Month: January 2013

Why ‘The Thing’ is Cool

Why ‘The Thing’ is Cool

The first movie in The Thing pantheon is “The Thing From Another World” made in 1951. This is an excellent movie and seems to be in the public domain. This movie was based on a short story, “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. in 1938. 1982 saw a remake as “The Thing” directed by John Carpenter. 2011 saw a prequel also entitled “The Thing”. I’ll focus on the ’82 remake and why its so cool.

First some caveats about the movie’s flaws. Yes, the opening dog chase scene could have been done better. Norwegians, bad shots and butterfingers. Also, computers do things they still can’t do. And really, MacReady destroying a computer just because it beat him at chess? And why do they have flame throwers? All acknowledged. But at the same time these are not fundamental flaws of the movie, they are just minor things that should have been thought through a bit more. Luckily, most of these things are at the beginning and we can forget about them quickly. So please do so.

The first reason why The Thing is cool is because of the gorgeous creature effects. So much fun and I think they still hold up. Now, perhaps I’m just nostalgic for practical effects. But gosh, I really would rather watch practical SFX than anything but the best CG. CG has its place, as background, or cleaning up practical effect scenes. But generally I don’t really like watching CG stuff. Most CG today still looks fake to me. And they still have a hard time animating movements of humans and creatures. Basically The Thing is as good as it gets as far as the tradition of practical effects is concerned. Star Wars is another. The 80’s remake of the Blob also has excellent effects, the Howling is another.

All these movies are so much fun! Army of Darkness? Who’d want to watch it if it was all CG? And even when you can tell that a scene is fake, practical effects have a heft, tactileness, and depth that all but the very best CG can match. I’ll take mediocre practical FX over mediocre CG. At every level of cost and effort, I’d take practical over CG. Though I might take excellent CG (say maybe Avatar) over mediocre practical. I mean the dog kennel scene, how crazy is that? Or when the head pops off the burning body on the table. Crazy! Why would those scenes be better with CG? I can think of no reason.

Secondly, the script was tight. It conveyed information without seeming like it was trying to inform the audience. The characterizations gave each character a personality without them seeming like stereotypes. The tension was ratcheted up at a good pace. The dialogue was excellent… describing a few souls trying to deal with a very difficult situation, trying to sort it out. And really it’s a very complex script, with many characters speaking and being in different locations. The dialogue felt real to me in a way that similar genre pieces do not, where the characters plod from plot point to plot point, and then have a slow moment where they share a personal story and have their characters ‘developed’. None of that poor writing in The Thing! You get to know the characters through their actions, through their words in dealing with the menace at hand. They grapple, physically and mentally with the menace and often fail, and though MacReady is the hero, he fails at certain points too.

Also, so many movies like this have a human character who is also the enemy, who is driven by greed or ignorance and gets in the way of the hero defeating the creature or preventing the disaster or what have you. It is tempting and easy to make this character flat and hated.

But there is no such character in The Thing. Some characters fail in various ways, or get in the way of fighting The Thing. But no character is the one-dimensional human enemy that we love to hate. And I like that complexity, because it is more reflective of real life, and it is more interesting to me to watch various complicated, limited, but basically good, humans struggle with a problem, even if they fail, than watch a perfect hero fight the creature/disaster/ and have a greedy/jerk human get in his/her way (because the lazy writer tends to simplify and personify evil). This is why we have a penchant for guns and violent movies. Because we long for evil that can be dispatched with a gun or explosion. We like stories that involve personified evil so that we may use our guns upon them. Most of our problems today cannot be solved with guns, which is unfortunate because guns are easy to use relative to other problems solving methods such as reading, empathetic listening and building community. A dragon being the reason the crops are being destroyed is a much more exciting problem to solve than soil erosion or aquifer overuse. We crave such enemies because we understand what to do, we fight them, and it makes for good stories. Now, I know the Thing certainly involves violence. But as far as a genre horror/sci-fi movie goes, I think the problems the humans face is a thinking one. They cannot use brute force alone, they must think their way out. So, the other enemy is themselves: their paranoia, their isolation, their failure to grasp the consequences of what The Thing is and what is can do. And this is more realistic an antagonist, and more instructive, than most movie villains, who are flat caricatures.

Of the ‘who can you trust?’ plot lines, of any genre, what better script is there? What movie keeps you more on edge about who is infected? And what movie better explores how a bunch of isolated dudes might deal with such a dilemma? I submit there is no better script out there. ‘Barricade’ movie? No better. ‘Who can be trusted?’ movie? No better. ‘Alien monster’ movie? No better. The movie ‘Alien’ might be as good of a movie, but The Thing has a better script.

Lastly, let’s talk about the politics of The Thing. This is more idiosyncratic, so I don’t expect it to be a reason for everyone to like the movie. But I think any good work can have deeper, even if unintended meanings. Below is the original cover of Hobbes’ Leviathan:

(It’s a political ‘Thing’)

Notice the sovereign is literally made up of the subjects. Immediately this reminds me of the creature in The Thing, where each creature is made of parts that themselves are wholes, wither their own goals and interests. O course, our own bodies can be thought of as a whole made up of cells that have been tamed for the purpose of creating us. Organisms, within organisms, etc. And sometimes parts of our bodies take actions that are contrary to our own. They rebel against us, like a tumor.

But on to the humans. I enjoy watching the dynamics and choices of the characters throughout The Thing. MacReady is of course the natural leader, who takes over when it becomes clear the official leader is not up to the task. Now, at first, MacReady’s leadership and ability to use force (he gets the gun) seems to be accepted, even if grudgingly, by the group. He is the sovereign and has the consent of the governed. But of course throughout the movie this dynamic changes. Circumstances turn just about everyone against him. His position as sovereign is challenged.

MacReady chooses to threaten everyone with death in order to stay alive. In order to stay alive he must solidify his position of sovereign now that the rest are actively against him. It is interesting to me that even though MacReady is the hero of the story, he certainly does not act democratically. He takes control, he threatens the group with violence in order to keep control. He is does not act with the consent of the governed.

Now, the situation is so strange and the stakes are so high that he is probably justified in each of his actions. Or at least, given that there are no clear pathways to success, and the fate of the group and humanity lies in the balance, each individual relying and acting upon the truth as they see it, disregarding others’ views of the truth, is probably reasonable. Also, I discuss below the lack of trust amongst the group leaves each person alone with their thoughts, where paranoia blossoms.

In a democracy, in order to avoid political violence we cast a wide net of government participation, compromise, listen and make deals. In some sense we allow policies and laws to be enforced and created that are against our views of the good so to avoid killing each other over them. I think that’s the idea anyway.

And many political problems are due to lack of trust in our fellow citizens. Of course in The Thing, trust is “hard to come by” as MacReady says. And the result is violence and threats of violence and of people working against one other and working against their best interests. That is the political lesson of The Thing if there is one, the importance of trust in solving common problems. Late in the movie, once MacReady’s test is proved accurate, trust is restored to some extent. Notice that at this point the survivors can work with a common, even if perhaps futile, purpose for the first time in the movie.

So, that’s why The Thing is cool.