RETRO: “Nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired”: Isolation, alienation and The Thing (1982)

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When John Carpenter’s The Thing infiltrated cinemas in 1982, it did so quietly. Despite being located during an incredible run from the director that began with Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and arguably wouldn’t end until In The Mouth of Madness (1994), it was a down-beat critical and commercial flop. And though it’s since been acknowledged that Carpenter shaped the topography of cult cinema with classics such as Halloween (’78), The Fog (’81), Escape from New York (’81) and They Live! (’88) – essentially remaking horror in his own image – by ’82 his status as master filmmaker was far from canonised.

In context, The Thing‘s box office failure is understandable: with the Cold War simmering on, the Berlin Wall still standing and a summer release date only two weeks after Spielberg’s E.T. it makes sense that audiences flocked to see The Beard’s more comforting portrayal of alien life, rejecting the cosmic horror of human isolation Carpenter was coolly serving up. However after almost 40 years of critical reassessment the film is now rightly lauded as one of the all-time horror greats. And in 2020, with the world currently in the midst of mass lock-down due to Covid-19 (a different type of silent infiltration), The Thing is as prescient as ever, in its analysis of human relationships if not the nature of the threat.

A remake of the ’51 Hawks/Nyby The Thing From Another World (itself an adaptation of John W Campbell’s novella Who Goes There?) the narrative focuses on the twelve man team at Antarctic research base Outpost 13 as they resist a shape-shifting alien, recently thawed from the ancient permafrost and apparently ravenous to assimilate all life. Although famous for its fantastic effects (courtesy of a young Rob Bottin – who was hospitalised during production due to exhaustion- and an uncredited Stan Wintson) the real substance is – much like the beast itself – lurking within the characters, and the spaces between them.

For The Thing is ultimately a film about relational breakdown, both between people and with oneself. As a snowstorm cuts off radio contact the twelve are geographically, physically and technologically separated from the outside world, a sense of isolation that is only amplified as it becomes clear that the parasitic invader has cloned someone on base and is masquerading as an imitation. Distrust breeds like cancer: as MacReady sighs “Nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired”.

The film has variously been read as an Aids allegory – a disease which by ’82 was beginning to grip the public consciousness – or a tale of reds-under-the-bed Cold War paranoia. Both interpretations are legitimate, though perhaps reductive: the power of The Thing is in its amorphous nature, its ability to take on any shape (indeed what the creature itself looks like is unknowable, since it only appears as grotesque mal-adaptions of lifeforms it has previously absorbed). Similarly the film’s meaning is flexible, adaptive, malleable.

What the social panics over Aids and Communism both share is not only a sense of mistrusting ones neighbours but also looking to protect individual bodily and moral integrity. In this sense the film might also be read as parabolic of our own political times, where fervent voices on both left and right hurl dehumanising labels as a way of gate-keeping their own ideological piety. However the question that lurks like a Lovecraftian shadow over The Thing is not only who has been compromised, but if an imitation is aware that it has been violated: does the clone know it is such? This creates a kind of internal dissonance, where even the idea of self is destabilised and the isolation is not only between men whose friendships are now potential threats, but also where we may no longer know ourselves.

In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak people reacted with panic buying, revealing themselves in ways which perhaps even they didn’t expect. And certainly as the global lock-down continues there is the threat that social isolation could breed relational breakdown. However, whilst The Thing ultimately ends on a note of nihilistic ambiguity, this is not our ending. We may have to “wait here for a while… see what happens”, but the opportunity is instead to know each other and ourselves more deeply: to not be imitations of ourselves, alienated from self-understanding and distrusting others, but to instead reconnect. To, in short, be more human, not less.

Tim Coleman

Published by Tim Coleman

Film critic. Screenwriter. Academic.

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