Shape-Shifting: The Thing and the Rise of Extremism

For a film about distrust, The Thing is incredibly honest. It shows the ultimate result of Reagan’s transformative effect on our society: oblivion and fear.

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The Thing

The Thing and Extremism

For a film about distrust, The Thing is incredibly honest. It shows the ultimate result of Reagan’s transformative effect on our society: oblivion and fear.

The 1980s horror boom produced some of the greatest horror remakes: Paul Schrader’s Cat People, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, and Chuck Russell’s The Blob. Even though they tell their stories with more gore and sex, they more or less retain the main concepts and themes of the original films. The exception to this rule is the greatest remake of them all, John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing.

The Thing 1982
John Carpenter’s The Thing

Carpenter’s film presents a message in complete contrast to the original 1951 film, The Thing from Another World. The original film presents a team of highly skilled military men working in perfect harmony to save the planet from an intergalactic vegetable monster. In Carpenter’s film, the characters fail to properly understand and contain the shapeshifting alien which results in the assimilation of most of the characters. John Carpenter’s The Thing demonstrates that by 1982, the Eisenhower-era dream of an America guided by a common purpose was over.

“We Like Ike”

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s effect on the American cultural landscape was not as monumental as FDR or Nixon. In The Age of Eisenhower, historian William Hitchcock attributed Eisenhower’s relatively minor role in popular memory to Eisenhower’s unyielding belief in the power of moderation to bring about American greatness.

He was skeptical of the New Deal welfare state. He was fearful of the supposed racial anarchy caused by the growing civil rights movement. He was not a conservative absolutist, however. Eisenhower oversaw increases in public housing and directed the U.S. Army to aid in the integration of Little Rock, Arkansas’s Central High School. Eisenhower’s mix of classic American conservatism and compassionate centrism found a receptive audience in an America that had just defeated the Axis.

The Thing 1951
The Thing from Another World

The Thing from Another World, released two years before Eisenhower was sworn into office, expresses this post-war ethos. The film tells the story of a group of all-American military men who, while stationed in the Arctic, must do battle with a belligerent humanoid plant from outer space. Complicating matters is the Arctic base’s resident egghead, the goateed nudnik Dr. Carrington.

Carrington not only wishes to make peace with the creature, he wants to become the sinister zucchini’s pupil.  In his groundbreaking overview of 1950s Hollywood films, Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties, Peter Biskind describes the centrist impulses found in many science fiction films of the era. The inhuman menaces, whether they were the giant ants from Them! or the alien invaders from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, stood in for left and right extremists. The sober protagonists of these films (military men or scientists) represent the reasonable center.

Biskind, however, classifies The Thing from Another World as a conservative film due to its skepticism regarding science and bureaucracy, the two sacred idols of the technocratic centrist.  Whereas centrist science fiction films like Them! and Forbidden Planet glorified technological progress and bureaucratic machinery, The Thing from Another World is wary of them both.

When the rogue scientist Carrington uses the example of the atomic bomb in a paean to the benefits of scientific progress, one of the men at the base sarcastically remarks, “That sure made everybody happy.” In the philosophy of Eisenhower and the film, the quest for progress must always be countered by classic American horsesense. The film’s hero, Captain Hendry, is given the nonsensical order by his superiors that the Thing must not be killed. Hendry and his men know that Earth will never know peace as long as the alien lives. 

Despite the film demonstrating numerous reactionary tendencies, The Thing from Another World is not a complete ode to right wing paranoia and individualism. It shares many qualities that Biskind uses to identify 1950s centrist science fiction films. The Thing from Another World has a disdain for the out of touch bureaucrats at the top, but it presents the hierarchy of the Arctic base as a model of American efficiency.

Through their cooperation, they are able to defeat an adversary that is more physically powerful and technologically advanced. Not only do the staff of the base work well together, they seem to enjoy genuine comradery. The warm atmosphere of the base is in stark contrast to the hostile Arctic environment. The only member of the base who does not contribute to the sense of unity is the scientist, Dr. Carrington.

In An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, critic Carlos Clarens noted that one of the main themes of the film is that the intellect becomes monstrous when the heart is removed. The oblivious Dr. Carrington and the brutal Thing are both illustrations of this idea. When Carrignton attempts to approach the Thing he appeals to its superior intellect: “You’re wiser than anything on Earth. Look at me and see that I am trying to help you!” The emotionless plant monster is unmoved by his appeal and nearly kills him. Soon after this failed first contact, the monster is literally cooked to death by the Earthlings’ ingenious electrical trap. 

Red Scare Protests

The political paradox of the 1950s was a desire for social cohesion melded with a “Red Scare” influenced hesitation regarding New Deal social programs and African-American civil rights. The contradictions of this stance could not be reconciled. This became apparent in subsequent decades.

“America’s best days are yet to come…”

The turmoil of the late 1960s drove Dwight Eisenhower to pen a final warning regarding the dangers of extremism in the pages of Reader’s Digest. He pleaded for a political philosophy that was, “Great enough to accommodate all reasonable citizens, from the moderate conservative to the moderate liberal.” Eisenhower’s own party would help ensure that his dream was never realized. The GOP’s decision to move rightward would transform American culture and politics. 

The “southern strategy” is often mischaracterized as solely the tool of Richard Nixon, who used it to sway former Southern Dixecrats to the GOP during the period of 1968-1972. In reality it began with Barry Goldwater’s embrace of the radical right wing during his 1964 presidential run and continues with Donald Trump’s “permanent campaigning.”  It was Ronald Reagan, however, who cemented the southern strategy as possibly the most important movement in American politics.

The “Reagan era” is often thought of as a return to an era of optimism in the American way of life. This newfound “optimism” was actually built upon a continued backlash to the equality movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Nativism, racism, evangelical Christianity, and a Social Darwinist view of economics were key components of the southern strategy and in Reagan, a former television host and B-movie actor, they found their greatest proponent.

Unlike Eisenhower’s moderate conservatism, “Reaganism” achieved political success by magnifying cultural and societal differences rather than attempting to bridge them. The Thing was released in 1982, during the early years of the “Reagan Revolution.” The southern strategy had been going for nearly twenty years. The cynicism and mistrust of the era are reflected in the film’s brutal portrayal of paranoia and bodily trauma. 

The Thing is the bleakest of the great 1980s science fiction films. It was released two weeks after the smash hit E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a film which seemed to condemn the bloodthirstiness of the Reaganite imagination while condoning its depiction of middle class white suburbia as the “real America.” The film provided liberal film critics and audiences with the best of both worlds. Steven Spielberg has the same attitude as Dr. Carrington regarding aliens: if these beings are so much more intelligent than humans, then they must be more compassionate as well.

The Thing offers no such hope.  Many film historians (and Carpenter himself) have attributed this to the film’s poor critical and financial performance. The America of E.T. was a fantasy that many Americans, weary of the unrest of the 60s and 70s, were eager to take part in. 

Even though both Thing films credit John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” as source material, it is only Carpenter’s film which retains the story’s shape shifting alien. Unlike the 1951 film, in which James Arness portrayed the supposedly super-intelligent monster as a cross between Frankenstein’s monster and the Jolly Green Giant, the 1982 version of the Thing has no definite shape or form.

Any member of the Outpost 31’s staff could be the Thing. In The Thing from Another World, the defining feature of the group was a spirit of cooperation. In The Thing, it is paranoia and distrust. Carpenter’s film was made after a period of assassinations, domestic terrorism, and scandal. It reflects a period where the politics of division and resentment were becoming more and more powerful. 

In The Thing from Another World, the men of the Arctic base are able to successfully defeat the creature with minimal casualties. In The Thing, Macready is only able to stop the monster after it has successfully killed and/or assimilated almost all of the base’s crew. The viewer is left unsure as to whether or not Macready was successful in defeating the Thing. The film ends with Macready and Childs (the only other survivor) shivering in the Antarctic cold. It could be the temperature which kills them. It is possible that one of them is the alien and will absorb and duplicate the other.

The only thing we can be sure of is that they are doomed. The 1951 film famously tempers its triumphant ending with the warning “keep watching the skies!” but it is ultimately a story of success. Failure is a key theme in the 1982 film. The men fail to understand the alien nature of the Thing. They fail to prevent members of their party from being duplicated by the Thing. Institutional failures such as the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the energy crisis are reflected in the 1982 film just as the victories over the Axis and the Great Depression are mirrored in the 1951 film. 

John Carpenter’s next alien invasion film, They Live (released in 1988), made his opinion on the Reagan Revolution even clearer. In the darkest septic tanks of the internet, Neo-Nazis have adopted the film as a metaphor for their anti-Semetic conspiracy theories. Carpenter has fought back against this interpretation explaining that the film was about “unrestrained capitalism” and a backlash to Reaganism.

“I dunno what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off…”

In the thirty-plus years since their releases, Carpenter’s two paranoia classics have become more relevant than ever. In contrast to its contemporary reviews, The Thing from 1982 is generally considered to be superior to the original. The Thing from Another World is one of the most well-crafted science fiction films of the first century of Hollywood. Yet its story of a high functioning group of military men defeating a lumbering man-plant does not resonate as it once did. The failures of U.S. Outpost 31 are much more relatable to current generations. 

Eisenhower’s goal of moderate conservatism was never going to be achieved. It is impossible to achieve a unified country while refusing to fully acknowledge the humanity of millions of Americans. As long as there is skepticism regarding equality and economic justice, the more radical side of the right wing will always find purchase. Contemporary audiences live in a world where the excesses of capitalism have made the United States the hot spot of a global pandemic.

We live in a world where over fifty years of fear-mongering and conspiratorial thinking has made “does snot carry germs?” a question that is up for debate.  As I write this in June 2020, protests against police violence (partially caused by decades of racist “law and order” rhetoric) have erupted in all fifty states. For a film that is about distrust, The Thing is incredibly honest. It shows the ultimate result of Ronald Reagan’s transformative effect on our society: oblivion and fear.

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