“…First goddamn week of winter…” is a line so insightful of the winterover mentality that it instantly catapults John Carpenter’s The Thing to the forefront of Antarctic fiction. This notion, gruffly stated by the film’s main protagonist near the opening scenes, sets a tone of disenfranchisement which authentically rings true throughout the film.
Most winterovers look forward with speculative glee to their isolation and routine; anything that rocks the boat (whether it be trivial meddling from management up North, or the calamities presented here) is looked upon with equal scorn and derision. Perhaps having endured several winters and summers at McMurdo Station, I can provide insights and biases unique to a mind degaussed by living in such close proximity to the earth’s concentrated magnetic fields and to eyes desensitized by gazing upon the lifeless white vistas of the Antarctic landscape.
This movie gives an exceptionally accurate image of an early 80′s Antarctic workcamp, and it certainly does justice in relaying the stark and expansive nature of the continent itself, at least as it is along the coasts. The movie also does justice to the fact that Antarctica, like all others, is a blue-collar continent populated by grunts, with many workers here giving only a very casual if not disdainful glance at the Science they Support. Perhaps I have ensconced myself in a circle of cynics, but it has been my experience that people who believe they are here in the name of Science are considered naive, and if this attitude persists into a second season or longer, they are scoffed at as fools. To be sure, this place is infested with said fools, who feel they must surely be on the cusp of something larger than themselves, and thus revel in the perceived majesty of unspoiled nature. They would better revel in the majesty of the power plant, for if they had to live in tents and shit in the cold, they would surely call a turd a turd.
There is genuine value in scientific endeavors here, and some of it is even interesting. But Science is a facade. The real name of the game is Geopolitics. The base in The Thing doesn’t seem to be studying anything; it’s just there to hold on to some unspecified claim. The money that supports this fictional base is, like its more authentic counterparts, for something much larger and far more tenable than Science. We (the United States) aren’t spending 250 million dollars a year because we care about penguins. I am happy to point out that the movie is entirely penguin-free. Indeed, the film gives the impression that if a penguin were to show up before this motley group, the beast would be seized and held as a mascot, at least until one of the dogs tore it to pieces.
There are a few discrepancies in the film’s portrayal of Antarctica. For example, the night sky is too dark for “the first goddamn week of winter”, and an outside temperature of -100F degrees ambient is too cold for where this station is located, which is somewhere near the coast, as mountains are visible. I also enjoy the 1/4″ plywood used for external walls. This wouldn’t keep you warm along the Equator, let alone in an Antarctic winter, but the monster may have had trouble smashing through 3/4″ plywood, several inches of rigid foam insulation, and a metal-skinned wall. But these and a few others are trivial points, and the film is pretty true to form in depicting a camp.
In the film, Antarctica is portrayed as it was before the Antarctic Treaty and the intrusive effects of environmentalism. Pay attention to the empty fuel drums scattered by the wind. They offer the eye its only chance of color and, like flowers, actually add to the landscape around the camp. The eye’s thirst for color is a very real consideration, as I often catch myself gazing at odd or brightly colored machinery, marveling at how vivid it appears. These delicate blossoms have nearly all been cleaned up now, as have been the old camps themselves. The oldest fuel drums and camps are buried deep under snow and ice. We are the lesser for it. Environmentalism has no place in its heart for human history, only blank spaces on maps, areas sanitized of any human taint…it is nihilistic.
Firearms are prevalent in the movie. Handy as they are, they are banned by the Antarctic Treaty. In present day, Antarctic firearms are restricted to the very controlled killing of animals for study, and to the uppermost managers in case of derangement or violence, (usually both as they go together so well). In The Thing, the station manager wears a gun on his hip like an Old West Sheriff. His weapon symbolizes his authority. The film diverges from reality when the station manager lays aside his Godlike powers (in the form of his pistol) upon the realization that he is ineffectual and distrusted as a leader. This is in fact the polar opposite of reality, as no matter how vilified the station manager may be, Godlike powers are never handed over to a peon.
Firearms, like flamethrowers, are forbidden to USAP employees. This is good, as most people here don’t really like each other. They tend to stick together in small cliques of co-workers. The main exception to this rule is the group of people befriended on one’s first plane ride to Antarctica: your “class of (year)” so to speak. This is the only time everybody is more or less equal, after which the pride and prejudice of the Workcenter sets in and quickly segregates departments and thus social mores. This cliquish behavior and friendly hate is somewhat evident in the film, where only a couple of them appear to actually be friends. As is often the case in reality, mutual distrust is belayed by strong drink, at least momentarily.
Aside from high marks for the setting, the film deserves a little ribbing in what it presumes to have you believe, and I will try to illustrate a few negatives that we love to point out as far-fetched and laughable, both in McMurdo and at the South Pole. (I am, by the way, an authority on the South Pole, having spent ten days there, five years ago. By happy chance I watched The Thing there in a communal lounge, my first viewing since the theater release almost fifteen years earlier. We all had fun ripping on the film as a group. Good communal fun. Everything is communal at the South Pole, as the place is packed with hippies and anarchists.)
One example is that MacReady prances around outside in a sombrero. As Antarctica is touted as the coldest and windiest place on Earth, this choice of headgear is worse than nothing. I love to jest that he would be carried aloft and jetted about like The Flying Nun of old, only to lesser ends than God’s work, I’m sure.
Another bone of contention is that Hollywood helicopters fly like fixed-wing aircraft. At the film’s commencement, a helo zooms by at 150 mph, 50 feet off of the ground, all the while trying to shoot a dog running across the landscape. I suppose to hover and kill outright the creature which threatens all of humanity is unsporting and hardly helps the plot proceed, but to do otherwise flies in the face of practical sense.
In the opening scene, needless to say, the creature, in the guise of a sled dog, manages to elude a chasing helicopter over several hundred miles of flat, open snow. The marksman’s use of turn-of-the-century slit-goggles to sight his very accurate and powerful German assault rifle probably didn’t add to his handicap.
While I applaud the premise of the monster in this movie, the creature’s ability for explosive growth is beyond plausibility. Granted, it does make for impressive and startling scenes, but the whole point of this threat is that size doesn’t matter: the creature attacks its host on a cellular level. This is graphically demonstrated on a cutting-edge Commodore-64-type computer simulation: one of the most frightening scenes in the movie. Artificial intelligence to the rescue. The intelligence and technical ability of the alien is just as prodigious and preposterous. Constructing a cavernous underground work area and a spacecraft out of camp debris in just a matter of days is simply too far-fetched. Just submitting the work orders alone would take longer.
The creature itself seems to be composed of entirely combustible material and goes up in flames at the merest hint of fire. I will admit I have never seen anything blasted by a flamethrower, but the monster certainly burns and explodes easily. Actually, the beast is really more of a virus entity, and appears as a monster only when approached at the wrong time, kind of like walking in on a roommate naked, as often happens in the shared dorm rooms at McMurdo. The monster is however an excellent example of earlier slimy special effects gore and cinematic shock. I’m more of a fan of the monster in the 1950′s version of The Thing, although I’m told that John Carpenter’s creature is truer to the book’s monster. I personally have never read the book, and why should I? I’ve seen the movie.
The movie ends somewhat open-ended, leaving you to wonder if the creature is still alive. In fact, the destruction of the camp and sacrifice of the survivors does little if anything to diminish the likelihood of the creature’s success, and probably guarantees it. Earlier in the movie, moments after MacReady acknowledges that every cell of the Thing is a separate entity capable of independent action, he blows an infected and now transformed colleague into smithereens. As a result, the Spring rescue party will walk into a site containing thousands of “Thing” bits, and thus the struggles that the Winter crew had just endured will begin again, (much like our contract system of hiring, where few people return to jobs they held previously, so the place is in a perpetual learning curve.) The second chance given the alien fiend come spring is especially poignant since the ever-thinking MacReady has hidden the cassette tape, containing his drunken narration of events and theories on the creature, somewhere in the station just before setting fire to it.
I like this movie more with each viewing. Aside from the flaws, it’s a fun movie to watch and my criticisms are really just fodder for ridicule. This film is best watched with friends…drunk. The Thing is an icon of late 20th-century Antarctic lore and, like its 1950′s counterpart set in Alaska, pays homage to the working men and women who enable Science and make Things happen, in spite of themselves.