In 1982, the cinema was invaded by an ugly alien creature from another galaxy: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Moviegoers fell in love with Steven Spielberg’s charming creation, and it quickly became one of the most celebrated family films of all time. However, on the same year, the earth was visited by another, less cuddly alien being, a shape-shifting monster called simply: The Thing. Director John Carpenter had already wowed horror fans with Halloween, The Fog and Escape From New York, but The Thing is something wholly different; it’s an unflinching, remorseless bastard of a film, darkly intense and totally nihilistic. Oddly enough, it did not warm the hearts of moviegoers, but over time it became widely acknowledged as one of the greatest horror films of all time. In my opinion it is the greatest, as it perfectly captures the sense of terror and paranoia, while simultaneously piling on the gore and the goo with such gusto as to portray a deep affection of the genre.
The premise is pleasingly simple; a group of American’s in an Antarctic research station are shocked out of their comfortable boredom when a Norwegian helicopter arrives, manned by two hysterical individuals who appear to be firing upon an Alaskan Malamute. One of the Norwegian’s accidently sets off an explosive charge, killing himself and destroying the helicopter, meanwhile his friend continues to fire upon the dog, unintentionally clipping one of the Americans. Seeing this supposed insanity, the station commander takes matters into his own hands; he shoots the Norwegian, regrettably killing the man.
Attempting to make sense of the chaos, The doctor, Copper, decides to investigate the Norwegian camp, along with the reluctant helicopter pilot- and protagonist of the film- R.J. MacReady . It’s a deliciously down played and dead pan set up, and nothing feels forced or “filmic” at any point. The characters act realistically, and their relationships are believable. These guys have known each other for a long time, there’s a certain amount of playful banter but you get this feeling that they’re all slightly irritable and itching to get home. MacReady, played by Kurt Russell, is perfectly introduced as a sore loser, casually destroying his computer for beating him at chess. This tells you everything you need to know about the man; he’s not a hero, he’s not out to save the world, he’s just a normal guy, cool as ice and incredibly competitive. All throughout the film, MacReady’s will to survive stems from this defiance and arrogance, which comes into play at the resolution of the film, suggesting he’s a changed man, perhaps having learned to lose gracefully (or perhaps just literally changed).
The Thing is a fantastic, self-contained film with no illusions of grandeur but nevertheless capable of a rich mythology. The shape-shifting creature is never seen in its true form, and it’s implied the alien craft it landed on belonged to something else entirely. The Thing transforms into ungodly monsters, which are in fact forms that it had assimilated in the past, therefore implying that the universe is rich with nightmarish beasts. This conclusion is made all the more nihilistic by the comparison with the Thing and the blue-collar workers in the base.
These are humans, flawed, weak, paranoid and aggressive. Unable to cooperate in an intense situation, something that the vastly superior alien takes full advantage of. After all, what good is all our technology, our society and the rules we create to govern ourselves, when confronted with something so utterly different, that doesn’t play by the same rules.
While most horror movies end with a cheap scare, some evidence that the monster survived, or the unexpected killing of the protagonist, The Thing’s conclusion is far more nihilistic, on a far bigger scale. It is not simply saying “the monster survived”, it’s demonstrating our insignificance, the happy fluke of our species survival, and how ultimately, faced with the vast, indifferent, alien universe, we’re fucked.