NOIRVEMBER 005 ~ John Carpenter’s The Thing
Imagine for a moment if John Carpenter’s THE THING had a happy ending. Or if it’s hero lead was a true action star, always right, and able to uppercut any and all problems. Hot damn, that would be one boring ass rote flick.
Imagine if THE THING was only a horror movie. A slasher flick. If it wasn’t about anything – though, yes, some slasher flicks are about something. Gah, what a shitty world that would be.
I’m thankful I grew up in a world where John Carpenter made a remake of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and he made it as a paranoid sci fi SFX driven noir. I’m also thankful I got to literally ‘grow up’ in this world because for some reason the monkeys at the parenting button fell asleep one night and I got to watch this flick at a disturbingly young age. And I loved it beyond belief. I was the only kid in primary school able to work in quotes from Carpenter interviews in Fangoria when it came time to roundtable about our favourite flicks. But I digress:
Consider Macready. Our bearded lead [I’m reticent to apply the ‘hero’ label here] played to perfection by a be-goggled Kurt Russell. Now consider him more closely, forget the crazy hat, the gigantic fur coat, c’mon, he’s in Antarctica, strip all that away and who do you have?
Macready’s personal scene where we peek at the cards he holds so close to his chest is a phenomenally deft display of characterisation as he plays chess against his computer while sipping some J&B whiskey. Because of course he’s a loner and he likes his tipple. And when the machine beats him, he calls her a bitch and pours his drink into her, frying her circuits. Because of course he’s compulsive and bitter. And alone. And shunning the one ‘female’ in the entire flick.
If there was ever a hardboiled lead -this time solid frozen – then it is Macready. He isn’t infallible, he gets his ass kicked, a lot, but he constantly gets back up and he’s willing to do the difficult things, even when they make him look batguano insane.
With him set up, amidst a cast of other kooks, we then unleash the alien force that’ll tear them apart [literally]. With the case afoot, people start dying and we follow Macready as he struggles to stay alive and solve the case. But in a case like this, what if there’s no solution? What if there’s only harm minimisation?
And that’s the biggest problem with a noir world [real problem, not narrative/genre problem], sometimes you can’t solve a problem. Sometimes someone has no ‘good’ setting. In crime, this is amped up and played as true but when you escalate this viewpoint into a malevolent force of alien nature that’s planning to assimilate the entire world and destroy us all, you make the stakes higher [perhaps the highest without going intergalactic] and yet Carpenter chooses to still play it all small.
One of the finest scenes in the flick is set on and around a couch. Carpenter doesn’t ever lose that human thread to the movie that connects to us on the deepest level. Because at the end of the flick, with the battle ‘won,’ I always considered Macready to have saved the world when in actuality he’s no doubt saved the galaxy/universe. Left unchecked, the thing would’ve just kept on going [we can only presume] and he’s halted its path. For now. But we consider it a human victory because of the job Carpenter does. This isn’t ray guns and V-necked horseshit. This is noir.
And I should unpack one quick thing I said above, the solution is only for now. Macready is making a sacrifice for a W that is most likely not going to last. It’s certainly easily undone, by someone with a misplaced electric blanket, or an oil drill. I mean, if we told climate change deniers that they’re eventually going to thaw out our ripped apart demise then maybe we’d finally make some much needed world change.
But Macready makes this sacrifice and the flick ends on what should be a happy note, a win, but instead we get two men staring at each other across the snow and no matter how you run it, it’s the saddest ending ever because Macready might actually be the thing at this point, or Keith David’s Childs might be, or they might both be, or neither of them is. Roll those dice, look at the dual display, and no matter what you’ve got it’s heartbreaking and all for completely different reasons. Impending painful doom, a wasted opportunity to find salvation; it comes down to basic mistrust and the greater good. No man is willing to risk saving themselves lest they save the other and he turn out to already be turned. It’s so terrible in its poignant perfection.
The ultimate down ending sends us off with “Let’s sit around here for a while…see what happens.” and then the flick ends because we really don’t want to see what happens. It’s too much – despite when a Dark Horse Comics miniseries thought otherwise as it showed us both men rescued and the narrative cycle begun anew.
No, there is no second chance, Macready does this right, he does it til the end, there is no more. Poor bastard.