Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Thing: Not Of This Earth

According to the weather, there's a lot of snow headed to where I am and the temperature is in the single digits. The first thing that pops into my head in response to this news is "hey, I've never written about The Thing, and I should really do that." I should do that because it's one of my favorite scary movies, and left a big impression on a much younger me when I first watched it.

It all began when I was in seventh grade, and had to dissect various animals in my life sciences class. We did the usual frog and fetal pig, and I was surprisingly unaffected by these, mostly because the internal organs were all recognizable from anatomical diagrams - hearts looked like hearts, lungs looked like lungs, brains looked like brains. But then we got to the starfish. The starfish, once opened, didn't look like anything I'd ever seen before. There weren't so much recognizable organs as…goop. Pink goop, orange goop, gray goop. Weird frilled and fluted structures, obviously living tissue, biological in nature, but not like anything I'd ever seen before. Utterly alien. That's when I started getting grossed out, because I lacked any frame of reference for what I was seeing. Its purpose was familiar, but its structure wasn't, not at all. That same sense of revulsion at something that is both familiar and completely alien powers The Thing, and combined with profound isolation and paranoia, it makes for a singular experience.

It's the story of twelve men posted at a research station in Antarctica. They've got the prickly familiarity of people made to spend far more time with each other than they'd prefer. Imagine the relationship you have with your coworkers, only your job is also your home and theirs, and there's nothing else to do. So you shoot pool, watch videotaped episodes of game shows for the third or fourth time, smoke weed, do what you have to, whatever it is, to keep from losing your shit. Basically, you've got twelve men who are antisocial enough that living in the Antarctic is an option, all crammed into an intensely social situation. It's already a powder keg, and then a dog comes running into camp, chased by a couple of very angry, very scared Norwegians in a helicopter, who are trying their damnedest to kill the dog, even if that means taking out other people as well. It ends badly, with the helicopter exploding and the surviving man getting a bullet through the head in self-defense. The dog is unharmed, and downright friendly.

Needless to say, this is the most exciting thing to happen around camp in months, and it galvanizes the men into action. They plan an expedition to the Norwegian camp to try and find out what the fuck, assuming that it's a case of men going stir-crazy from being stuck in one of the most isolated places on the planet for too long. It could just as easily be these men, chasing their dogs out into the snow with rifles and grenades, finally unhinged by the endless expanse of nowhere. When they get there, the camp is a smoking ruin, full of carnage. Buildings destroyed and dead bodies everywhere. The only clues remaining are a map, a videotape, and a block of ice out of which something large has been extracted…

…and one badly burned body that doesn't appear to be entirely human.

As near as anyone can tell, the Norwegian camp discovered something in the ice and dug it out, and once this is established, things start getting weird. There's the matter of exactly what it was they discovered and the nature of the bizarre, half-human remains discovered at the camp. And what was up with the dog, anyway? They get their answers in the worst possible way when the dog, kenneled with the research stations' own dogs, explodes into petals of fanged flesh and writhing tentacles, pulling the other dogs into itself as it unfolds in a riot of limbs, stalks, and half-formed heads and mouths. The dog isn't a dog, though it can look like one if it needs to, just as the bizarre body on the examining table in the infirmary is both human and inhuman. The Norwegians appeared to have unearthed an ancient alien spacecraft, and with it an organism capable of infecting, assimilating, and mimicking other forms of life.

Just how long was that dog allowed to run loose around camp, anyway?

Now you have twelve men who can barely stand each other under the best of circumstances, stuck in the middle of a raging snowstorm in one of the most isolated places on Earth, and any one of them could be an invasive alien organism. They respond pretty much as you'd expect people in this situation would - by completely losing their shit and turning on each other. That sense of paranoia and seething distrust, set up so well before the other shoe drops, becomes a constant, nervous hum throughout the rest of the film. But what I think really makes The Thing horrifying, instead of just a production of Twelve Angry Men set in subzero temperatures, is the titular creature. It's truly alien - there's no way for the men to communicate with it, let alone reason with it. It has agency and intelligence - it can cover its tracks, it can engage in misdirection, but its agenda is unclear. There's no way to second-guess it because its thoughts (if it even has thoughts) are totally unknowable.

Most importantly, it is truly alien - its biology isn't at all like ours. It has the features of a virus or a parasite, but it's also a singular entity. It doesn't so much infect or colonize people as overwrite them with its own information. Not only is its biology completely different from ours, its relationship to its biology is as well - it doesn't really seem to have a body as we understand it - every cell is an autonomous agent, every part a whole. The result is profoundly repulsive because it casually violates every understanding we have of what it means to have a body. When someone is revealed as no longer being human, the transformations they undergo are those of a creature that has absolutely no comprehension of what our body is for - heads sprout legs and scuttle away like spiders or split into gaping, fanged mouths. In its least disguised forms it is an incomprehensible, wet, red, writhing mass of heads, claws, arms, mouths, eyes, and tentacles, obviously organic but in utter defiance of any sense of form and function we have. In its most basic ways, we know it's supposed to be a living creature, but in equally basic ways, it doesn't make any sense, and its this inability to parse it that makes it disgusting, disturbing…that makes it alien. Just like my youthful examination of the starfish - I knew it was a living creature, but it didn't make any sense to me, and that was much more revolting than the body of something that made sense. Like many of the best stories about alien life in any medium, The Thing has the courage to go beyond the easy idea of "like us, but different" to embrace the idea of "not like us at all in any way, shape, or form", and that's what makes it powerful. Set the incomprehensible loose among the distrustful in the middle of nowhere, and what you get is a nightmare.

IMDB entry
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Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)

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