The Thing: Who is the disease, and who is the cure?

Sometimes a xenomorphic alien says more about us than about outer space

The thing (ha) I keep coming back to in John Carpenter’s 1982 cult classic The Thing is, just what is the Thing? Is it a disease? A creature? A condition?

The best-known debate around the movie concerns the ending, amid the blown-up ruins of the Antarctic base: is Kurt Russell or Keith David the Thing? Are they both?

Personally, I’ve never worried all that much about ambiguous movie endings, like Inception with the endless agonizing over that stupid spinning top. If the writer and/or director want you to not know, you’re just screwed. Accept it.

In The Thing, I find the nature of the alien fascinating. It’s a creature that can take over any organic form, jumping from one body to the next, usually just as the poor host species discovers the previous iteration of the creature and torches it. Staying one step ahead of the flamethrower doesn’t seem like very effective evolution, but it makes for a smashing film. Crusty biologist Wilford Brimley has some handy Timex Sinclair graphics for us to ponder:

intruder alert
stand still, little dog cell
okay that’s bad
okay that’s really, really bad

Talk about the multiplier effect of social!

Does the alien absorb to survive or to attack? There are plenty of people who claim to have the answer, but the fact that it’s a bit mind-bending is part of the story’s strength. Humans are paradoxical. Why shouldn’t this alien be?

Call it the opposite of anthropomorphism: naturfication, maybe? Not only are humans nothing special, but maybe we’re on the oh, shit part of the life spectrum, the part that we seem inclined to be repulsed by, or, if we’re a certain kind of human, to create and let loose upon the world. To quote Agent Smith in The Matrix, “Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague, and we are the cure.”

It’s no shock that aliens would be a disease as well; anything that has to replace to survive is going to be. If you take that theory to its logical conclusion, life is just one disease supplanting another, trying to find a host who stays alive long enough to allow the game to continue. Considering the gleefully misanthropic ending of Carpenter’s earlier classic Escape from New York, it’s no surprise that there’s no delightful “huzzah, humanity wins!” at the end of The Thing.

All stills are from The Thing producer Stuart Cohen’s site The Original Fan, which I heartily recommend you visit and peruse.

The not-all-that-bad prequel of the same title is worth watching, but even better is a weirdly great short story from the Thing’s POV by Peter Watts, the author of Blindsight (downloadable from his website on Creative Commons License). The “original” movie version, 1951’s The Thing from Another World, is a staple on Turner Classic Movies, and the original 1938 short story by John W. Campbell, of which Carpenter’s film is a much better adaptation, is dated but interesting.

Looking for a lively discussion thread and an insider’s perspective on the computer interfaces in The Thing? Well, you’re in luck.

How about a detailed archive including an interview with Carpenter, the script, behind-the-scenes photos, press clippings, and video? Your luck continues to hold.