Camaraderie, Doubt and Inevitable Doom in Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’
Watch Everyone You’re With
John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) focuses on an all-male research team based on a site in Antarctica as they attempt to survive a mysterious alien infection as it spreads rapidly across their camp. We are introduced to the cast of twelve, often without a name or any prior knowledge of who they are. Interestingly, there is no backstory allowed for those occupying Outpost 31, as we will come to understand that their narrative is based not in the past, but in the fear of the present and in the uncertainty of the future. Each member of the team has a function to perform and interact with one another in a manner devoid of reference to, or in relation towards their masculinity. As such, the film presents a set of characters who thwart the conventional constructions of gender.
Carpenter knows the importance of showing the men as a social unit: drinking, shooting pool, playing cards and ping-pong. While they are undertaking perceived traditional masculine pastimes, there is no sense of heightened bravado or a fight for the alpha male spot, if anything they seem passive, inactive, and bored. There is a sense of community, of the everyday, and these early establishing moments illustrate their unification and their vulnerability, reminding us that they are, after all, only human. When decisions have to be made, they commune around their findings of bodies and organisms, taking digs at one another whilst discussing and disputing theories. There are also very human interactions, for example Benning (Peter Maloney) telling Nauls (T.K Carter) to turn down his music because he was ‘shot today’. These early scenes bring us within the group and will serve to heighten the tension and suspense when relationships begin to fracture.
Outpost 31 is surrounded by miles of untouched snow and effectively isolates the men from all other humans. Carpenter is careful to contrast shots of the social spaces full of life with more deserted moments, creating a deep sense that something is amiss. The winding corridors, numerous rooms and out-buildings also contribute to an overall feeling of disorientation. As is so often the case (see The Shining (1980), The Descent (2005)), there is an early mention of cabin fever, acting as a harbinger of the events that follow. Some of the men splinter off into a sub-group to leave their primary location and explore other environments: the Norwegian camp and the nearby area. Entering this unknown territory, the men come across an axe in a door and mangled bodies with disturbing features, all of which act as a foreshadowing of their eventual fate. In taking their discovery back to base, they unwittingly transfer the tragedy of the Norwegian group to their own setting.
R.J MacReady (Kurt Russell) is frequently shown in isolation from the others. In keeping him entirely separate from the group, Carpenter marks him out as both a leader and an outsider. We first see MacReady alone in his bunker playing a famous game of strategy- Chess, indicating that the film will be a complex journey based upon a variety of moves and decisions. As MacReady wanders out of his bunker, he hardly seems ready for action and with his thin layers of clothes and dudish dark glasses, he appears to be more of a loner than a leader. While the rest of the group dress appropriately, MacReady’s attire always has a touch of personalization that suggests a rebellious streak along with an endearing ability to remain true to himself. Carpenter and Russell skilfully avoid reducing MacReady to a blueprint of a male leader as ultimately, he is defined by the unique attributes and characteristics that make him MacReady rather than any masculine qualities. In essence, MacReady is a multi-faceted character who defies gender stereotypes and easy categorization. He is at once, both even-tempered in his leadership and emotional when events start stacking up against them. He can also present as sensitive whilst talking into his tape-recorder alone and, by turn, be matter of fact such as when he demonstrates his ability to separate Bennings the man from Bennings infected by The Thing.
While MacReady might drink a little too much J & B Whisky, he remains alert and quick to act. When he hears noises from the dog pen, he wastes no time in smashing the alarm, requesting the help of Childs (Keith David) and a flamethrower. Stood apart from the group as they watch, he fires a gun at the suffering dog before taking the initiative and instructing Childs to burn it, a decision that saves the group from harm- at least at this moment. When he returns from the Norwegian camp and the men theorise over their findings, MacReady is again set apart from his peers as he sits on a stool alone at one side of the room whilst his colleagues remain gathered at the opposite end. He consistently proves that he is able to remain focused on risk prevention and survival, despite what might be going on in his mind.
Over the course of The Thing, events repeatedly turn towards the unexpected. One of the Outpost’s dogs becomes infected and, soon after, Benning’s must be set on fire. As if this isn’t enough to endure, this is swiftly followed by Blair smashing up the stations’ systems in a frenzied state. All these incidents have the potential to cause trauma as the group are hit with one thing after another without time to think or compose themselves. They are quick to turn on one another: there is no unity as fingers are pointed left, right, and centre. This pandemonium and arguing culminates in Windows (a hitherto side-line character) acting uncharacteristically bold by running down the corridor, smashing open the gun reserve and grabbing a weapon. With hysteria now in full swing, this provokes Garry to point a gun at Windows and the discursive interactions we have previously seen descend into upended chaos.
When MacReady directs the group into small teams, infighting that was earlier focused on issues of concern regresses into bickering about paranoid trivialities such as who is paired with who. As leader, MacReady cautions his team to: ‘watch whoever you’re with, real close’; planting the seed of doubt firmly in everyone’s mind. Upon returning to an assembly point, Nauls shows some of the men the torn garments belonging to MacReady, prompting the questioning of their strongest asset. At first, they struggle to comprehend this and then, as the possibility of MacReady being The Thing sinks in, a serious rupture occurs within the group. While MacReady pleads to be let in, they discuss whether or not to allow this- the man they trusted has now roused their suspicions with this moment signifying that no one (not even the leader) is immune from mistrust. MacReady appears armed with dynamite and threatens to burn down the camp. The once calm and collected surrogate leader now appears as though he has lost his cool as he trembles and declares that no one is allowed out of his sight. Turning on his colleague for a moment, MacReady questions Child’ judgement, and as Childs replies: ‘you’d have done the same thing’ it’s impossible not to concede that he is right.
As the group holds tests led by MacReady to identify which of them are still human, Clark (Richard Masur) sees an opportunity to take sides and re-identifies MacReady as leader, warning that the group should follow his word. However, MacReady is not drawn into this positioning and choosing of allies as he tells Clark: ‘that’s close enough’. Childs vows that he will not be tied down which is met with a threat to his life from MacReady. Childs dares him to ‘do it’ and when MacReady points the gun at him directly: ‘I mean it’ before accidentally shooting at Clark, it becomes clear that the current atmosphere of paranoia and hysteria is now a breeding ground for rash and ill-considered acts. As each man is issued with the test, the others look inward with uncertainty at the possibility of being The Thing, themselves. This is a very humanizing and relatable scene as the men find themselves in a make-or-break moment as they realise that no-one is going to fight for them anymore and one by one their numbers slowly dwindle until only two remain.
In The Thing, masculinity is not inflated nor is it converted into effeminacy and ultimately, what the film supports is room for a reading that the same sex setting encourages a falling away of gender. The fear that permeates within The Thing eschews any connection to gender. Rather, fear stems from the very notion of not being ‘human’ (crucially, not by not being male) as being ‘other’ means instant death. Carpenter presents us with a psychological exploration of the fragility of trust when exposed to unpredictable events. In terms of community and camaraderie, we watch the group gradually transition from a unified team who work together, to a unit full of conflict, mistrust, and mounting doubt as we reach an inevitable climactic doom.
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