted to the viewers’ understanding of the protagonists. Thus far they have shown little interest in anything other than their own longevity – reduced to Darwinist principals of survival and adaptation (another important idea that the text explores through the concept of the alien ‘adapting’ other life forms in order to multiply and propagate its own future; survival is centrifugal to this text’s meaning) – but in order to conclude the text, Carpenter has them perform a somewhat awkward volte-face so that they suddenly appear to have become altruists with the good of humanity paramount in their thoughts. This plot-point escalades into a fairly pedestrian and uninspiring scene in the basement of the station where McReady – now clearly elevated to defacto ‘hero’ status – confronts a giant version of the monster; perhaps the closest we get to seeing it in its ‘true’ form. The scene is big, loud and disjointed with the rest of the narrative; feeling very symptomatic of an emerging ‘Hollywood’ trait in that it attempts to bridge some intangible generic gap between sf and action (an amalgamation that would be bettered during the 1980s by James Cameron in The Terminator and Aliens) but betraying the textual currency that the director and his cast had worked hard to establish in the preceding hour-and-a-half. Fortunately, this boorish climax is brief and is redeemed when, in the aftermath of destroying the creature with dynamite, Childs – McCready’s brooding rival for command throughout (played well by an irritable Keith David) – appears from the wreckage. This is a clever development as, during the sequence leading up to the denouement, Childs discreetly disappears from the narrative (almost unnoticed on first viewing due to the well choreographed entrance and exit of the various members of the ensemble cast – gradually diminishing as they are picked-off one by one) and only now returns from the gloom to confront the only other left. Again, the audience are abandoned to question the validity of his reappearance and his felicity. This emergence sets-up a final strained conversation between the two who share a drink and accept that soon the temperature will drop and they will both perish whilst hinting at the fact that either one could be infected and that they will have to simply wait and see what will happen. A disdainful, cryptic and fitting final exchange which alludes to so much of what has passed in the narrative. The foreboding bass strings from the text’s opening reappear and the screen fades to black.

This intelligent and carefully measured closing underpins the strongest element of the text; the method by which Carpenter positions the viewer in exactly the same place as the characters; forcing them to share the same mental and physical space and ensuring that they are just as uncertain and mistrusting as the individuals on the screen. We are suspicious of everyone and every character’s absence from the screen creates doubt as to their legitimacy and authenticity. In his second sf outing of the 1980s (The Thing following closely after Carpenter’s 1981 thrifty dystopian Escape From New York; a grisly, vision of the city’s decent into dilapidation) Carpenter brilliantly plays with the conventions of cinema by distorting the boundaries between ‘film’ time and ‘screen’ time. In The Thing we can no longer accept absence from screen as merely dynamic shifts between spaces and places as a convention of the medium where ‘cuts’ merely manoeuvre us around the action. The processes of prolepsis and continuity editing become dubious as we become suspicious of absences from the screen just as the characters become wary of absences amongst themselves within the narrative. We share the same temporal space as our constructed characters in a masterstroke of suspenseful and unnerving cinema. When we do not see a character for a period we begin to question where they have been and what has befallen them, just as we witness the characters in the narrative question and accuse.

The Thing sits amongst a scant canon of texts that show the human form at its weakest and most vulnerable and succeeds in creating a claustrophobic and poisonous atmosphere with which to populate the neuroses of both its characters and the audience. It is a truly unique and brave ‘alien invasion’ text which has yet to be bettered on film and, with an ever burgeoning trend towards visual spectacle at the expense of subtlety, appears likely to hold this accolade for some time yet. What became of The Thing’s director is a sadder tale. From a film-maker that pioneered claustrophobic, ‘realist’ cinema during the 1970s and early 80s (including the student-film-turned-independent-release Dark Star [1974], tense, stake-out thriller Assault On Precinct 13 [1976] and genre-establishing ‘slasher’ horror Halloween [1978]), Carpenter was unable to locate the same ingredients in his later works. Much of the rest of his career is populated by sub-par work that pales in comparison to his early years and the brilliance of The Thing.

 

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