In the summer of 1982, John Carpenter’s “The Thing” landed in the theaters, and in the eyes of critics and the public alike it was a dud. Prominent New York Times movie critic Vincent Canby called it “a foolish, depressing, overproduced movie” and said “it looks as if it aspired to be the quintessential moron movie of the 80’s.”
Other prominent critics such as Roger Ebert and Richard Schickel had only slightly less harsh words for the film. The audience at the time largely agreed with them, as shown by the box office records. The film made its money back, but barely. But in 2017, movie theaters have screened special 35mm showings, a publisher has released a coffee table art book, and the Collector’s Edition Blu-ray released last fall is still a bestseller.
What went wrong for “The Thing” in 1982, especially since the film has had one of the greatest reappraisals 35 years since? Cultural historians, film critics, and fans have several theories. Some claim there was an oversaturation of science fiction and fantasy films that year. Audiences had the option to see “Blade Runner” (released the same date), “Conan the Barbarian,” “Poltergeist,” “The Road Warrior,” “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” “Tron,” and the major release of the year, “E.T.,” around the same period.
Others believe it suffered from poor marketing by Universal Studios, causing it to be lost among the heavy hitters of the summer blockbusters. The most plausible reason for its failure is that it was viewed as too bleak for the times. Who do you think most people want hang out with—a kid-friendly alien who likes to munch on Reese’s Pieces before it journeys home, accompanied by John Williams’s triumphant score, or a horrifying shape-shifting, organism-absorbing creature that devours it way to an ambiguous ending?
It didn’t help that many Americans were in a funk due to a recession that would continue until the end of 1982. A vision of despair was not the preferred entertainment of choice.
The Humanity of R.J. MacReady
Over the years, much criticism and analysis of “The Thing” has focused on its special effects. They were and are still notable, especially in the current film climate of CGI-overuse. Others like to examine the intricacies of the plot, debating which character is the Thing and when their absorption and imitation occurs. However, it seems that many critics fail to look at the characterization of the researchers, and see how it reveals their humanity, especially that of R.J. MacReady.
MacReady, portrayed by the easily relatable action star Kurt Russell, is principally the focus of the camera lens. We’re introduced to the hero as he’s playing computer chess while trying to booze the Antarctic chill away. He’s gruff, somewhat unkempt, and perhaps not so friendly: after losing the chess match, he curses and destroys the machine. He’s a Vietnam vet and a helicopter pilot.
Since it’s the early ’80s, one might think this characterization will be pushed forward in a stereotypical way. Films then often portrayed Vietnam vets as unhinged, paranoid, and dangerous to others and themselves. We know MacReady has been going through some turmoil, as he’s portrayed as an outsider to the group and when alone he almost always has a bottle of alcohol in his hand.
At one point, he says he just wants to return to his shack and get drunk. Whether his attitude is due to past war experiences or just the forbidding solitude and climate of Antarctica is unclear. However, it doesn’t matter as the high tension and paranoia the creature causes presses him into becoming the de facto leader of the ever-dwindling researchers.
MacReady Seems an Unlikely Hero
In the beginning of the film, it doesn’t seem MacReady would be the one to take charge. Besides the drinking and self-imposed isolation, in the opening scene, when the Norwegians chase after the Thing-Malamute, it’s the station commander Garry who shows initiative in protecting his men from harm by shooting the pursuing Norwegian. Unfortunately, the miscommunication between the Norwegians and the Americans leads not only to the Norwegian’s death but also to the eventual demise of the Americans.
However, as time progresses and the situation deteriorates, Garry begins to lose his handle on the situation. Confronted with the absorption and transformation of one of his friends, he’s almost emotionally paralyzed by what’s going on. It takes MacReady telling him that all the known infected specimens must be destroyed to snap him out of his inaction.
Two of the other characters, Childs and Blair, display polarities of emotion. Childs exemplifies extreme rationality. When the creature is found and examined, he repeatedly refers to the situation as “Voodoo B.S.” To him, the fantastic can’t possibly enter the contemporary world of 1982. It’s somewhat interesting that Childs is one of the two black actors in the film, and that he expresses this sentiment. All too often, old Hollywood relied on the character of the superstitious black, although the “magic negro” archetype is the current go-to portrayal in vogue for the past few decades.
Blair, instead, allows the revelation of the potential demise of the human race to drive him to an outburst and actions that put him on the outs of the group. His realization that the Thing must not leave the research base leads him to destroy communication devices and means of transportation, which shows his concern for humanity as a whole. However, his wild behavior leaves him in a precarious situation, causing distrust between him and the rest of the team so he must be isolated—and isolation of people is what the Thing wants.
Willing to Sacrifice Himself for Others
It’s MacReady who becomes the rallying point for the researchers, even if they’re somewhat hesitant to follow his lead. Despite their suspicions of him, he pushes them to battle the Thing using both wits and brawn. In nearly all the confrontation scenes, with the Bennings-Thing, with the Norris-Thing, and with the Palmer-Thing, he’s the man initiating the attack against the creature. With Blair’s isolation and Fuchs’ death, it’s left to MacReady to set up a blood test to examine the identity of the men, many of whom still distrust him and doubt the test.
Perhaps thinking back to his chess-playing (the creature could be said to be playing a deadly strategy game with the men), he decides to move from defense to offense and press the final assault by destroying the Thing or at least hindering its plan for escape.
The ending of the film is bleak. The base is destroyed. The extreme cold is unrelenting. Is the Thing destroyed? It’s not clear if the two remaining characters, Childs and MacReady, are still uninfected. However, it’s among the final words of the film that MacReady’s humanity shines forth.
When Childs asks, “How will we make it?” MacReady responds, “Maybe we shouldn’t.” He, too, realizes that the fate of humanity outweighs his fate. A symbolic Ragnarok has occurred between the researchers and the Thing, and perhaps all that can be hoped for after the encounter is a chess-like draw. However, MacReady, tired and beat-up, can be satisfied knowing that during his last days he is an imperfect man who exemplifies some of the best virtues of humankind.