Monday, February 10, 2014

Male Competition, Isolation and Paranoia in The Thing

The only female in John Carpenter's The Thing isn't human. It is a digital voice issuing from a computer game and its purpose is to inform MacReady (Kurt Russell) that he has lost. In response to defeat, MacReady destroys the machine. Yet what follows for MacReady is a much larger and more complex game of strategy. MacReady is in a world of men. It is a small world, isolated and remote- it is located in a scientific research facility in the frozen Antarctic. The work these men do isn't really expanded upon because the focus shifts pretty rapidly to a dangerous and invisible threat that they become contaminated with after exploring a nearby base.

This film, like most action movies, is concerned with a battle amongst Alpha males. However, unlike most action movies, it is largely a battle of wits. Of course, there are explosions, and fist fights and shootings in keeping with all the action movie traditions. Nevertheless, the tension in this movie is unlike that featured in other action films. The paranoia in this film is omnipresent, it is almost a living thing and it it is far more unsettling then the alien which is hunting, or rather, residing inside some of these men. The remote nature of the base heightens it as does the close quarters and the relentless cold and snow. In many ways, the events of this film seem to be occurring on another planet. It is an alien world, in which an actual alien is attacking humans, but the behaviors of the humans within it are rather typical.

Though much was made of this film's groundbreaking special effects in the early 80s, its strength lies in its subtlety. It is the fear these men experience and the uncertainty over who is and isn't the enemy that makes this film. Unlike other action films, all male bodies are covered by heavy winter clothing. Of course, this is a necessity due to the frigid temperatures, yet this concealment adds to the sense of dread and paranoia. It reflects the hidden nature of the threat and the way in which each character has no way of knowing the true nature of the other. That these men are fully clothed also confirms that this film is a matter of brains over brawn. If they are to be victorious over the alien, they must use their intellect rather than brute strength.

Once the action begins, there are no longer any daylight scenes. All is dark and cold. This intensifies the sense of mystery and the unknown. Furthermore, The Thing's brilliant conclusion leaves the viewer with a sense of uncertainty. The final sequence of this film is wonderfully understated. Childs and MacReady are the only men left. They contemplate their situation in a conversation that is as subtle as the scene itself. There is, however, a danger beneath it- a veiled threat. The camera alternates the close up shots of their faces and the back and forth volley of their conversation reemphasizes the male competition theme of this film. It is unclear whether Childs is really human at this point (though there are some signs that he may not be). MacReady watches him and Childs glares back as the haunting soundtrack begins quietly. This scene solidifies the unsettled feeling that has been evident throughout the film and that feeling persists long after the film is over.

The original 1951 version of The Thing and the dreadful 2011 remake all featured a female character in the cast. I suspect this is the reason neither film is as effective as the 1982 version. The presence of a woman changes the entire dynamic of a situation. Doubtless, sexual tension increases and male competition becomes largely about impressing or protecting the woman (regardless of how tough and resourceful she proves to be). And also how revolutionary to eliminate female characters? For what is an action hero without at least one woman to bring the sex and the tits and the mussed up hair? (Although Kurt Russell's hair is looking pretty amazing in this film.) I can't think of a modern action movie with a cast of all men. Men are usually the major players in action films but there's always a girl or two in a movie to nag or cajole or flirt or just hang around looking hot and vulnerable (or as in the case of the 21st century film, a woman to play the action hero too). The Thing doesn't allow the viewer that comfort and it is weirder and scarier for it. There is no nurturing, maternal presence here. There is only a monster and a group of men fighting it and each other. By placing the characters in an environment that is sterile, that is a purely male situation, a specific dynamic is created. The conflict becomes about territory and self-protection. Alpha masculinity is distilled to its most ancient as a kind of primal survival instinct comes into play. As a result, this film is not just about a battle with an alien, but is ultimately concerned with the endless competition among men for primacy and dominance.

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