The Thing

un film de John Carpenter (1982)

[lien IMDb]

'If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?'

Cette critique examine les aspects technologiques et anthropologiques du coup de maître de John Carpenter. Elle a été écrite à l'occasion d'un cours qui n'avait rien à voir avec mes études, et ne manquera pas de faire fuire les anglophobes. Elle est bourrée de spoilers et, comme évoqué pas plus loin que trois lignes au-dessus, elle n'a pas la prétention de faire le tour de cet excellent film. Pour vous donner le contexte.

Je n'ai pas l'habitude de ces apartés, pas plus que je ne cherche à faire lire mes textes en-dehors de SC, mais en l'occurrence celui-ci est un peu inséparable de certaines images, donc je ne peux que vous conseiller d'aller faire un tour par là. Un synopsis s'y trouve aussi, que je n'ai pas jugé bon de reproduire ici. Et il s'agit d'un wordpress, car je suis une ouiche en développement web.

Màj 16/12/21 : j'ai créé un miroir du site et je recommande d'aller lire ici ! :)


Epidemics as a critique of science

The main premise of the movie is the resistance of a dozen men against an uncontrollable infection, so you could say that the theme of epidemics is essential to it, if not dominant. Actually, it's almost reason enough for the story to be contemporaneous and set in an isolated station in Antarctica. It enables the screenwriter to develop and control what's happening inside a small place, focusing on the propagation of the Thing from man to man, while maintaining a very realistic environment. Were the action set in a less plausible place, such a threat probably would not have worked that well. For example a futuristic spaceship was a good way for Ridley Scott to provide a few thrills to the audience with his Alien (released 3 years earlier), but when your own monster is something of a shapeless, invisible virus, you better try to anchor your story in a more relatable environment if you want people to believe in the Thing and get scared at its 'powers' —which are essentially those of an aggressive, day-to-day sickness, when you put graphical considerations aside.

Before we comment on the role of scientists, let's briefly state what the common man fears most about an epidemic. First, it's almost impossible to protect yourself from the propagation, for the spreading is so fast and the pathogen so young that no one has found a vaccine yet. Furthermore, detection is rendered difficult for the same reasons, so you can never be sure whether it's safe of not to keep close with people —even your friends. In the end you could get physically affected, to the point that you might have a hard time recognizing yourself. This partial loss of identity sometimes culminates in an untimely death. These features are of course emphasized in the movie, but the point is that these elementary fears inhabit everyone.

One of the strengths of the movie, and a valuable contribution from master of horror John Carpenter, was to trigger these deep terrors while fascinating us at the same time. The frame above belongs to the scene where the Americans discover the infected dog in the kennel. They retain speechless, devastated stares for a few elongated seconds; on their following shot they're immediately holding guns and shooting at the creature, as if they were first amazed at the transformation but then would reject it most violently. It's some kind of love/hate relationship that the everyday man do maintain with science, amazed at the wonders it opens up to, yet afraid to leave his marks and the comfort of more traditional values.

Scientists may tend to forget about the second part, but nearly half the research station population has little to insignificant scientific knowledge (or so it seems): aside from chopper pilot MacReady, there is a cook, a dog trainer, a security guy... Even among the others you can't really tell what kind of research they were doing before the beginning of the events, you just see them playing computer chess or table tennis so it's rather easy for everybody to connect with most of the characters. MacReady calmly spills his drink into the computer after he loses a game, he may act violently but always in its own rational way and he survives to the end of the movie; on the other hand the biologist Blair quickly panics and wreaks havoc in the radiocommunications room, and the other man who finds pride or humor (camera and acting make it impossible to tell!) in the discovery of the disfigured corpse will ironically become the first human victim seen in the movie. Carpenter and his team succeed in showing realistic and relatable characters, while conveying an image of scientists who lack pragmatism, sometimes dismissing too quickly the consequences of their acts.

Let's get back to the Thing and see why it's even more than your standard epidemic. Obviously it's lethal and could threaten the whole planet, that's what Blair's computer tells us (in one of the rare displays of research technology of the movie) and what you can feel in your guts anyway. But what's really frightening is that the Thing seems to have a will of its own. When speaking about a normal virus, you'd say that it needs to infect hosts in order to survive. But the Thing seems to want to be lethal, it wants to propagate outside the station and infect the whole humanity. Much like in an anticipated version of what would be later called 'the gray goo scenario', it's ready to absorb and fill everything at the same time, and it badly wants to do so. It tries to hide among everybody, and when it realizes it doesn't work it changes its strategy and tries to return to a cryogenic state. It reflects our fear to encounter, or rather create, something which would outsmart us and take control over us -an underlying theme to science-fiction nearly as old as the first robots on screen.

A scientific theme closely related to epidemics, genetics are a side concern expressed through the functioning and —perhaps more strikingly— the appearance of the Thing. As if its way of reproducing was not worrying enough (intruder cell controlling the outside of the host and camouflaging inside), the Thing reveals itself with grotesque, yet still horrifying modifications from well-known organisms (dog or man). David Cronenberg's The Fly would be released 4 years later with similar biological concerns. For the last years tissue engineering has been booming, and we're trying to grow limbs inside laboratories, so once again science-fiction proved to be just ahead of its time. In the first adaptation of the novella Who Goes There? in 1951 titled The Thing from Another World, the Thing was sort of a plant/human creature, as shown below. Carpenter's choice of an invisible, omnipresent threat is yet another proof that the genre uses current issues to induce fear and provoke thoughts among the audience.

In the end, fire seems to be the only answer to the spreading of the Thing. The only remaining one, but also the only effective one, as the Thing can easily survive below-zero temperatures, and isn't really affected by dismemberment/partitioning. Two colors detach themselves from the lot and fight for dominance: the eerie blue from the night lights outside, which progressively invades the research station, and the aggressive yellow-orange from the flamethrower and the explosions, which destroys everything it touches and wins at the end of the movie, as the whole facility burns. It looks like mankind should have stopped technology after this 'first invention', for fire is powerful enough to rule out any problem here, and already quite dangerous in itself. It provides a way to survive both the cold and the Thing. Yet we asked for more, invented more, and tripped on ethical dilemmas... Do we deserve the accidents brought upon us by technology? Is it presumptuous to keep searching for new science instead of settling for what we already have?


The threat of alien life

The main reason why The Thing did not perform well at the box-office in spite of its significant budget (more than Alien, slightly less than Aliens) and its obvious value (which was to be recognized later) is probably to be found in the conceptual aspect of the enemy, invisible yet ubiquitous and unstoppable. Today still, few producers would dare to envision a movie based on a shapeless monster. Furthermore, Spielberg's E.T. was released two weeks earlier, and the audience probably remembered Ellen Ripley's ordeal enough not to wish going through such a disturbing experience once again, so they chose the family-friendly film over what claimed to be 'the ultimate in alien terror'.

To make things even more subtle, the origin story of the Thing is only alluded to in a small number of scenes, and it is never directly seen as using alien technology: the massive spaceship has been emptied about 100,000 years before being visited by the Americans, the ice block has already been carved when they arrive at the Norwegian facility, even Blair has disappeared when they discover the escape spacecraft being constructed under the tool shed —with the only violet lighting of the movie, so as to emphasize the out-of-our-world, unrelatable dimension of the Thing.

Characters are left with absolutely no possibility to communicate with it; it flees dialogue and avoids confrontation up until it's been exposed, eventually attacking or screaming with intensity as if it weirdly wished to state its own existence (or so I interpreted my feeling that such a message could not be met with any comparable answer from the humans). In the end it leaves us with facing an organism bent on survival, at least as much intelligent as ourselves, but we cannot tolerate any identification to it. However —and that's the point to introducing extraterrestrial lives here and in many other SF movies— who's to say that our behavior would not be met with the same incomprehension if we were to find ourselves in a similarly isolated and hostile situation? Who's to say our deepest instincts do not meet with the Thing's motives?

Science perverting human relationships

Now let's take a look at the frame above. The unfolding of the scene and the way it's been shot actually relates to our last interrogations, revealing that the director was clearly conscious of the underlying stakes here and making The Thing more laudable than the usual, first degree alien invasion movie. Using the gun as a threat, MacReady wants each of his teammates to tie themselves with a rope in order to make them go through the copper wire detection test. Clark quietly draws a scalpel but is immediately shot back upon attacking MacReady. Clark, the dog trainer, actually seemed like the most sensitive man of the team; you never could have guessed that pressure would build to the point that he would try to slash someone else with a blade. The close-up on his purple-blue lit hand could be interpreted as an influence from the Thing, but we later learn that he was indeed still human, so the lighting actually suggests that deep inside he is inhabited by instincts similar to what moves the Thing. Besides, his face remains hidden out of the screen, as a further suggestion of identity loss: he answers to a primitive survival call and yearns for a proud and naive independence he believes he could obtain thanks to the sharp blade. But technology is only a lure here, bringing no better outcome than violence and death.

A few tools are repeatedly used throughout the film (computers, fuses, helicopter...), out of which guns and flamethrowers are the most shown and the most hurtful. They induce imbalance in relationships, which become tainted with power and fear. The arrival of the Thing is just the starting point of the Nobody trusts anybody now that MacReady records in his vocal journal, with uncertainty and shame —yet another interesting detail, he rewinds the journal and records something else over this symbolically painful assertion. Much of the tension actually ensues, not from the prospect of facing the Thing, but rather from the impossibility to hold together a group filled with defiance. Technology becomes an obstacle when it can infect and hide inside people (to be related with the epidemics and biological issue previously raised), but mostly because people are willing to adopt it and let it invade their lives, ignoring the share of social stirring which comes with it.

Questioning 'human nature'

The Thing eventually raises the question of what it means to be human. Much like in Blade Runner with Rachael and Deckard's journey to realize they're replicants, the events surrounding the Americans progressively cast some doubt over their initial certitude to belong to mankind. Unexpected transformations of their friends act as catalysts to their self-alienation. They cannot be sure not to host the Thing, for they know that an infected man would act just like any other man and spontaneously wish not to be under the influence of the intruder organism. This is obvious in the copper wire scene, where most of the tested ones express agitation before the test, and then respond with either relief or anger that their humanness has been challenged. According to the story, free will and individuality are characteristic claims, but they can be replicated and do not suffice to define a man.

I would say that characters are most humans when they express some vulnerability, to the point of endangering their own lives. When the station commander comes under suspicion and suggests to give away his gun, you get the feeling that he's probably not infected. Same thing for the guy who tells he's not 'up to it' when asked to become in charge of security. On the contrary, Childs jumps on the possibility to gain control and makes himself a suspect to the audience. This unwillingness to assume power may culminate in a suicide attempt, with the dead man found in the Norwegian facility, or Blair who tried to hang himself in the tool shed but was turned by the Thing before he could succeed in saving his individuality, his dignity. Thus, instead of knowledge or technological superiority, vulnerability and the acknowledgement of one's own imperfections might be the most revealing tokens of humanity.

The end of this commentary mirrors the last sequence of the movie. Exhausted and disarmed, MacReady (whom we're sure he's not been infected) is rejoined by Childs, whose disappearance for the last 15 minutes or so is quite suspicious and not reassuring at all. At the same time he can't be sure like us that MacReady hasn't become a host, so we should not be prejudiced against someone because we do not know everything about this person. In the closing seconds the two of them share a bottle of scotch in a symbolical rebirth of society. The point is, whether you've been infected or not, whether it's true, false, or merely subjective to say that you've been subverted by science and technology, you have to offer your trust somewhat blindly in order to maintain a community.