Thoughts on “The Thing”

So, the second of the movies that my main exposure to them was through Chuck Sonnenberg’s site is “The Thing”.  Now, I didn’t realize and didn’t intend that the two of them would be John Carpenter films.  I obviously have heard of him, but don’t think I’ve ever watched anything else he’d done.  I found “They Live” flawed but entertaining, but when it comes to “The Thing” I found it to be frustrating instead, which obviously works against my finding it entertaining.

The basic plot is this:  a group of scientists at an Antarctic research station are going about their business when a dog runs up that’s being chased by a couple of Norwegian scientists in a helicopter.  It is soon revealed that the dog is actually an alien creature that can adopt the form of pretty much anything it comes into contact with, and it infiltrated the Norwegian compound leaving a trail of devastation in its wake, and it is starting to do the same thing here.  So the scientists and pilots and other people all need to find a way to deal with this powerful alien creature that can both blend in with them but also transform into a powerful form that can pretty much kill any of them without much trouble and is slightly bothered by weapons, but is only really vulnerable to fire and being burned.

There are two main things that frustrated me with this movie.  The first is that this is a wonderful set-up for the standard “And Then There Were None” plot (there’s probably an actual trope for this somewhere, but I can’t find it easily) with an alien twist where what we have are the members of the station killed off one by one by a killer that can hide among them and could be anyone, and can even change which person or animal it is as convenient.  The plot seems tailor-made for an overload of paranoia, and these elements are indeed in the work.  And yet the movie seems to insist on breaking up the paranoia with over the top and graphic and often gory violent scenes and action scenes that could be used to heighten the tension but instead in general just interrupt it.  I’ll admit that they can be startling — like the scene where the doctor is trying to shock the dead person’s heart and it turns out to be an alien creature that opens a huge mouth to bite his hands off — but it makes the alien a more open and direct threat than a hidden threat that they need to reveal.  They spend too much time directly engaging a physically stronger threat than trying to reveal a subversive one, but the plot and situation works best if they are trying to reveal a subversive threat.  The change in tone really irritated me.

The second thing that really frustrated me was the fact that overall the movie was nonsensical.  While I thought of some of these after watching the movie, for the most part I was thinking these things while the movie was running, and the movie never really resolved my questions (and there might be ones that I didn’t mention here because I’m writing this a bit after having watched it):

What is the alien creature anyway?  They start by claiming that it absorbs and then mimics the things it absorbs, but then later Blair is examining the cells and what the movie seems to explain to us there is that the cells invade and then take over the host body, making it more of an assimilation than an absorption and then mimicking the thing it absorbed.  And this pretty much has to be the case, because we are pretty certain that there were two creatures wandering around at some point — the one that is caught by the main character’s test, and then Blair who was turning parts from the helicopter into a new spaceship — and we are pretty sure that at at least one point some form of the creature was indeed burned to death.  But if that’s the case, are they two separate entities, or one entity spread across two bodies?  The former explains why they didn’t seem to be working together necessarily, but then that makes this a form of reproduction and not absorption, which has its own problems.  But if it’s the latter then they should have worked together better and the creature should have been really trying to ensure that at least one cell survived, knowing that it could live on in that case.

But the intellectual nature of the creature and its goals and purpose is equally unclear.  Blair posits that if it got into a populated area it would take over all the humans on Earth in I think a couple of years — I stopped to do the math in the movie but have forgotten it now — but that implied that it was something that instinctively absorbed people and didn’t do so selectively.  That it’s this sort of creature is also implied by its direct physical attacks on the people, which as noted are direct, aggressive, and often very brutal.  It also manages to turn into an incredibly huge creature at the end to get the detonator away from the main character.  So it could be just a clever animal like the aliens in Alien, with some low cunning but no real intelligence.

Except that doesn’t work.  The creature has to be able to mimic intelligent humans in what they do and how they interact, and the only impediment it’s seen to have is having to take time to adopt the language.  Moreover, while destroying the helicopter’s controls is arguably in the “Alien” intelligence range, taking parts from it to try to rebuild a spaceship so that it can escape the planet is not.  So it seems to be an entirely intelligent creature, which means that it likely could control what it does and doesn’t assimilate, and on top of that at least at the end it looks like it’s looking to escape the planet.  It doesn’t seem to be a captured creature like we saw in “Alien”, so it looks like it was always the pilot of the ship, especially since it was trying to rebuild it.  So maybe there was no risk of it getting to a populated area and absorbing the world because maybe all it wanted was to go home.

But then we run into problems with its sheer physicality.  If all it wanted to do was go home, it could have easily overpowered them physically.  It could have needed one of them to maintain a physical form, but for the most part it could have killed off most of them with a direct assault and left one or two who were already or who were being absorbed so that it could find a way off the planet.  What, then, did it want to do?  How smart was it?  Was it really any kind of threat?  We don’t really know.  And while it’s okay if a movie doesn’t answer all the questions, it probably needs to answer the ones that the audience thought of while the movie was running unless it manages to distract us somehow.  And it didn’t manage to distract me.

And part of the reason is that this ambiguity plays into the ending.  They try to set the generator to explode, and the creature transforms into a huge creature to physically threaten them and to kill most of them, but then also has at least the cunning to take the detonator away.  After the generator explodes anyway, a person that the main character thought had been killed shows up feeling sick, and the two of them wait together to see what will happen (implying to see if the other person is the alien because it can survive in the cold, and in fact doing that and waiting for rescue was its last plan).  Except that this only works at all if we assume that the creature didn’t care for heat, and as far as I can recall they didn’t establish that.  Yes, they killed the creature and its cells with fire, but if you burn, well, pretty much anything that will indeed kill it, so that doesn’t indicate that it’s particularly vulnerable to fire.  Also, this returns it to the paranoia plot which the previous scenes pretty much ruled out unless the temperature impedes its abilities, which we have no reason to think that it does.  And if the two of them were human their best plan would be to find a way to set both of them on fire to avoid any chance of it getting out into the world, since they were committed to freezing to death anyway.  Again, the goals and purpose and intelligence and threat of the creature is unclear enough that it all frustrated me.

Now, in a comment on “They Live“, Nate Winchester commented that he thinks that “The Thing” is Carpenter’s “perfect movie”, in that it won’t be improved by adding or removing anything.  However, I didn’t like it.  That being said, it does have a lot of the same elements as “They Live”, where it constantly tries to mix the action scenes with the paranoia elements to create that kind of hybrid movie, which we saw in “They Live” as well.  The difference for me is that the premise in “They Live” works better for that, and isn’t as confusing as it is in “The Thing”.  Also, the overall tone of that movie makes the shift to action from the paranoia elements less jarring.  Here, the entire setup really lends itself to a full-on paranoia-type movie, and the action scenes yank me out of that when that’s really what I wanted to experience.

Thus, while I probably would rewatch “They Live”, I won’t rewatch “The Thing”.  It’s just too frustrating for me to watch and there’s no indication that a rewatch would explain things any better or eliminate my frustrations.  So this goes into the box to sell at some point.

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11 Responses to “Thoughts on “The Thing””

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    I disagree with literally everything you’ve said but I can’t fault you for not putting thought into it!

  2. natewinchester Says:

    The trope you’re looking for is Ten Little Murder Victims.
    https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TenLittleMurderVictims

  3. natewinchester Says:

    Just because something is a perfect movie, doesn’t mean you have to like it. As I often joke, broccoli may be a perfectly healthy food – that doesn’t affect how it tastes to you. 😉

    Normally I dislike movies that force the audience to do work the writer should have, but this one I find skirts the line magnificently. After all, how might an alien encounter go between us and something so very different? How could an alien communicate to us: “Hey, can I borrow one of your bodies?” And would it ever expect anybody to say, “sure!” Then it all ends up devolving into a hectic situation where neither side is really able to get solid answers because of the escalating war. Sure it may be nice to find out more info, but as the saying goes, when the enemy is shooting at you, you don’t bother asking him about his life story.

    I especially like that even if unintentional, the movie ends up being pretty hard scientifically. Unlike a lot of shapeshifter stories, the alien can’t just conjure mass out of thin air – it at least has to take the mass of it’s victims and (even more importantly) this takes time.

    I also like that it isn’t given some kind of psychic abilities (as far as we can tell). The alien is a bit like a gestalt entity generally working together, but parts can split off and go on their own to try and survive. Then if the alien wants to work with another part, it can’t just “send mind rays” out to it, but would maybe have to communicate just as we would with another human. Or the pieces might rejoin together later. As a biologist by hobby, there’s a lot you could deduce about the alien which would fit some of what we know, it’s great fun.

    If all it wanted to do was go home, it could have easily overpowered them physically. It could have needed one of them to maintain a physical form, but for the most part it could have killed off most of them with a direct assault and left one or two who were already or who were being absorbed so that it could find a way off the planet. What, then, did it want to do? How smart was it? Was it really any kind of threat? We don’t really know. And while it’s okay if a movie doesn’t answer all the questions, it probably needs to answer the ones that the audience thought of while the movie was running unless it manages to distract us somehow. And it didn’t manage to distract me.

    Well that’s rather like asking why don’t humans go charging into honeycombs because they can easily physically overpower bees. 😉

    Like Chuck points out, the Norweigon outpost is kind of supposed to do some heavy lifting here. From some of the clues we get, it seems an entirely valid interpretation that the alien did try the overpowering tactic on the first base – and then lost. (the bees were too numerous and coordinated) So the movie we then watch is it having “learned” from this experience and going for more subterfuge. (Yes I know there’s a prequel movie – no we’re not going to discuss it. lol)

    Also, this returns it to the paranoia plot which the previous scenes pretty much ruled out unless the temperature impedes its abilities, which we have no reason to think that it does.

    But we have every reason to think temperature impedes its abilities. If it gets cold enough, it will kind of be like being “cyro freeze.” This is again established by the scene of visiting the other base and the reveal that the alien was pulled from a block of ice. If ice didn’t hinder it, then the obvious question of why it had to be “removed” in the first place and it wasn’t just going about, fixing it’s ship in the first place. (10,000 years should have been enough time to repair it if the thing can build one out of helicopter parts.) That it had to be chiseled out of ice and then thawed before it started wrecking havoc is a big clue that cold is a “time out” for the creature.

    I also think a big part of the ending is that both are too exhausted (whether human or alien) to even take one last stab at each other. Cold and hypothermia have as symptoms exhaustion and tiredness.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Just because something is a perfect movie, doesn’t mean you have to like it. As I often joke, broccoli may be a perfectly healthy food – that doesn’t affect how it tastes to you.

      I was going to make it the point stronger, but on re-reading your comment the “Can’t be improved by adding or taking away” made me think that you were making a more positive comment, but between this and “They Live” I could really see Carpenter wanting to go for that mix of paranoia and action, and that “The Thing” might be the best example of that sort of thing … but that’s not the sort of thing I really like, and so it would make sense that I’d like “The Thing” less. But then again the confusion was the biggest problem for me.

      How could an alien communicate to us: “Hey, can I borrow one of your bodies?” And would it ever expect anybody to say, “sure!” Then it all ends up devolving into a hectic situation where neither side is really able to get solid answers because of the escalating war. Sure it may be nice to find out more info, but as the saying goes, when the enemy is shooting at you, you don’t bother asking him about his life story.

      I don’t mind that sort of idea, but this is where you get into Shamus Young’s idea of trusting the storyteller, and so I would have really liked to see something more explicit outlining that, even with side comments or something at the end saying that maybe they should have tried communicating, or even right at the end the other guy commenting that maybe talking would or would have worked, leaving things vague whether that was the human or the alien saying that.

      Like Chuck points out, the Norweigon outpost is kind of supposed to do some heavy lifting here. From some of the clues we get, it seems an entirely valid interpretation that the alien did try the overpowering tactic on the first base – and then lost. (the bees were too numerous and coordinated) So the movie we then watch is it having “learned” from this experience and going for more subterfuge. (Yes I know there’s a prequel movie – no we’re not going to discuss it. lol).

      The problem with that is that the damage is comparable to what happens when it tries to go for the subtle approach at the other outpost, so that isn’t clear, and the movie doesn’t really leave any way to expand on that.

      But we have every reason to think temperature impedes its abilities. If it gets cold enough, it will kind of be like being “cyro freeze.” This is again established by the scene of visiting the other base and the reveal that the alien was pulled from a block of ice. If ice didn’t hinder it, then the obvious question of why it had to be “removed” in the first place and it wasn’t just going about, fixing it’s ship in the first place.

      The problem with this is that the ending establishes that the alien creature was trying to turn off the reactor and all the heat so that it could be refrozen, taking out with the rescue/investigation team, and then get a chance to get free and do the infiltration thing again. The heroes are the ones who wanted to blow things up and heat things up. So the alien’s goal was to freeze, and so it should be happy letting the other guy freeze to death and so didn’t need to approach him at all. And the implication of the final words is that they’ll see what happens when the fires die down and things get cold again — and the implication is that the fires are making things really hot — but that only works if the alien is weak now because of the heat but will be stronger later when things get colder, at which point it will be able to shapeshift and/or kill the remaining person. Whether that’s intended or not, it’s not really clear what’s going on there and remember that my biggest problem with the movie is that I’m confused about what’s going on.

  4. natewinchester Says:

    umm… hm. WordPress is being weird about the reply. And I approve of you using Shamus’ point about trusting the storyteller.

    The problem with that is that the damage is comparable to what happens when it tries to go for the subtle approach at the other outpost, so that isn’t clear, and the movie doesn’t really leave any way to expand on that.

    Again, ignoring any additional films and going off ONLY this one, there’s not much reason to assume the alien did go for a subtle approach at the other outpost. Especially since it would have been found in the ice in a non-human form. It would be rather difficult to go for a subtle approach when the group is already aware that you exist and you aren’t anything from earth.

    The problem with this is that the ending establishes that the alien creature was trying to turn off the reactor and all the heat so that it could be refrozen, taking out with the rescue/investigation team, and then get a chance to get free and do the infiltration thing again. The heroes are the ones who wanted to blow things up and heat things up. So the alien’s goal was to freeze, and so it should be happy letting the other guy freeze to death and so didn’t need to approach him at all. And the implication of the final words is that they’ll see what happens when the fires die down and things get cold again — and the implication is that the fires are making things really hot — but that only works if the alien is weak now because of the heat but will be stronger later when things get colder, at which point it will be able to shapeshift and/or kill the remaining person.

    Again it feels like you’re missing key points of info. Cold doesn’t “empower” the alien, it’s just non-fatal. Remember, humans found it and had to chisel it out of ice. If we get cold enough, we die. So all the alien needs to do, if things are bad enough, is let it get cold. It will enter a “preserved” state to await being rescued/discovered/found again while any humans that might be a threat to it… well die. (because getting cold enough is fatal to us) The fire isn’t weakening the alien, it’s keeping the humans alive. When the fire goes out, the humans will die (again, because cold is fatal) while the alien will just be preserved for its next thaw.

    That’s assuming the final shot has an alien in it and not too humans. I personally prefer the “both humans” theory for reasons you pointed out, but one of them being an alien still works with what we’re told and shown.

    Whether that’s intended or not, it’s not really clear what’s going on there and remember that my biggest problem with the movie is that I’m confused about what’s going on.

    Yeah but sometimes the confusion seems to come from either not following something that is laid out in the movie or leaping to a conclusion or two not drawn from the text of the film.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      umm… hm. WordPress is being weird about the reply.

      Don’t worry, I see all the comments to my blog.

      Again, ignoring any additional films and going off ONLY this one, there’s not much reason to assume the alien did go for a subtle approach at the other outpost.

      But remember what my problem actually was: that it looked like it could have been more aggressive than it was, and that it seemed willing to be aggressive at times and so probably should have been more aggressive than it was. Your reply was that from the damage at the other station it might well have tried a more aggressive approach and failed, which would explain it taking a quieter approach here. But the damage done when it supposedly was being more aggressive is about the same as it was when it was being subtle. So from the movie itself there’s no indication that its methodology was any different, and so the idea that it had learned from its last encounter is supposition, and doesn’t follow from what the movie itself shows.

      Especially since it would have been found in the ice in a non-human form. It would be rather difficult to go for a subtle approach when the group is already aware that you exist and you aren’t anything from earth.

      Although they would have also thought that it was dead, so the default approach would probably be, well, what it did at the other station: wait to see if it can get someone alone and infect it, and then the only evidence they’d have of it or of it mimicking something is that the body is gone. I’m not saying it’s IMPOSSIBLE that it was forced into a more aggressive approach earlier, but nothing in the movie itself establishes that and so if it was meant to be used as an argument against my issue then the movie itself needed to make that more clear. Otherwise it is perfectly reasonable to assume that its method at the other station was pretty much the same as at this one.

      Again it feels like you’re missing key points of info. Cold doesn’t “empower” the alien, it’s just non-fatal.

      From how the dialogue was structured, for me it was a perfectly reasonable interpretation of that dialogue that the main hero was pointing out that if the other guy was an alien he was weak now but would be stronger later when things cooled down. So the idea was not that the cold empowered it, but that the heat weakened it, and my gripe was that they couldn’t know that from the fact that it died from and didn’t like fire. Maybe the movie simply meant that the humans would weaken from the cold faster than the alien — which seems clear given its strategy — but then we need an explanation for why the physically powerful alien wouldn’t just attack now, given that the cold didn’t seem to weaken it at all. Then again, maybe it wasn’t an alien at all, but again the main character thought that the alien would definitely be weak at that point and stronger later, and deliberately mentions the temperature. So it has to be related to the temperature somehow, or else they really should have made it more clear why the alien was weak now but would recover later (one possibility is that it would be weak from the fight or the assimilation and would recover, while the humans would start to weaken from the cold, but again they really would have needed to say that given the context of what they said).

      Yeah but sometimes the confusion seems to come from either not following something that is laid out in the movie or leaping to a conclusion or two not drawn from the text of the film.

      Well, nothing you said from the movie was anything other than speculation, and it’s hard for me to be jumping to conclusions because this is what I thought while watching the movie, and so it’s an impression the movie left me in real-time. No matter how you slice that, if that’s what the movie made me think then it is reasonable to say that the movie was unclear in its presentation, even if most people wouldn’t notice it the way I did. Add in that thinking about it afterwards didn’t make it any better and I think a case for ambiguity is pretty reasonable.

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