Written by Alexander Greco
September 16, 2020
Cold silence has
A tendency to
Sense of compassionTool / Maynard James Keenan
This article is the first of two on the 1982 The Thing. This article will introduce the movie and the two halves of the analysis, then present the first half of the two-part analysis. The second article will present the second part of the analysis, then conclude by examining both and comparing them to current social events.
The contents of the first article will focus on a theoretical analysis of the film revolving around the key element of Information Control, while the second article will delve into more philosophical and psycho-social territories.
The 1982 remake of The Thing has gone down in history as one of the best sci-fi/horror films of all time, with good reason. It’s a tremendous movie, it was made in the golden age of classic special effects, right in between the developing stages of earlier films and the rocky slide into 90’s and 00’s effects and CGI.
The setting was great, the characters were memorable and unique, the pacing and storytelling was masterful, and the underlying Cosmic Horror themes and tones of the movie were pitch perfect.
However, while The Thing has gained enormous notoriety since its initial box office flop, I still think it’s a vastly misunderstood movie, and even a vastly underappreciated movie. The source of this misunderstanding and underappreciation comes from the most overlooked element of the film: Control of Information.
The key to understanding The Thing, what made The Thing so horrifying and why the The Thing has been misunderstood is how the film’s director and screenwriter, John Carpenter and Bill Lancaster, controlled what information the viewer does and doesn’t know:
– The absolute knowns, or facts
– The assumptions
– The absolute unknowns, or known unknowns
– The unknown unknowns, or things we don’t even know that we don’t know
Control of Information is important in any form of narrative, but it is key in genres like sci-fi, horror and mystery, where so much of the meaning or emotion is derived cognitively rather than aesthetically.
With The Thing, nearly the entirety of the film’s true horror is derived from what we know and don’t know as opposed to what we are perceiving physically or aesthetically. So much of the horror is derived from Carpenter and Lancaster’s Control of Information: What we know; what we don’t know; what we’re lead to believe; what we assume; what assumptions we’re forced to question; and what information is left to the imagination.
The entire film is centered on an alien who can assimilate other organisms and disguise itself as any organism it has assimilated. So, throughout the movie, right to the final scene, we are constantly questioning who is an alien, who isn’t an alien, how the alien can be discovered, how the alien can be defeated, and what might happen if the alien isn’t defeated.
While The Thing is a master-class on Control of Information, with its ability to penetrate and terrorize your consciousness with doubt, isolation, paranoia and these constant questions, one question is never actually asked—one question is kept hidden by such overt terror, or the answer seems so obvious we never think to ask it—and this may be the question that is most crucial to understanding the film:
What does the alien want?
This is one piece of information is secreted away, hidden and kept beneath all the other layers of the story to such a greater extent than anything else in the movie.
And so, the Control of Information—and, as sub-sets, both the ignorance of individuals and the inability to communicate or perceive information cohesively or coherently—may actually be the deepest and most important theme of the movie.
The instinctual assumption of both the characters and the movie-viewers is that the alien wants to assimilate other organisms for its own gain, and to eventually take over the world by assimilating all other lifeforms. However, this may only be a projection of motivation onto the organism, as this motivation is never explicitly confirmed by the end of the movie. The grotesque, violent horror of The Thing is so great that we never stop to question this motivation. We simply take it as a given.
However, we know so little about the monster in The Thing that it seems foolish to assume anything about it:
– We don’t know where it’s from
– We don’t know why it came to Earth
– We don’t know what it was doing before it came to Earth
– We don’t know how it’s able to assimilate organisms (we don’t know very well, at least)
– We don’t know what it is, that’s part of the point of the film: it’s just a thing that came from space
This of course connects to Cosmic Horror and the Lovecraftian Cosmic Nihilism, but I won’t delve too much into this. Feel free to read my articles if you want to read more about Cosmic Horror/Nihilism.
The short of it is we are small, limited creatures living on a small, blue dot in an imperceivably vast reality. We are far more blind and ignorant that we are perceiving and knowing, and the knowledge that we don’t know is so tremendously more massive than the knowledge we do know.
We don’t know where the alien is from or why it’s on Earth. We don’t know what the alien is or what it is capable of. We don’t know what it wants, what it’s goals are or what it it’s like to be the alien.
What is interesting, is that we do know the motivations of those who have remained humans: survival.
The motivations we do know (of the humans) are the will to live. The motivations we don’t know (of the aliens) are assumed to be violence, domination and usurpation.
But, we don’t know what the alien’s motivations actually are.
What are the motivations of, what is going on in the mind of, and what is it like to be The Thing? As an important inversion of this, why are the Thing’s motivations, and the Thing itself, perceived the way it is?
These will be the focus of the analysis.
Summary and Structure of Information
This summary will, of course, have spoilers in it, so be warned.
However, the summary will be centered on how information is controlled throughout the film, so, though much of the film is luckily centered on this as well, it will likely leave out decent swaths of the film’s content.
If you haven’t watched The Thing, it goes without saying that I highly recommend it. If you have watched The Thing, this will all be old news, so feel free to skip to the meat of the analysis.
After one of the most memorable and iconic opening title scenes in sci-fi history (up there with the 1979 Alien), the movie begins with two Norwegians in a helicopter, chasing a husky dog across the icy wastes of Antarctica.
The Norwegians are shooting at the dog, and at one point throw dynamite at it. The husky arrives at the American Outpost, Outpost 31, where the majority of the film takes place.
The Norwegians follow the sled dog and soon arrive at the outpost as well. One of them accidentally blows themselves and their helicopter up, while the other pursues the dog on foot with their rifle.
While trying to kill the dog, the Norwegian shoots one of the Americans, then begins yelling something at the Americans in Norwegian, brandishing the gun at them. However, no one can understand the Norwegian, and they shoot the man dead, then take the dog inside their outpost.
Immediately, we are introduced to both the key tool of the film, Control of Information, and a key theme of the film, Communication.
The sad irony of this opening scene is that the dog (spoilers) is actually the alien that will later terrorize the outpost for the remainder of the film. The Norwegians know this, and their actions to kill the dog may have (spoilers) saved the lives of everyone at the outpost, but the Americans cannot understand the Norwegians, and so kill them.
However, we as the viewers cannot know this, just as the characters cannot know this, and so we are left with the same blind assumptions as the Americans (if that ain’t a metaphor).
The dog is allowed to wander around the outpost, doing god-knows-what behind the scenes, while we still assume it is only a dog, until it is put into a kennel with the other dogs.
After MacReady and Copper have investigated the Norwegian base, the dog finally reveals itself to be what it truly is: the Thing.
The dog’s body begins to change, with tentacles and other appendages growing from it, and its face eventually splits open to reveal a monstrous “mouth”. It begins attacking and assimilating the other dogs (meaning it absorbs their bodies into its own and begins copying the cells of the dog). But then, the alien is killed by the Americans, though the question remains open as to whether or not other members of the outpost have been assimilated.
There are two important threads to follow through the beginning of the movie:
One: we see the relationships of the characters as tense, often with a lot of conflict between them that erupts over minor things. One example is Blair asking Windows if he’s been able to reach anyone over the radio, with Windows blowing up and saying it’s impossible to reach anyone at this time. (This, along with other moments, builds on the them of communication, and comes into play more in the second half of the analysis.)
Two: our knowledge of the alien/Thing is developed, though only to a certain degree (we never fully/explicitly learn much about the Thing). Primarily, we learn of its ability to assimilate other organisms, and of the possibility that it could eventually assimilate the entirety of organisms on the planet, if it were to make it to any other continent (if it was motivated to do so).
And, of course, much of the rest of the first two thirds of the film is devoted to determining who has been assimilated or not.
Blair suspects Clark, who was in charge of looking out for the dogs, and was alone with the dogs when the Thing began assimilating them.
Bennings becomes partially assimilated, and attempts to escape, but is discovered and killed before it could fully assimilate.
Blair goes crazy, suspecting anyone and everyone could be an assimilated alien, and is locked up in a building outside of the main structure.
A supply of blood samples that could’ve have been used to test who has been assimilated is destroyed, implicating the small number of people with access to the blood as being assimilated (and subtly implying the alien may have assimilated the DNA of all members at the outpost).
Fuchs goes outside to find a piece of clothing with MacReady’s name on it (this happening shortly after MacReady himself mentioning the alien seems to tear apart people’s clothing while assimilating them).
Fuchs is then found dead outside, apparently burning himself alive to keep himself from committing suicide.
Mac and Nauls go out to check on Blair. However, a storm hits, so the two are late coming back. The rest of the outpost decides to close off all entrances.
While closing off one of the last entrances, Norris sees Nauls coming back alone through the blizzard. Nauls is let back inside and says he found a scrap of clothing with Mac’s name on it (the same one Fuchs previously found).
Mac then returns to the base, but the outpost members refuse to let him inside. Palmer and Norris are both quick to decide Mac ought to be killed, since he has likely been assimilated.
Mac breaks into the outpost, brandishing a flare and a stick of dynamite, letting everyone know he’ll blow himself and the others up if the try to stop him. However, Norris then collapse and stops breathing. He is brought to the infirmary where Copper tries to revive him, but Norris’s stomach splits open into a giant mouth and kills Copper (thus revealing Norris to have been assimilated all along).
After the Norris iteration of the Thing has been killed, Mac forces everyone to do a blood test to see if they have been assimilated. The assumption is that the cells of the Thing act autonomously, and so will attempt to survive if harmed. Mac uses a hot piece of metal to poke the blood, and eventually Palmer is revealed to be a Thing.
Palmer transforms and attacks the other outpost members, killing Windows before Mac can kill the Thing.
Here, we finally arrive at the wind-up to the climax.
The team discovers Blair has gone missing and has built a spacecraft beneath the structure he was put in, and so Blair is the last remaining Thing (that they know of).
While getting ready to blow up “Blair’s” spaceship, Nauls sees Childs run off into the blizzard. Immediately after this, the power for the entire outpost goes out. They assume this is Blair shutting down the power so that everyone else will die and Blair will be frozen until a search party comes and recovers everyone’s body (effectively reviving Blair/the Thing once its body thaws).
Mac, Nauls and Garry decide to blow up and burn down the outpost, effectively committing suicide, but ensuring the Thing does not survive as well.
While preparing the explosives and incendiaries, Blair picks off Garry then Nauls, then attacks Mac. Mac kills the transformed Blair-Thing and blows up the outpost. Mac escapes outside and is sitting in the cold as the outpost burns down.
Childs finally returns and sits down with Mac, telling him he ran off into the blizzard because he thought he saw Blair, then got lost and couldn’t find his way back. Neither can tell whether the other is a human or a Thing. The film ends ambiguously with the two of them sitting outside, “[waiting to] see what happens” as the outpost burns down and the Antarctic cold sets in.
That’s The Thing. Got it? Good.
The Poetry of Squaring Off: Analyses of the Thing as Subject and Object
And so, I will jump as quickly as I can into this.
This analysis has two halves: One, examining the Thing as a Literal Subject capable of perceiving, rationalizing and critical strategizing; and Two, examining the Thing as a Phenomenological Object being observed by humans.
The Thing as Literal Subject must be understood first in order to transition into an understanding of its inverse, the Thing as Phenomenological Object.
What do I mean by these terms?
Thing as Literal Subject is exactly that: we assume the Thing has sentience, and we build a possible model of its phenomenological reality from what we can assume in the film, then examine this reality.
This will fall more into a “film theory” than a proper “analysis”, though it is pivotal to understanding to the second half of the analysis.
Thing as Phenomenological Object: we examine not what the Thing is perceived as by the humans, but we examine why there is a Thing being observed by the humans.
This will contain more of my typical approach to analysis, though more focused on one specific aspect of the film rather than the broader narrative analysis I typically write.
Analysis Part 1: Thing as Literal Subject
What is the immediate conflict that arises in The Thing?
The Norwegians and the dog.
The Norwegians are chasing the dog through the Antarctic wastes, trying to kill it—knowing fully what the dog is and what it is capable of—but the last standing Norwegian is killed because the Americans can’t communicate with the Norwegian, can’t understand why the Norwegian is doing what he is doing, and don’t know what the Norwegian knows or perceives.
Of course, the brutal irony is that the Norwegian could have saved the entire American outpost from catastrophic destruction and death, and this as I mentioned implicates the deepest themes of the film: ignorance and communication.
What is the dog/alien thinking at the start of the film?
What is going on in the alien’s mind at this point?
Well, first, let’s construct a potential reality for the alien as a conscious subject. This might be technically impossible, considering there’s so much about the alien we don’t know (and that’s part of the point of the film), but, if we start from one basic assumption or premise, we can work our way to something that I think is most likely to be true.
The one basic assumption is: the alien wishes to survive.
Why assume this?
Because, as far as we know, all life forms share this instinct. Instinct might not even be the right word, it may go even deeper than instinct, as it’s difficult to say single-celled organisms possess “instincts”. The will to live seems to be a mechanism that is embedded so deeply in the fabric of “living” that it may be at the core of existence for life or even proto-life.
The will to live, or something like it—and, as tangents of this, the will to maintain life through various motivations and functions, including replication—had to have been present even in the earliest stages of life as the theorized “first replicators”.
So, assuming the alien wishes to survive, let’s reconstruct what its experience would be like before the start of the movie and at the start of the movie.
The alien crash-lands on Earth, and we know the alien piloting the ship is the same alien capable of assimilation (rather than the pilot of the ship becoming assimilated pre-crash) because Blair as the assimilated alien version of Blair has begun constructing a new spaceship by the end of the film.
The alien is frozen in Antarctica, and is then unfrozen by the Norwegians. We don’t know the full scope of what happened with the Norwegians, but we do know something went fucky-wucky, and the Norwegians and the alien decided they couldn’t work out their differences.
Now, another assumption here is that the alien likely treats assimilation as something relatively natural and commonplace. We are capable of natural acts like eating, speaking and procreating, and the alien’s act of assimilation is likely as natural to it as any of these acts. So, while assimilation is remarkably violent and grotesque to humans, it may not be so violent and grotesque to the alien.
However, assuming the alien’s act of assimilation was at least a part of what led the Norwegians to hunt down and try to kill the last remaining alien, and knowing the alien is intelligent enough to build a spacecraft and pilot it across the cosmos, then the alien is probably smart enough to have realized the humans do not appreciate the alien’s act of assimilation. That said, the alien may not fully understand why the humans do not like this, just as we would be confused if we went to another planet, and the natural inhabitants did not enjoy us trying to breathe air, eat food, have sex or speak words.
So, the last of the Norwegians attempt to hunt down and kill the last of the aliens, resulting in the brutal irony of The Thing’s opening scene.
Throughout the rest of the film, once the alien is discovered in the iconic dog scene, the plot turns into a sort of cat-and-mouse/Clue/who-dunnit plot where the humans are trying to survive and the alien(s) are trying to survive.
So, what is the rest of the film after the opening scene like from the perspective of the alien?
Each scene must be looked at as the alien’s attempt at survival, rather than the pre-supposed attempt at world domination. Why?
Well, other than the base instincts the alien likely has, there is one telling scene: the Thing-as-Blair attempting to build a spacecraft.
Why would the alien build a spacecraft rather than find some other mode of transportation or find some other mode of survival? Obviously, because it is trying to leave the planet Earth and return to its own civilization, or return to whatever it was doing beforehand.
It could be argued that the Thing would use the craft it created to travel to some other part of the planet and begin its worldwide domination there, but why? Why would it want to?
It has already seen the humans to be incredibly hostile towards it, and it landed there accidentally rather than on purpose, and, if we assume the alien’s core motivation is to survive, why risk trying to interact with other Earth-organisms that are likely to be just as hostile? On top of this, all it knows of Earth so far is the frozen wastes of Antarctica, unless it is smart enough or has learned enough to know what the rest of Earth is like (which may be unlikely, since it crash landed thousands of years ago, pre-civilization).
So, in these circumstances, why would the alien behave as we see it behave?
With the dog scene, this is possibly the most unclear, but, if it was assimilating the dogs as an act of survival, than perhaps it was doing so to create “allies”, or to spread itself out among a wider array of individual organisms and so increase its likelihood of survival. Perhaps it was an attempt at communication, though we don’t know enough about assimilation to know if this is a form of communication, and we do know enough to know it is used for functions other than communication.
The rest of the movie after this, however, is much more clear.
The dogs are now all under suspicion, and are killed because of their potential contact with the alien. And, while all the other humans are now under suspicion, they cannot be killed so recklessly. So, the alien begins assimilating humans to blend in and survive.
Another reason for assimilating humans is that this may be the only mode of communication the alien currently possesses. If you are trying to survive, one of the best places to start is to ask the hostile population, “Please! Don’t kill me!”
But, knowing the humans are hostile towards it, it may have decided not to communicate in the given circumstances—especially since no communication from the humans has been attempted.
So, the alien is in a circumstance where it is being hunted down. It may wish to communicate to the humans, which would be a reason to assimilate the other humans, but communication may also result in its own death.
Let’s say, as an example, you are a lesbian woman in a non-Western country that is predominated by a Muslim population (just to be arbitrarily controversial): while one mode of survival may be to yell out, “Please! Don’t kill me! Yes, I am a homosexual, one of the things you wish to kill, but, please, I mean you no harm! Don’t kill me! Let me live!”
What are the odds this woman won’t be killed?
The better, though less-optimal, choice would be to blend in with the population around you, and survive as long as you can until you can find understanding allies in others, or until such a time that you can escape to a less hostile population.
Let’s say the alien as an assimilated human were to shout out, “Please! Don’t kill me! Yes, I am the alien that has assimilated other organisms, but, please, I mean you no harm! I only wish to survive! Don’t kill me! Let me live!”
What are the odds the alien won’t be killed?
The better, though less-optimal, choice would be to blend in with the humans around you, and survive as long as you can until you can find a human willing to communicatee with you, or until such a time that the alien can escape Earth and go back home, or at least go somewhere it won’t be hunted down.
These assumptions and this understanding of the alien as a conscious and at least somewhat intelligent/rational creature can explain its actions throughout the rest of the film:
- Attempting to escape as the half-assimilated Bennings
- The alien as the fully assimilated Palmer and Norris being so quick to want MacReady killed, knowing MacReady is not an alien and that MacReady is the biggest threat to their existence
- The alien as the “deceased” Norris attacking Copper before attempting to escape
- The alien as Palmer attacking the others once it is discovered
- The alien as Blair constructing the spaceship
- The alien as Blair attacking the remaining humans once its spaceship is destroyed and the other humans are attempting to kill it
There is of course the ambiguity at the end of the film, with the final scene of Childs and MacReady in the wreckage of the destroyed outpost. While I could go into this and the various theories of whether or not one or both of them are the alien, and then what this would mean for our analysis, it is not so important, and I will let you decide.
So, here we have a construction of what the subjective reality and the motivations of the Thing most likely are.
There is a single hole in this argument: why didn’t the Thing-as-Blair simply run into the cold and be frozen, which would allow it to survive until a rescue party came and recovered their bodies, which would result in the Thing surviving until it was thawed out enough. But, this “hole” can have several counter-arguments to explain it, the least of which being: fuck it, it’s just a movie, and what a shitty ending that would have been.
Plus, if Childs or MacReady are an alien, then the alien being frozen and revived will likely happen anyway.
The Thing is trying to survive on an alien planet. It has woken up in an incredibly hostile environment, Antarctica, and it finds itself being assaulted on all sides by incredibly hostile lifeforms which do not seek to communicate with it.
The grand conflict here is on two levels a conflict of survival (the deeper, though maybe less interesting conflict), and the conflict of epistemology: the conflict of what is known and what is unknown.
The Thing cannot communicate with the humans unless it assimilates them. If it assimilates a human, then that assimilated human will be killed, so broadcasting that you are the alien disguised as a human will likely result in death.
I will return to this in the conclusion, but I think you get the idea here.
This essentially wraps up this part of the analysis. There’s no grand conclusion here, but it’s intended to roll right into the next analysis (where you will find a grand conclusion).