As certain factions speculate that the world is headed toward a new Cold War, Mark Farnsworth examines the artistic legacy of this phenomenon.
“The Thing” is the darkest film in the Kurt Russell trilogy of Carpenter’s science fiction films and the beginning of his “Apocalypse” cycle. It is a master class of pessimism nearly unrivalled in cinema and a bleak critique on the nature of humanity itself, inspired by the Reagan administration, Carpenter’s first foray into studio film making, and the escalation of the arms race with the Soviet Union.
The plot is more closely related to John W. Campbell’s novella; “Who Goes There?” than the earlier Hawks production of “The Thing from another World.” Special effects allow the shape-shifting alien to be realised in all its bloody glory, which in turn gives Carpenter the freedom to develop a claustrophobic atmosphere of mistrust, fear, and growing nihilism.
In the earlier movie the scientists and soldiers work together to destroy the visible threat of the thing, as they would do with communism. There is a unity mostly derived from the fact that they are white and embody a people fresh from the moral victory in WW2. America in the 1950s was still perceived as the ‘good guys’, the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’.
With Carpenter’s creature everyone could be the thing and, as a consequence, an enemy. The group are less bound by rules, they are insubordinate, and have no clear rank structure or respect for elders. They are more ethnically diverse and class lines are less formulated.
They represent an America less sure of itself after the moral defeat in Vietnam, where they turned from liberators to tyrants. Carpenter reflects the America of vast social and racial difference, the alarming decline of the inner cities, and the increasingly high crime rate.
It is little wonder then that at the heart of the team’s descent into collective paranoia that the unofficial leader becomes Kurt Russell’s helicopter pilot, R.J. MacReady. Mac is part Eastwood and part Wayne and harkeans back to a time when a single man could make a difference. He is respected because as a pilot he is a man of action, but is also a man of learning. He plays chess against a machine but can outwit it with a highly illogical move (pouring bourbon into the hard drive) just.
He will go up against the Thing in a similar fashion, by destroying the compound and dooming himself and his colleague Childs. He also gives Childs a swig of alcohol at this point, covering his bases, just in case Childs is also infected by the Thing. This will lower his body heat and bring death on quicker in the freezing conditions.
A bit more like Eastwood than Wayne, Mac doesn’t have the unwavering support of the entire group. It is Keith David’s Childs that begins to challenge Mac’s anti-hero authority, emerging from the background to become a major character as the film develops.
Childs refuses to be sidelined as other black sidekicks have been in other genre films: doomed to meet a heroic death in defending their white partner/master. He is no sidekick but a credible alternative to Mac; a forerunner of characters played by Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, and Will Smith.
“The Thing” is Carpenter’s darkest moment and perhaps his best. He is unhindered by a love interest, revels in his material, and is aided by the late Stan Winston’s surreal special effects.
The most frightening moments of the movie are the most human. Sitting amongst the flaming ruins of the compound with freezing to death a near certainty, Childs says: “How will we make it?” to which Mac replies: “Maybe we shouldn’t.”
Under the threat of nuclear war in the early 80s this statement chills to the bone.