by Adam Ferenz
June 25, 1982. 109 minutes. Written by Bill Lancaster, from the short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell. Directed by John Carpenter. Starring: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clenon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Donald Moffat, Richard Masure, Joe Polis and Thomas Waites.
John Carpenter’s adaptation of Who Goes There? is on the short list of best second takes ever. This gets called a remake, of the earlier film of the same name. I prefer to think of it as what it is, a new adaptation, because this bears little resemblance to the original, aside from some visual nods to that earlier film, chiefly a shot of the Americans investigating the crash site of the alien ship. Why is this a new adaptation, and not a remake? Why is this also not just a science fiction film, but a horror film, and why is it, in every way, a masterwork? I am glad you did not ask, but I am more than glad to tell you.
A remote American outpost in the Antarctic is beset by violence and suspicion after a Norwegian team chases a dog into the American camp, and are promptly shot, but not without raising questions about why they were chasing the dog, obviously desperate in trying to kill it. The answer comes quickly after the camp’s pilot, MacReady, goes with Dr. Cooper, to see what was happening at the Norwegian camp. They discover it in ruins, and a strange corpse inside, burned. Taking it back with them, it becomes apparent it is not exactly human. The dog, meanwhile, has been kenneled with the other dogs, and begins killing them, revealing itself as a shape-shifter. The men return to the Norwegian camp and discover the excavated remains of a downed alien craft, and evidence of a block of ice that had been hollowed out and thawed, apparently the source of the creature. Dr. Blair begins running estimates that the creature not only adapts to mimic other forms, but could take over the entire planet within a few years.
This causes paranoia to set in, as the men begin turning on one another, until MacReady is able to run a blood-serum test Cooper devised in order to determine who the creature is, among them, as it seems to be aware of every part of it, including blood, separate from the main body. With men dying off, the creature reveals itself during the test, taking a few more with it. The remaining men, MacReady, Nauls, Childs and Garry, attempt to blow up the creature, sacrificing themselves by burning down the base before the creature can create a new form and go into hibernation. Blair, who was kept in a shack, has been taken, and kills everyone except Childs and MacReady. Except, of course, that we, the audience, are uncertain if it is Childs or MacReady that we are looking at.
I do not know about you, but I always assumed that it was Childs who was The Thing, at the end of the film, based on his behavior and how MacReady responded to him. So, after that brief synopsis, what is the film really about? It is about fear, repression, guilt and the themes typically associated with the body horror genre. Unlike The Fly, this is not about sex. This is more about the body politic, and in that way more closely resembles an earlier cold war film, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Make no mistake, there are political allusions in the film, if one looks for them. These can just as easily be dismissed as basic survival horror tropes. Let us examine this a bit closer.
The film takes place in the then present day of 1982, which was only a year into the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Like any good survival horror, the film feeds on notions of trust or mistrust, same as the politics of the 1980s and preceding Cold War decades. Among the characters is a militant older man with a pistol, Garry, who is also the last onscreen victim of The Thing. So, what do we have? Other than a complex film with as much under the surface as a glacier?
We have a remote outpost, a group of scientists with a vaguely military feel to them, who begin to turn on one another as soon as an element of chaos is introduced. As in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, those we think we know may in fact be something dangerous, hiding the truth from us, for purposes too horrible to contemplate. This is the basic principle in most unintelligent treatments of sleeper agent stories. Garry, of course, serves as the “death” of militarism, showing that might does not in fact make right, and that will and the survival instinct always win in the end. We have people running purity tests to determine who is human. We have a creature that wants to survive but has no politics, no agenda, other than living.
This is a story of survival and how paranoia turns people against each other, how fear and anger cause destruction and chaos. There are scenes of men shouting at one another, of death and destruction, both physical and psychological, a breakdown of the society of the base. Yet none of this is as important as the driving theme of the loss of identity. Yet another science fiction film where the major theme is identity, in this case, what we are, rather than who.
The Thing is ultimately more than just the creature inside of those men. It is the fears they carry. It is the prejudices we all carry. It is fear and hatred and death. It is violence and change, chaos and consequence. It is random chance. The ship that crashes in the first frames of the film contains the monster that likely lurks within one of the two survivors, on a cold Antarctic night, centuries later. It ultimately doesn’t matter who is The Thing. The Thing has by this time become a symbol for the damage done because of mistrust.
All of this has of course ignored the fine acting by a stellar cast, with Brimley, Russell, Moffat and David especially memorable. The special effects remain highly effective, nearly thirty five years later, and the direction by John Carpenter keeps a viewer on edge throughout the film. The film maintains a level of tension and mystery, as well as interest that helps propel the audience along for the journey, as we get to know the men and their situation, and to watch as this community divides and falls. This is a film that creates a very lived in feeling within a short period of time. That it can be viewed as a cold war analogy, man v. nature, body horror and survival, among others, is part of the strength of the film. It is also easily deserving of the high rank it has.