Sunday, April 22, 2018

Where Were You, Childs?

The characters in John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), which my better half and I watched again recently, come across as a rather affectless lot. In the early part of the film they are wedded to their obscure work routine and their dreary entertainments - and is anything drearier than watching old game shows on VHS? None seem very interested in the alien remains that Macready and Copper discover at the Norwegian base; most just think they are gross. Few even show much curiosity when Macready and Norris find the alien space ship that the Norwegians blasted out of the ice. Stoner character Palmer even claims that UFOs don't surprise him in the least: "They're falling out of the sky like flies. Government knows all about it, right, Mac?...It's Chariots of the Gods."

After the dog Thing first manifests itself, however, the characters finally come alive, with a mixture of anger and terror. These intensify as Blair and the others uncover the Thing's doppelganger powers, its ability to imitate Earth organisms (including humans), perfectly. The claustrophobic research station, shut in by an Antarctic storm and Blair's sabotage, turns into an emotional lens, intensifying the characters' disaffection and turning them upon and against one another. Eventually paranoia makes everyone at the station into an adversary. The question "Who's the Thing?" (or "a Thing") becomes less meaningful after the de facto leader, Macready, makes it clear he'll kill everyone rather than let the alien intruder infect the world. With humans like these, who needs alien enemies? What's the point of being human if everyone in your "human" community is on the verge of killing one another?

In the end, the aliens and humans do end up killing one another, or at least dooming one another to die. In the final scene, one much discussed by sci-fi fans, Childs finds Macready outside the burning ruins of the station, giving him a half-credible story about seeing Blair and pursuing him into the storm. Macready suggests that it no longer matters if one or the other of them had become an alien. He offers Childs a drink. I think this scene works best if we don't try to figure out "Which one of the survivors was really a Thing?" Instead, it is a moment, ironically, of restored humanity. The Thing's characters become most vivid when they are least human: shredded and violated by alien possessors, or filled with terror and ready to kill anyone. Conversely, when the station crew members are preoccupied with boring tasks and pastimes, they are most human, most capable of peacefully coexisting with one another. In sharing a drink and waiting for the storm to freeze them, Childs and Macready are making themselves dull, blurring their characters' rough and angry edges, restoring their human-ness just before equalizing themselves in death. Maybe we are at our most human when we seem half-dead, when we are watching three-year-old episodes of The Price Is Right. God, this is a horror story, isn't it?


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