40 Years Later, 'The Thing' Still Has Something to Say

John Carpenter's cult hit is always worth watching

Nicholas Russell
Who Goes There

1982 was a great year for science-fiction movies: Tron, E.T., Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Blade Runner, and The Thing were all released in the same summer. While the merits of some were recognized immediately, The Thing’s reputation seems to have transformed the most, in the way cult-hits tend to: negatively received at the time, now considered a classic, complete with re-screenings, novelizations and comics, a theme park (okay, this one may be an outlier), and a prequel/reboot. Forty years on, John Carpenter’s achievement lies not only with the viscerally grotesque nature of the film’s practical effects and timeless premise, but his use of thematic subtext that only enriches the narrative.

The Thing begins in the cold desert of Antarctica, where the inhabitants of the U.S. National Science Institute, Station 4, are killing time. The crew’s helicopter pilot, MacReady (Kurt Russell), plays chess against a computer. Two of the station’s doctors, Copper and Blair (Richard Dysart and Wilford Brimley, respectively), play table tennis in the rec room while the rest of the crew lounges. All the while, an alien in the guise of a husky runs through the snow, pursued by a Norwegian helicopter. The central conceit, and The Thing’s main draw as a piece of science fiction/horror, is the ability of the titular alien to shape-shift. It “assimilates,” taking the DNA of its host and replicating it. The discord and distrust that this seeds among the crew drives the film to its explosive conclusion. And while The Thing, as a creature and as a film, works as a metaphorical stand-in for many things, like paranoia and fear, or an abstracted illustration of Cold War tension, one of its more potent interpretations is as a litmus for racism.

The characters Nauls and Childs, played by T.K. Carter and Keith David respectively, feature as two different depictions of a black stereotype. The former is presented as a wise-cracking, nigh jive-talking cook who glides through the halls of Station 4 on rollerskates. Allegedly, actor Franklin Ajaye initially read for the role and criticized John Carpenter for how derivative Nauls was as a black character. By contrast, Childs, a mechanic, is an ostensibly less flamboyant take because his character, written as a pragmatic problem solver, is far more integral to the plot and because David is a more skilled performer.

Much of The Thing’s tension plays out silently in furtive glances and searching squints, yet a racial paranoia lurks beneath the surface. The crew fractures quickly, each member suspicious of the other, with a colder derisiveness directed at Childs and Nauls. The question is if this is simply a result of fear or something buried deeper. It’s certainly true that you could place just about any fraught social ill in the alien’s metaphorical place. Some of the most meaningful and enduring stories offer up parallel interpretations that don’t hinge too specifically on one thematic aspect. This tends to be why genre fare is the chosen vehicle for this. But The Thing opens itself up to this specific reading not only because of the demographics of its cast, but in the context of its source material.

The Thing functions on two levels of adaptation: 1951’s film The Thing from Another World, which itself was a loose adaptation of a 1938 short story titled “Who Goes There?” written by John W. Campbell. In addition to being a foundational modern science fiction writer, Campbell was an avowed racist. Friend and fellow author Joe Green said, “[Campbell] pointed out that the much-maligned ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery in the American South had in fact provided the blacks brought there with a higher standard of living than they had in Africa…” Science fiction author Samuel R. Delaney’s novel Nova was rejected by Campbell, who cited the inclusion of a black protagonist as not relatable to his readership. Campbell also wrote many editorials. From “Segregation” (1963): “The Caucasian race has produced super-high-geniuses by the dozen in the last five thousand years; the Oriental race has, also. The Negro race has not.”

In the second half of the 1982 film, a desperate need for some sort of human/non-human test is established. It’s no longer enough to trust one’s eyes and ears. The sensory world is forcibly abandoned and they’ve been tricked before; they must look deeper. After one of the scientists, Windows, is chosen to work on such a test, he is almost immediately killed by the creature. MacReady, newly in command, is left stranded out in the storming darkness to fend for himself, any attempt at a methodical process of elimination eschewed. What results is a crude kind of blood test: a suspect tied up, a finger sliced open, blood exposed to a scalding-hot wire. Since the alien has demonstrated that it can and will do anything to protect itself, with an unsettling command over nearly every component of its body, the remaining crew assume its blood will react in some visible way.

While Carpenter acknowledges in commentary for the film that the ongoing AIDS epidemic and the need for blood tests provided an altogether modern subtext, blood has a long and storied history of use as a loaded symbol for heritage and personhood, from medieval notions of life essence to Jim Crow-era one-drop rules. As Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields elucidate in their book Racecraft, “…metaphorical blood can dispense with the moving parts of natural blood and has always had everything to do with human groups…It can consecrate and purify; it can also profane and pollute. It can define a community and police the borders thereof.”

In The Thing’s ambiguous finale, commander-pilot MacReady is presumably the last survivor. The crew have all been killed by the creature and the camp has been destroyed. MacReady stumbles through the smoldering wreckage of the station, wrapped in a blanket, booze in hand. Childs, presumed dead after abandoning his post guarding the interior of the station earlier, reveals himself just as MacReady sits down. Both men sit across from each other, faces shifting in shadows. MacReady hands Childs his bottle, smiling slightly.

Carpenter cuts The Thing’s final sequence so that the audience can’t confidently assume where either man has just come from and thus if they are still human. MacReady seems to materialize, the same as Childs. It’s often a trap to read into what, in this situation, presents itself as a stark racial dichotomy, though Carpenter makes it hard not to here. One of the reasons this works so well is that, absent any overt thematic directive, at bottom, The Thing goes out of its way to illustrate the destabilization of the body and the destabilization of identity at its very core through mutilation, injury, mimicry, and primal desperation. Carpenter remarked that paranoia was the glue that held the film together, but it’s also the literal and metaphorical malleability of the alien and Carpenter’s light touch.

Repeated efforts since 1982 to produce a sequel eventually culminated in 2011’s film, also called The Thing. None of the original’s suspense remains. 2011’s film is a prequel that ends where Carpenter’s begins, with the alien in the guise of a dog and a dull cast of characters whose fate is even more hopelessly assured than the original’s. There is nothing uncomfortable about the prequel and you cannot read anything meaningful into it, a normally uncontroversial aspect to many films that nonetheless has no good reason to apply here. 1982’s The Thing succeeds in part because, while you don’t have to look deeper, its elements shift and allow you to do so, a new vantage from every angle.

Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.