by Nicholas Johnson
“As a whole the subjects became less trusting and more suspicious of others immediately after their year in Antarctica.” –A.J.W. Taylor, Professor of Clinical Psychology, “The Selection of People for Work in Polar Regions”
John Carpenter’s “The Thing” opens on a U.S. Research Base with a small winter crew, none of whom appear to be scientists. The main character is an independent and quirky drunk named MacReady (played by a bearded Kurt Russell who looks like Ernest Joyce from the Aurora expedition of 1915-1916). “Mac”, as he is called, (McMurdo Station is often called “MacTown”) wears a beat-up sombrero. (The “frontier” allusions are bolstered with a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, who did the music for the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns.) In the opening scene, Mac is playing chess on a computer. The computer swiftly beats him and he responds to the intellectual trouncing by pouring J&B whisky, with ice, into the computer’s circuitry. A commotion takes the men outside, where an apparently insane Norwegian in a helicopter is trying to shoot a dog running toward the U.S. camp. No other country has consistently proven itself so competent in Antarctic endeavors as the Norwegians, yet the foreigner cannot kill the dog with a high-powered rifle, and when he tries to blow up the dog with a grenade, it slips out of his hand and destroys his helicopter. The Americans shoot him. They lay his body out on the pool table. After they put the dog in the kennel, the dog turns into a terrible tentacled monster that sprays the other dogs with a corrosive digestive acid. MacReady raises the station alarm by breaking the Fire Alarm glass with an uncracked Budweiser. After they destroy the dogmonster with a flamethrower, the doctor determines that their winter base is now host to an insidious monster that can infect and replicate any other life form, including a person. The doctor explains that no one can be trusted because the monster could by now have replicated any of them and may be waiting to get each of them alone for an opportunity to attack in stealth. After revealing this key information, the doctor goes insane. The others lock him in a separate hut, away from the main building. MacReady takes charge and threatens to terminate anyone who won’t submit to a blood test to find out who can be trusted. Everyone who is really a hideous monster is destroyed with the flamethrower. The theme of lurking destruction and mistrust is fleshed out, and at the end there is a final battle whereby the remaining humans burn the base down, forfeiting their lives to destroy the monster. At the end, MacReady and one other survivor get drunk and prepare to die in the cold as soon as the flames go out.
On casual viewing, the movie appears to be just another sci-fi movie with dubious special effects. However, no other movie in history has ever depicted daily Antarctic life and its problems with such accuracy and intuitive brilliance. It took place at a research station with no scientists, which is the case with McMurdo Station in the winter. The doctor was nuts, which underscores the problem of attracting to Antarctic stations qualified physicians who have no practice at home and who are willing to work for peanuts on year-to-year contracts.
The doctor was locked in a hut away from the others after his madness, much like the kitchen worker who was locked in McMurdo’s luxurious Hut 10 to await retrieval by the FBI after attacking his co-worker with a hammer.
There was suspicion of aliens, which parallels the evacuation from McMurdo in November 2000 of a science tech who held a lecture called “The Reality of Dreams” and later advertised to the hoi polloi that one Thursday aliens would descend in spacecraft to meet him outside the galley. In the film, the testing of the crew’s blood brings to mind the USAP employee drug tests. And the film prophetically dramatized, and served as propaganda for, the U.S. political push to ban dogs from Antarctica, which the other Treaty Nations reluctantly consented to in 1991. And what of “The Thing”, that can infect any fellow and turn him into a threat against his neighbor, that leads to the ultimate fizzling out of “The Station”? The Thing represents Bureaucracy, reproducing via individual hosts who are each stunted by their fear of an organized but faceless entity that influences every aspect of their daily lives. If there is a more lucid film that describes daily Antarctic life, it has already crumbled to dust in obscurity.
Common icons of Antarctic life are repeated throughout the movie with uncanny precision: spilled fuel; ubiquitous barrels; plentiful whisky; anti-intellectualism; resentment toward Norwegians being the first at Pole; general madness; obsession with generators; and black flags planted in the snow are all familiar to the Antarctic station. There are minor annoyances, such as that the crew stores dynamite in a supply closet in the main building, that they don’t tie anything down outside to keep it from the wind, and that their machines start up in the cold without being plugged in, but the most noteworthy deviation from actual USAP practices is that in the film everyone has a flamethrower. In the movie, fire is a tool against insidious dangers and is employed as an agent for the community against the threat of a larger hostile organism. In the actual USAP, employees are forbidden flamethrowers.