Cult Culture: The Ultimate in Alien Terror

Ranking high on the list of popular cult culture is The Thing, almost always in its Carpenter incarnation.  I think we’ve finally reached the point in our movie culture where 1951’s The Thing From Another World
has faded into Cold War antiquity.  The stumbling carrot beast
with the sound ability to punch through paper-thin Styrofoam walls,
against which only American individualism and know-how can compete, was
an undisguised propaganda film.  It’s Red Menace filmmaking at
it’s worst, made laughable by the hysterical final lines shouted into
the shortwave set to You and Me, Mr. and Mrs. America:  “Watch the
skies, everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!”

The insidious threat of communism is as alien to the 21st Century as
Meco’s “Empire Strikes Back Medley.”  And thank god, too.
Hell, by the time Carpenter got around to the remake in 1982, the real
threat of communism had already started to fade.  Reagan’s “Evil
Empire” and the mythical arms “race” of the 80’s was getting the same
half-serious dismissal as a second Bush Administration.  Despite
the popular media urgings in films like The Day After and Threads, workaday America had stopped watching the skies.

The new Thing tackled much larger social issues – the thin
fabric of trust within our own community and, of course, the onset of
AIDS.  The creature acts like a virus and, ultimately, we’re all
doomed to catch it.  The remake ends with doubt and hopelessness
instead of the original’s preaching that we’ll all be okay if we stick
together and remain vigilant.  What gives Carpenter’s version a
true and lasting edge is that our team of Everymen can’t stick together.  It’s no longer in their nature.  The revamp Thing
is one of those movies that, 23 years later, doesn’t get tired.
Even in light of the occasionally ridiculous early 80’s plasticized
gore-fest effects and the laundry list of Hollywood inaccuracies and

In a way, it’s daring that Carpenter takes on a very real social issue
– groups of people locked in a space together just not getting
along.  There are no heroes, no friends.  Just mass psychosis
within the mostly blue-collar skeleton crew manning an Antarctic base
during the long winter months.  At the lead is Kurt Russell, a
typical Carpenter anti-hero who’s more sociopath than anything
else.  In the original script, he was a half-mad, disgruntled
Vietnam vet who had fled the real world in favor of a desolate
Antarctic research station.  That deeper analysis of his character
was dropped, but the mood is still there throughout.

The Carpenter version adds to the hopelessness of a decaying society by
removing the blood from our crew’s hands.  In the original, we
woke up the creature after salvaging a UFO.  (The threat of
communism was our own creation?)  In the remake, it’s the
Norwegians who have brought the creature back to life.  Our boys
are simply innocent bystanders.  (The elements that tear apart the
delicate threads of our society come from the hubris of weaker
nations?)  We begin with the most ludicrous chase scene in movie
history: A husky outrunning a Norwegian helicopter across a couple
hundred miles of wasteland.  The Norwegians are trying to kill the
dog with a high powered, classy-looking rifle and, round after round,
they can’t seem to get a clear shot.  Always well behind the dog
(which means it’s running at about a hundred miles an hour, right?),
all hope is lost when the Norwegians spot the American base.  The
dog gets to safety and the Norwegians land, fumble a few grenades, and
get blown up, all while rifle boy stalks into camp and manages to hit
one of our team…but, still, misses the dog.  If you’re playing a
drinking game, then you’re down for the count in the first five minutes.

So the story begins.  A creepy build up for about half an hour –
visiting the blasted-out remains of the Norwegian camp and setting up
some spooky stalking dog scenes.  Then, the games begin.  In
classic Ye Olde Alien Movie style, the rest of the film is buckets of
blood, everything falling apart, slime, fire, wild gunshots, unlimited
ammunition, flamethrowers and everyone getting picked off one by one
while the final solution becomes clear:  Blow everything up.

It’s the weaving of the story that sets it ahead.  That’s
something Carpenter was pretty good at until the late 80’s.  The
strong cast helps, as well.  Russell, in those early days, could
hold his own, but throw in Wilfred Brimley as the mad doctor, Keith
David as the tough black guy (Chronicles of Riddick, Requiem for a Dream, They Live, Platoon), and a few other strong faces you’ll recognize, and you’ve got real movement going on.

Where the screenplay takes us is perfect.  Trust no one.  We
have a brief moment of light when a solution for identifying the
chameleonic creatures is discovered, but angry killer aliens looking to
wipe out humanity is just the surface issue.  Back to the decaying
threads of society theme.  Even with a solution, our crew isn’t
able to pull themselves together.  There’s no sense of leadership
and an overwhelming inability to function as a team.  Paranoia and
anger runs deep, not only mimicking the modern American society, a soft
underbelly exposed, but also the very real psychological evaluations of
groups working together in isolated environments, something that has
come under intense study within the last 15 years.  Case workers
analyzing how men and women work together at Antarctic posts, space
stations, within biosphere projects and looking towards potential
missions to Mars have created a niche in the head shrinking sciences
and, I believe, say some powerful things about where we all stand with
each other – running scared, splintered and brain dead in 21st Century
America.  If anything, The Thing becomes more powerful
with age.  Looking beyond rubber masks and karo syrup, it’s a
fortunate thing that Kurt Russell’s anti-social tendencies aren’t
explained by bad experiences in a dated war, and that his compatriots
are all sort of timeless Everymen trying to move independently in their
very closed, very frightened worlds.  The secret to the film’s
success is that feeling of total detachment and personal isolation,
seemingly in conscious defiance of rational behavior.

Now, why should you grab this film and get reacquainted with it, or
watch it for the first time?  Because this is the year of the
remake.  The Sci-Fi Channel is putting a four hour mini-series
(with hopes of a regular series) into production.  The mini-series
will pick up where the famous final scene of the movie left off.
Launching a series from one of most thought-provoking (and playful)
finales in A-list sci-fi cinema history takes a dark mind and an empty
heart.  Get this movie into you before it’s ruined forever.