A Look Back at ‘The Thing’

The Thing

The Thing

When released on June 25th, 1982, director John Carpenter’s The Thing made a little bit of noise with critics, but did little else to make a name for itself. That little bit of noise was not even positive however, as critical consensus was that the film gave away too much and yet harbored very little. Packed with gore effects of a quality that made even the most hateful reviewers concede to their brilliance, it was nevertheless those very effects which caused those reviewers to look upon the film with disdain and disgust. Since its lousy release, though, The Thing has slowly become more critically renowned and is a prideful source of entertainment and reverence for many horror and sci-fi audiences. It proves that in some cases, like some people, some films are simply made outside of their times.

The Thing (1982) is a quasi-remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks film The Thing from Another World, but is more so, as claimed by Carpenter himself, an aspirant adaptation of their source material, which is the short story titled “Who Goes There?” (1938) by writer John W. Campbell Jr. Hawks’ version had long since been revered by fans and critics alike when Carpenter’s film was made, and by that very token could have ostensibly doomed any hopes that Carpenter might have had about making his film more successful on all levels. But Carpenter himself is an admitted fanatic of Hawks’ film, with Howard Hawks being one of his favorite directors of all time. So then, why do a remake? Carpenter’s version, written by screenwriter Bill Lancaster, is unlike Hawks’ in that the thing itself (i.e. the monster/alien) is not a man in a suite parading around like an alien (Hawks) but is actually as it is described in Campbell’s story; an organism that possesses the ability to occupy and imitate life forms of any shape and size (Billson, p.14-16). This differentiation in the makeup (that is, the physical and philosophical makeup) of the alien being is what Carpenter hoped would make his film much more frightening.

There are other differences between the two versions that are imperative to mention in order to explain the failure of Carpenter’s film. Aside from the monster/alien, the endings of the two films are completely different. Hawks’ version, whether by intentional design or because of censorship restrictions due to the Hays code, ends with the alien falling at the hands of the protagonist with mankind standing triumphant in defense of the planet. Carpenter’s version is much more grim as the monster, though supposedly destroyed, is not confirmed beyond a doubt to be dead, while the two surviving protagonists are last seen clinging to their last warm breathes while waiting for some rescue team that we never see come. Obviously, the differences in the films’ conclusions severely alter their respective overall tones. Hawks’ provides a message that no matter what the foe mankind has the ability and resolve to defeat it, while Carpenter warns us that what may or may not come down from the sky might not be something that humankind can defend against.

The other prominent difference between Hawks’ and Carpenter’s films is the decision by Carpenter to augment the impression of paranoia. Hawks’ film contains elements of this, but in true Hawksian fashion the story teeters more closely toward resembling the men-banding-together-against-a-common-enemy type of attitude. This reverts back to the differentiations in tone. Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the paranoia in The Thing derives from the inability to tell whether someone is real or an imitation/alien. This can be read in many different ways, the most common of which include anti-authoritarianism, anticommunism, and the fear of disease (possibly AIDS). So because Carpenter stresses this angle so much more, his film is much less up-beat than Hawks’ original and, as it turned out, far less optimistic than American audiences wanted in 1982.

Perhaps the most important factor of all in determining the lack of success of The Thing (1982) is its precise release date. It opened in theaters only three weeks after the release of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, which went on to delight audiences with its teddy-bear like alien protagonist and become at its time the most profitable movie ever made. In terms of box-office success, The Thing never had a snowball’s chance in hell. But it was not just the happenstance of having to compete with the Spielberg juggernaut that spurned its failure, although that is probably the biggest reason. The prevailing mood of American culture was not compatible with The Thing due to, as argued by critic Anne Billson, the established political philosophies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher that generated “an upwardly-mobile optimism in the air,” which of course starkly contrasts with the ironic and cynical persona of Carpenter’s film. This helps explain the critical excommunication, at least in part (Billson, p.10).

Critics at the time were (and arguably have always been) against the rash of slasher flicks that plagued theater screens since, ironically enough, the success of Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) (which, ironically again, allowed Carpenter to gain the confidence from Universal for a multi-million dollar budget). Scorned for their excess violence and gore in replacement of tension and character development, slasher products created, or at least intensified a bad taste in critics’ mouths about gore in general. So then, The Thing, which incorporated groundbreaking gore effects and a minimal amount of characterization, would look like a movie setting itself up for target practice for these critics who were so eager to dismiss and ridicule at the first sight of blood. Moria: Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy Film Review endorses the film, but admits that “in some ways [The Thing] is not a great deal different from Friday the 13th (1980) and its sequels and imitators – a bunch of faceless victims and a series of novelty gore dispatches.” Most critics made the same distinction. Variety magazine stated, “If it’s the most vividly gruesome monster ever to stalk the screen that audiences crave, then The Thing is the thing. On all other levels, however, John Carpenter’s remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 sci-fi classic comes as a letdown.” Roger Ebert said that “The Thing is a great barf-bag movie, all right, but is it any good? I found it disappointing, for two reasons: the superficial characterizations and the implausible behavior of the scientists on that icy outpost. Characters have never been Carpenter’s strong point; he says he likes his movies to create emotions in his audiences, and I guess he’d rather see us jump six inches than get involved in the personalities of his characters.” But despite this claim, Ebert goes on to conclude “there’s no need to see this version unless you are interested in what the Thing might look like while starting from anonymous greasy organs extruding giant crab legs and transmuting itself into a dog. Amazingly, I’ll bet that thousands, if not millions, of moviegoers are interested in seeing just that.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby expressed his abjuration in succinct but harsh words, saying “John Carpenter’s The Thing is a foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is fun as neither one thing nor the other. Sometimes it looks as if it aspired to be the quintessential moron movie of the 80′s – a virtually story-less feature composed of lots of laboratory-concocted special effects, with the actors used merely as props to be hacked, slashed, disemboweled and decapitated, finally to be eaten and then regurgitated as – guess what? – more laboratory-concocted special effects.” Many critics, like Canby and Ebert, also compared The Thing to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), glibly claiming there to be similarities in the utilization of the concept of confinement with an alien species. This idea, however, has since been given little attention for its oversimplification and, perhaps more precisely, lack of accuracy. Ironically or not, some critiques of Alien try to claim that it borrows from Carpenter’s Halloween regarding its use of the “violent killer stalking and killing victims one by one” formula.

Much has changed since 1982. Since then, The Thing has undergone critical reconsideration and adopted a cult fan base that continues to grow with the help of home videos and internet message boards. From grossing just under $14 million in box office revenues, the film has bounced back big in terms of its popularity. It ranks #97 on Rotten Tomatoes’ Journey Through Sci-Fi (100 Best-Reviewed Sci-Fi Movies), and the scene when Norris’ (Charles Hallahan) chest bursts open on an operating table is listed at #48 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments. thethingAnd at the time of this essay, the film is ranked #169 of the top 250 movies of all time in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Such a turnaround should most likely be attributed to the home video boom of the ’90s, but the fact that more copies of The Thing were seen and/or sold does not explain why this happened. It merely points to how. The “why” could possibly be explained by investigating the text of the film. Now that the context has been established and documented, it is important to look at the film now, as all films should be looked at when analyzed and evaluated: objectively. If noting the particular context of The Thing‘s release is at all important it should show that now, outside of its circumstance, is an appropriate time to do this.

A good place to start in analyzing The Thing‘s text is recognizing the philosophical questions it solicits. From these questions spawns much of the terror that the film generates. Billson identifies a few of these: Would I know if I were a monster? If an imitation is a perfect replication of its original, then what separates the two? At what point does someone turn from being themselves into an imitation? And why does an imitation have no right to live? All of these questions are/can be raised upon viewing the film, and arguably none of them are answerable – at least cleanly. To wonder if one’s self is already a monster is asking whether or not that person possesses the ability to identify themselves as a conscious being, whether that be a human or a monster. The fear that is extracted from the asking of that question is from the idea that the person asking it either currently identifies him/herself as human and is frightened at the idea of becoming something else, or he/she does not identify himself as human readily and is frightened of the uncertainty of being something else. It is the fear, in other words, of having one’s identity jeopardized. This reverts back to the paranoia of the Red Scare, which was much more pertinent at the time of Hawks’ film than Carpenters, but being that both branch from the same source material that was possibly written in response to the first Red Scare of the early twentieth century it is unfair to say that the 1982 version was able to avoid this even if it had wanted to. The fear of communism is hardly out of left field, however, as the Reagan era fought fiercely and publicly against it.

The question asking at what point a host becomes an imitation is much more weighted and complex. This is firstly because the question assumes that a person’s consciousness can be broken into more than one part or is comprised of parts that make up its whole, and secondly because it assumes that there is a percentage of those comprised parts that if controlled denotes the inexorable controlling of the rest of the whole of the consciousness. This question demands a problematic quantity of thought that could not possibly be begun and concluded here, but nevertheless its presence in the mind of the film’s viewership adds to the overall amount of fear.

The question of what separates an imitation from its original if that imitation is a perfect replication of it can perhaps be examined using a school of aesthetic theory, specifically a perspective on hyper-reality. Theorist Jean Baudrillard inspects an aspect of hyper-reality called simulacra, which relates rather strongly to the composition of the alien creature in The Thing. Baudrillard claims that in today’s world all reality has been replaced by simulations of reality by way of images and symbols. Every symbol and image that is created is in effect replacing the instances of reality they are made to represent/simulate. They form an abstraction that is “generated by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyper-real. It is a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself; A hyper-real henceforth sheltered from the imaginary, and from any distinction between the real and the imaginary, leaving room only for the orbital recurrence of models and the simulated generation of difference” (Precession of Simulacra; p.4). The horror concerning this idea is that it would be possible for a total overhaul; reality’s replacement by simulacra is/would be the downfall of reality, resulting in the replacement of its void with a hyper-reality that is disloyal and inauthentic towards its resulting relationship to its original, which becomes figurative at best. This fear can be directly correlated to that found in Carpenter’s The Thing, where the Antarctic scientists die trying to prevent the alien from repopulating the entire world with hyper-real imitations.

This leads into the final exemplary question of whether or not an imitation withholds the right to live. The simple answer, as suggested not so subtly by the film, is no. The reasons for this are perhaps the same as the reasons why reality being replaced by a hyper-reality would be dire. Simply put, it is not what we want. Anything that threatens man’s free will is automatically a threat to man himself. The alien imitates its hosts against their will, so it is then adversarial regardless if the imitation it assumes is exactly like its original in every way.

Reading The Thing‘s text and ignoring its reliance on visceral imagery seems almost insulting in a way, but doing so as just demonstrated is one way of maintaining the level of objectivity that should be honored when analyzing and judging. Focusing on the film’s gore is certainly fair game, and if this was a comprehensive textual analysis then it would undoubtedly be mandatory. However, not discussing it in relation to an investigation of the film’s intellectual worth is an attempt in veering from the path that so many critics took that led them to abhorring the film because of their personal tastes against profane screen violence. The anti-gore attitude of many critics and the general public at the time kept both those who saw The Thing and those who did not from giving the film the proper chance and credit it has shown to deserve. And now that we can watch the film outside of its context, it can be made perfectly clear just how worthy it is of the attentions of critics, scholars, and audiences alike.

Baudrillard, Jean. “Procession of Simulacra” (in Simulations). 1983. p.1-79

Billson, Anne. “The Thing” (BFI modern Classics), 1997. p. 1-91