Friday, January 16, 2009

I Know I'm Human: Identity and Skepticism in The Thing

(The following was written for my Philosophy of Film class last semester. It's kind of longwinded and a wee bit dry, but for those of you who are genre fans thought I might share it with all of you. Spoilers follow if you haven't yet seen Carpenter's picture, and if you haven't, what are you waiting for?)

"I think, therefore I am," one of the most famous statements in philosophy, was the conclusion reached by René Descartes, who sought to navigate through the murk of global skepticism by finding a rock-solid foundation for what he could be utterly sure of. What's more, if I think, I know that I am human - whatever that may mean - but I cannot be so sure about anyone else. This issue is at the heart of John Carpenter's The Thing, the 1982 film based off of Joseph W. Campbell Jr,'s novella Who Goes There?, in which the members of an Antarctic research team are overtaken by a shape-shifting alien creature. Like Descartes, each character in the picture is forced to strip away all they know from sensory knowledge, common sense, and the relationships between them, in order to try and fight the Other within their midst.

"Body snatchers" (that is, not ghoulish Dwight Frye types who dig up consecrated burial grounds, but shape-shifting aliens and other malicious creatures who steal the identities of their human hosts) are popular antagonists in science fiction. Films such as these were especially common during the tempestuous, who-can-you-trust McCarthy-era 50's. The Red Planet stood in for the Red Menace in pictures like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Invaders from Mars, which played to packed houses of wide-eyed kids, all of whom had been warned that their best friend, their neighbor, their schoolteacher, even their mother and father could be conniving disciples of Joseph Stalin. More often than not, the setting for the beginning of an alien takeover was a Midwestern small town, making the contrast between good, decent Americans and the evil, drone-like, disguised intruders very morally black and white. Carpenter's film shows his obvious affection for this subgenre, as well as for the original adaptation of his film's source material, Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World (the titular creature of which was not a shape-shifter, but still single-minded in its quest to destroy our way of life.) However, he uses these genre trappings to fuse a much more morally murky and philosophically interesting story, wherein each character is forced to adopt a Descartian outlook on life in order to survive. The ones that do survive are the ones who have matured, in a philosophical sense, and the ones who don't are either overtaken by the Thing, or killed by their teammates in a fit of confusion.

One of the main criticisms of global skepticism (at least it was a criticism of mine, when I first read Descartes in CCNY's first-year philosophy course) was why exactly should one care if one cannot fully trust one's senses? To wonder if an evil demon has created for me a false dream-state world, or if I'm plugged into a Matrix/Dark City-like computer program, or if I'm simply a brain in a vat being fed information, seems to have no bearing on my immediate situation beyond simple curiosity. Supposedly, if he exists, this evil demon wants me to be relatively happy and well-looked after, to go to college, to have two loving parents and a wonderful girlfriend, to make enough money to live off of, and not starve and suffer. What's wrong with that, even if it isn't real? The Thing, on the other hand, is only capable of a smaller illusion. Typified as a "chameleon that strikes in the dark," it is not omnipresent nor capable of mind control, only of disguise and deception. However, unlike Descartes' demon, it poses a direct and immediate threat - it kills those it imitates, and plans to steadily take over the world. (Curiously, Carpenter would later make a film much more in keeping with the hypothesis of the evil demon: 1988's They Live, in which Rowdy Roddy Piper discovers that the prison of the American classes and economic system is also an elaborate mirage, perpetrated by aliens posing as Republicans.)

As I mentioned before, the men in the film are characterized when we first meet them as philosophically immature. Though part of a science team, they are, for the most part, blue-collar types, much like the space crew of Alien. Before the arrival of the Thing in their base, we never see them working on any scientific projects, instead playing ping-pong, listening to rock music, smoking joints and watching videotaped reruns of "Let's Make a Deal." MacReady, the film's hero, is introduced drinking scotch and playing chess with a computer, and when he unexpectedly loses, he dumps his drink into the inner wiring, proclaiming it a "cheatin' bitch." Since MacReady is played by Kurt Russell, we initially read this act as "badass" and it causes us to side with him an admirable cool guy. But it has a deeper significance, as MacReady, in the beginning of the story, is too proud to admit defeat at the hands of a non-human entity. Over the course of the picture he gains perspective and enlightenment, and his final strike against the Thing is one of noble self-sacrifice, even though he is unsure if he will be successful.

The only other survivor is Childs, who is skeptical of both the other men and the reality of the Thing itself right from the start. For a start, he calls the theories of the Thing's shape-shifting usurpation "voodoo bullshit" even after he has seen the creature gorily assimilate the station's huskies. He continues to have his doubts even as his team members are subsequently picked off When MacReady forces them all to participate in a blood test - drawing blood from each of them, then using a hot needle to determine whether the blood is simply lifeless tissue or a seperate entity with its own consciousness and nervous system - Childs insists that it "doesn't prove a thing." He has good reason too. For all he knows, MacReady could be a Thing, deliberately orchestrating the test as a smoke and mirrors act. The fact that MacReady was outside alone for an extended period of time, and that his ripped clothes were discovered in his furnace, further support this theory. Childs is singular in that he does not philosophically mature throughout the course of the film, (as several other characters, who fall victim to the Thing, also do not,) but he already has the maturity necessary for his own survival.

The other characters are fascinating in their own right. Copper, the doctor, is a compassionate man whose Kantian sense of responsibility towards others proves to be his undoing. He states the Americans' duty to go and check out the Norwegian base as a simple fact of life, even though the weather conditions would make flying the helicopter dangerous. He is assimilated by the Thing while operating on Norris. Similarly compassionate towards dogs, though not so much towards humans, is Clark, the husky expert. His quiet and withdrawn nature and his preference for the company of dogs makes him a red herring to the audience as well as the other team members. He tries to stop Childs from using a flamethrower on the dogs even though he can clearly see they are transforming into something else. Eventually, his odd behavior causes MacReady to accidentally shoot him in the heat of a Mexican standoff, though his blood test proves afterwards that he was human all along.

Bennings, the Thing's first victim, is a meteorolgist. It is apparent that he looks down his nose at many of the other members of the crew when he complains at Nauls, the station cook, to turn his music down, and when he and Norris share a knowing, "oh, look at the teacher's pet" glance when Fuchs asks to talk to MacReady in private. His position of superiority gives him the false illusion of better strategic and survival skills. Nauls, on the other hand, is relatively young and naive, and similarly trusting and compassionate in the same way Copper is. Though he masks these traits in a "cool" persona, roller-skating through the hall and playing Stevie Wonder on the boombox, when the Thing begins to claim more victims he becomes more and more like a child looking to an adult for guidance and protection. When he, Garry, and MacReady are in the catacombs, he strays too far from his mentor figure and the Thing (in the guise of Blair) claims his life.

Carpenter has long expressed his love of westerns, particularly those of Howard Hawks. Both Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing have the same overall plot arc as Rio Bravo, with a small band of men holed up inside a building, defending it from an outside intruder. Garry is the character most representative of the black and white morality of the American western - his favorite philosopher, it seems, is John Wayne. When the commotion with the Norwegians chasing the dog finds its way to their front door, and all the other men run outside, Garry crouches in the cellar and smashes the window with his six-shooter, as if the perpetrators of this disturbance were marauding Apaches. He later steps outside when the Norwegian begins frantically shooting at the camp, and pops him squarely in the head. He goes from the gut, shoots first and asks questions later. But both he and the other men know that he is an anachronism in this world, as evidenced by Windows' line "I was wondering when El Capitain was going to be able to use his pop gun," and when he reluctantly hands the weapon over to MacReady, begrudgingly acknowledging that the other man is better suited to lead. One wonders why lonely old cowboy like him signed on as part of this expedition. Probably it was that Antarctica represented the last frontier for him, the last wilderness on earth where one could still live out the fantasy of a man against the untamed land.

The Thing itself is every bit as fascinating in its nature as the men. Truly, there have been few better examples in science fiction cinema of a lifeform that fully demonstrates Frederich Nietzsche's doctrine that for living things, the will to live was secondary to the will to power. The Thing wants to become all-powerful by assimilating all non-Things it comes into contact with, and it seems that it would rather do this sooner rather than later. However, it also very wisely looks out for its own survival, and tries not to expose itself until it is forced to do so. Like the titular creature from Alien, the Thing is both intelligent and instinctive. The beast that Ian Holm's android Ash described as a "perfect creature" really can't hold a candle to Carpenter's monster. At least from a biological standpoint, it is a flawless combat machine. From the outset, we know it is more than a mindless beast, as we see it in husky form nonchalantly exploring the base, exploring every nook and cranny to better use to its advantage. Every molecule of its genetic makeup is capable of breaking away and acting as its own separate entity. When it imitates a human being or another mammal, it adopts all of their traits, down to their mannerisms, their way of speaking and acting, even their various illnesses and other quirks. Consider how, when the creature takes over Norris, who has a weak heart, it has a heart attack, and must be taken to the operating room, even though this accidentally puts the it in a tight spot it hadn't foreseen. Also consider Palmer, who had been completely overtaken by the Thing at the same time. When he delivers one of the picture's most famous one-liners at the sight of a severed head which has sprouted spidery legs and antennae, he is speaking as the Thing, completely in character as Palmer; the other men fully believe the words were uttered by the drug-addled ne'er-do-well that they all know. However, when MacReady is about to administer the test on Palmer's blood, we see a look of anticipatory terror on his (or rather its) face. It is the Thing acknowledging that it has been backed into a corner, and if it does not act fast it will be bested.

Blair, the station's senior biologist, is by far the most interesting character in the film. It is deliberately ambiguous, both to the audience and to the rest of the men, whether or not he is infected by the Thing, until the end of the film. His treatment at the hands of the other characters is key to understanding the ethics of the story. Personally, I like to believe that Blair was slowly infected by the Thing during his performance of the autopsy. It worked its way into his blood gradually, in contrast to the way that Norris and Bennings were quickly and violently assimilated. When Blair sits at the computer, calculating how long it would take to infect the whole planet if the Thing reached a civilized area, he is dreading an end of humanity that he himself is becoming a pawn in. He smashes the radio equipment, the tractor and helicopter in a John Stuart Mill-inspired act of sacrifice (both of himself and the reluctant others) to quarantine the men from the rest of the world. The symptoms of his gradual transformation are further evidenced in the scene when MacReady goes to check on him and finds him sitting on his bed with a noose tied to the ceiling. When MacReady asks if he has seen Fulchs, Blair, simply states that he is all better now, and wants to come back inside. Here, I believe that the Thing has taken over Blair almost completely, but he hasn't quite grasped the man's nuanced behavior enough to form a logical argument. He also seems comically unaware of the noose hanging beside him, suggesting that the Blair half of him contemplated suicide before the Thing half took over and decided against it.
However, in Campbell's original story, it is made clear that Blair is infected early on, and that the Thing fakes his nervous breakdown in order to be put into isolation, so that it can build its spaceship in peace. Carpenter keeps things deliberately inconclusive. It makes just as much sense that the Thing, disguised as Blair, might have destroyed the radio equipment to prevent the men from seeking help, hoping to infect all of them and then move on. If this is true, then the close-up on Blair's face as he looks at the computer is extremely chilling; a cold and calculating beast figuring out precisely how long it will take him to carry out his mission. It's a testament to Carpenter's direction and Wilford Brimley's great performance that such opaqueness was preserved, but either way, the Thing is a monster that Nietzsche would have loved - intelligent and crafty, yet utterly monomaniacal in its will to power.

There's no denying that The Thing is a seminal sci-fi picture, and the reason I think it works so well is that, while the philosophical subtext is certainly the backbone of the film, it is largely subliminal. Those who see the film, for the most part, just see an incredibly strong film about a small band of men fighting an alien creature; even the most die hard fans of the picture are often times at a loss of words to explain just why it is so great. And like all philosophy, it offers more questions than answers, leaving us to decide for ourselves what the future holds. We know as little as the characters do about the Thing's true nature, whether it will spell the end of humanity or it has been stopped. Like any great philosopher, Carpenter can only show us the evidence and then let us decide for ourselves.


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