John Carpenter’s The Thing is the Ultimate Pandemic Lockdown Movie
Forget your Outbreaks and Contagions. Even your World War Zs need not apply.
If it is the perfect encapsulation of the Coronavirus pandemic experience you seek in a movie, then look no further than John Carpenter’s masterpiece from 1982, The Thing. While other contenders try hard, with their smuggled monkeys (Outbreak); adulterous, infectious wives returning from business trips (Contagion); and seemingly mysterious zombie infections (World War Z), this 1982 version of The Thing strangely manages to weave the detail of our new reality into a prescient 109 minute tale about a shape-shifting alien.
When it arrived in cinemas, The Thing was deemed a failure in both commercial and critical terms. Based on the 1938 science fiction novella Who Goes There by John W Campbell Jr, and previously adapted for the screen as The Thing from Another World in 1951, John Carpenter’s The Thing was written by Bill Lancaster, and released at a time of economic stress in the United States. Its box office competition was the much more hopeful and family friendly alien movie, E.T: The Extraterrestrial. In contrast to that story of love and empathy conquering all, The Thing is a dark, grisly, and sinister film, the ending of which is bleak and intentionally vague. But, like many films that were considered failures in their own time, The Thing has become increasingly relatable as the years have worn on.
After its initial release, 1951’s The Thing From Another World was generally seen as a commentary on McCarthy-era paranoia and the widespread suspicion of communist sympathisers. After its home video release in the early 1980s, John Carpenter’s The Thing was noted for including themes of Cold War tensions and ‘mutually assured destruction’, while also focusing on the concept of masculinity. When viewed through the lens of today’s world, however, John Carpenter’s The Thing takes on a whole new context.
Let’s start with the basics. When a Norwegian helicopter pursues a sled dog into the boundaries of a U.S research station in Antarctica, a team of American men are confronted with a situation that soon turns deadly. The helicopter is destroyed, the Norwegian contingent is killed, and the dog eventually reveals itself to be carrying a horrifying extraterrestrial life-form of unknown origin; a creature whose mode of transportation has been dug out of the ice by the Norwegian team — disturbing something that has been long buried. It is a parasite that spreads between hosts — assimilating other life forms as it goes — and it has been brought into the American camp by the dog, having first laid waste to the Norwegian research station.
In other words, these characters are in peril when a contagion makes the leap from animal to human host.
The tension in the film builds as the team realises that humans can have this contagion while showing no outward signs. The infected can be asymptomatic for an extended period of time, and this leads to heightened suspicion and conflict. Leadership is in disarray as characters succumb to fear and despair. The contagion causes lasting internal damage to its victims, even as they walk around looking apparently healthy. It is not until the point of death that the true horror is revealed. Biologist Blair (Wilford Brimley) studies the evidence, and concludes that the infection is highly transmissible when a person spends more than a few minutes alone with a carrier. One of the scientists on the team, Fuchs (Joel Polis), determines that just one particle of this contagious life-form could cause deadly infection in a human.
“We should cook our own food, and eat from cans.”
Hygiene and social distancing become the vital measures needed to prevent further spread. Indeed, if you substituted the Antarctic Research Station setting for a house-share in South East London’s Forest Hill during the Coronavirus pandemic, these characters would surely behave in much the same way.
But, the Coronavirus lockdown comparisons don’t end with the basic details. The way in which these characters treat the scientists among them makes it a far more complex analogy than that.
The scientists on this Antarctic research team of Americans are not the decision-makers. They do the research and learn the facts, but it is less qualified men who ultimately call the shots. This results in the science being open to the interpretation of lay-people. It means that the experts apply their years of subject-specific education and experience to the problem, present their findings, and then other people apply their “judgment” to it to determine the overall course of action.
Blair, the biologist who first discovers the true nature of the contagion, is incarcerated — his interactions with the rest of the group limited and monitored by those in charge. The rest of the crew — led by helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) — lock him away in a cabin, isolated from the main building. They do this because they disapprove of Blair’s own judgment. Upon realising the threat the contagion poses to the whole of humanity, Blair takes the matter into his own hands and destroys communication equipment to prevent any contact with the wider world. His intention can be construed as seeking to end the crisis there and then, by providing the contagion with no means of travel. He seeks to protect the rest of the human race, and he is shunned for it — on the pretext that his behaviour is erratic, and possibly indicative of the contagion.
Blair is indeed revealed to be infected by the time the movie draws to an end, but the point at which his infection happens is one of the legendary, intentional mysteries of The Thing. Generations of fans have pored over every scene to try and identify the moment it happens, highlighting various clues to prove their theories. The aim of the alien creature is to infect humanity, so it wouldn’t have destroyed all means of escape from the base — therefore Blair was not infected at the point of his violent outburst. The alien creature wants to keep its host alive, so the fact that a noose suddenly appears in the shack that holds Blair indicates he must have been infected while locked in there — because he wouldn’t have been suicidal if he was also infected; but, the dog that eventually appears from his chest suggests that he was possibly infected at the beginning of the film, when the alien is first seen in the dog kennel. Unless, of course, the contagion simply retains elements of all the life-forms it infects.
Within the narrative structure, this uncertainty adds to the sense of paranoia and terror that saturates the film, and gradually intensifies as the plot thickens. Within the context of the Coronavirus pandemic, this element of the script now reflects the uncertainty that has spread through global society since January 2020. The illness attacks your lungs; it’s a respiratory disease that can make your other organs shut down, or it’s a blood vessel disease. It doesn’t really affect children, but it also gives children a Kawasaki-like disease. It came from an animal market, or it came from a laboratory. Masks help reduce the risk of infection, but also masks don’t really provide much protection. We should all wash our hands more, but that makes us vulnerable to other bacteria. We should stay two metres apart, but also one metre is fine. We can’t send all our children back to school, but we can take them to crowded high streets for shopping.
This uncertainty means there is confusion, panic, and distrust among communities — just as there is in the Antarctic Research Base in The Thing. The film descends into arguments about who should be in charge, and about the nature of their motivations. Ideas and strategies are questioned — including MacReady’s plan to Test, Track, and Trace the alien, using blood samples and a heated copper wire. The reasoning behind this experiment is that their experience of the contagion demonstrates that each part of the host body operates as a separate creature, once assimilated, making the application of heat to a blood sample a relatively logical step. It also highlights the fact that, even though these less qualified decision-makers are sceptical of the factual claims made by their scientific colleagues, they always turn to science for answers in the end.
The final frame of John Carpenter’s The Thing is the point at which similarities between the story and the Coronavirus pandemic end, and are replaced with a metaphorical kick in the head. MacReady and his fellow non-scientist Childs (Keith David) are the last men standing. The two men have despised each other throughout the movie, and their respective masculinities have clashed on numerous occasions. We know that Childs is likely to have been infected, and that MacReady intends to use the information learned from science to keep them sitting together while the research station burns to the ground — taking them with it, and theoretically preventing the spread of the contagion to the rest of the world. In other words, he does what Blair the biologist told the group to do in the first place, before they locked him up.
We may not get to see whether MacReady is successful or not in the context of the story, but we know his efforts are heroic. He has emerged as the most effective non-scientific decision-maker and, in the face of an unprecedented threat, has chosen to stand his ground — to prioritise the preservation of human life outside of this infection ‘hot-zone’ above all other considerations, including his own interests.
If every country, in reality, had a leader prepared to do the same, 2020 might have been quite different for us all.