It’s your thing, do what you wanna do,
I can’t tell you who to sock it to.
– Isley Brothers
What in the thing is thingly? What is the thing in itself? We shall not reach the thing in itself until our thinking has first reached the thing as a thing.
– Martin Heidegger
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- Some Things on My Mind
A few years ago I realized it had escaped my notice that a remake (or a prequel) of The Thing passed through movie theaters in October 2011.
Not that I would have been enticed to go. That’s the thing with remakes (or prequels), especially remakes of films that can’t be topped, like John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). But I was curious to see the new Thing (or Thang) and put it at the top of my Netflix queue.
Low expectations made the film seem much better than it probably was. I hadn’t been so tense watching a movie since I saw The Ring (Th’ring?) (2002) – or better, creeped out – despite knowing everyThing that was going to happen.
Because this Thing, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., followed Carpenter’s Thing, Thing by Thing by Thing, and as I hadn’t read anyThing about it, and because prequels don’t generally share the same titles as the first movie made in a series, I assumed it was a remake. Yet I had a feeling that someThing made this a not-quite-typical remake.
I sensed an immediate connection between the two Things, starting with the use of Ennio Morricone’s thump-thumping soundtrack from the 1982 Thing. My sensors vibrated when the new Thing opened with a Norwegian scientific team in the Antarctic. Finally, in the film’s closing sequence, when a husky jumps out of a window followed by several men in a helicopter, the prequel fused its connection with Carpenter’s Thing.
But did this final, hinge moment convince me I was watching a prequel? Wasn’t it really a remake? Could the music, a few Norwegians, and a font-matched title sequence make the new Thing more than it really was?
I decided it is a prequel. No, a remake. Prequel. Remake.
A prequel and a remake – and more.
Although, technically, it has been and is labeled a prequel. I know that now. Too late.
First Things first.
That first Thing to which the 2011 The Thing pays homage is The Thing from Another World (1951), which features James Arness of Gunsmoke fame. Produced by Howard Hawks, it had its own brand of tension, horror, and humor. Hawks’s Thing (someThing made him give Christian Nyby director credit) became a parable of the communist threat, its internal battle among scientists and Air Force personnel centering on how the Thing should be dealt with.
Says one scientist: “There are no enemies in science, only phenomena to be studied.”
In other words, let’s be friends with Things we don’t understand. Except this Arness Thing didn’t seem to want to be friends. Just like the Russian and Chinese and (now) North Korean communists didn’t or don’t want to be our friends. Only the naive would try to shake hands with a Thing.
Did the James Arness Thing (called, in one memorable line, “an intellectual carrot”) represent a new kind of consciousness that could teach the human race a Thing or two, maybe make us aware of our colon-cancer-causing red-meat diets? Or was it a cold-blooded killing Thing out to make mankind a source of its sustenance (our blood)? These arguments, absent in Carpenter’s Thing, appear early, if briefly, in the latest Thing.
Remake or prequel or homage, the latest Thing made me wonder what hold this Thing has on movie audiences. The first Thing preyed upon a War of the Worlds/Cold War fear that the human race could be wiped out. What makes Hawks’s Thing so Hawksian is its depiction of ordinary men and women confronting a more powerful enemy (as in Rio Bravo and El Dorado, but with Kenneth Tobey, not John Wayne, to help them!).
By 1982, the United States did its own version of shape-shifting thanks to the Me Decade and Culture of Narcissism. The breakdown of community and dissolution of trust among people and governmental authority were the new motivators of fear and malaise. Carpenter’s The Thing showed a microcosmic world absorbed with itself, a world where people Thing-i-fied (reified) themselves, becoming deader and more deadly to everyone around them. In Carpenter’s Thing, like Hawks’s, these circumstances force a battle to save the world, but its outcome is no sure Thing. A world of uncooperative, mistrustful individuals cannot battle Things the way those men in Hawks’s Thing could. Who can tell friend from foe when the difference between a human Thing and a human non-Thing is so indeterminate?
Besides eliminating the human race (a generic fear), Carpenter’s Thing depicts the xenophobic fear of being overtaken by an alien force. Hawks’ Thing showed this fear as a singularly defining element of bloodthirsty mass murder, whereas the 1982 and 2011 Things depicted multiple shape-shifting killing machines. “Who Goes There?,”1 the 1938 science fiction novella by John W. Campbell that inspired these movies, seizes on our primal fear that someThing out there – communists, aliens, terrorists – wants to take away our wonderfully abundant life which is full of Things (check your basement, attic, and garage to verify the massive amount of Things in our lives). Such stories don’t appear frequently prior to the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution, but the Thing book and films are not alone in exploiting this fear in cinema.
Ultimately, does the latest Thing have any message or meaning to add to what was already shown in the previous two Things? Has the world progressed or regressed in the last thirty years? The 2011 Thing portrays a time (albeit a very short time) before the 1982 Thing. The new Thing offers no commentary on the America (or Norway) of our own time. One feels throughout this latest Thing that there’s not much at stake. The battle will continue, forward, into the past, at the American camp, where R. J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) is ready and waiting.
I can’t get this Thing out of my head.
Swirling around. Something like: This Thing in itself Thing. Where had I encountered it?
I reread “Who Goes There?” recently, noting when the Thing is referred to as “the Thing.” Since the title has noTHING about a Thing, it’s curious that this would ultimately be the ultimate name for the film.
Here’s the Thing.
The Thing, our beloved Thing, is always referred to as “the thing,” a Thing with a small “t” in the novella. It nearly seems degrading. The damn Thing IS going to take over the earth. Besides, a capitalized Thing should be distinguished from the word’s other uses.
Here are a few from the OED:
- An object that one need not, cannot, or does not wish to give a specific name to. (It’s the standard for the characters in “Who Goes There?”)
- things: personal belongings and clothing.
- A thing: anything (using the word to define itself).
- An inanimate material object as distinct from a living sentient being (Heidegger territory).
- An action, event, thought, or utterance.
- the thing: what is needed or required.
And then there are phrases: Do the right thing. It’s your thing. Have a thing for. One thing leads to another. The last was nearly my title for this piece. The Thing of 1951 leads to The Thing of 1982 leads to The Thing of 2011. What do we make of the thirty-year gaps? Each generation needs its own Thing. The Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomer and Gen X Thing, and the Millennial Thing.
The 1982 Thing corresponds more closely to the original Campbell novella. In particular, the Campbell dwells on the tests to distinguish humans from the inhuman Thing. Speculation begins after the Huskies (not “Russkies”) start howling and thrashing against their cage and the Antarctic crew catches the dog in mid-Thing. Next, Blair (Wilfred Brimley) retreats to a remote shack and barricades himself inside. He wants to prevent himself from taking action against the others because he has figured out they all must die to deny the Thing any chance of leaving Antarctica. MacReady (McReady in the novella) takes charge and starts conducting the tests to determine who’s been made into a Thing. The liberal use of fire to destroy all Things that are Thing-like comes from the book. In the final showdown, going back to Blair, he’s been using his time in the shack to secure, not stop, the Thing’s takeover of Earth.
As the second epigraph suggests, I have had recourse to read (and struggle mightily with) a work of Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought.2 I had read this collection of essays in my mid-twenties. I didn’t recall it very well but someThing stuck. Had to be Heidegger. But where? Googling “The Thing” and “Heidegger,” I found a page from the aforesaid book with a chapter entitled “The Thing.”3 So much had The Thing become a Thing for me that I read Heidegger’s essay the same day I read “Who Goes There?” It seemed clearer, now, that the story, despite being written before the essay (the novella appeared in 1938), perhaps more than any of the films, best captured Heidegger’s idea about Thingness. Because Carpenter remained somewhat close to the novella, his Thing’s meaning has a Heideggerian twang to it, a timbre or musical rhythm.
Before Heideggering you to death, I want to observe how Carpenter’s, if not everyone else’s (including yours), Thing stops short of full Thingness. It goes back to Campbell’s book. I am struck by the relative calm that encases Campbell’s story. Calm: in the sense that characters seem more bent on figuring out what the Thing is and how the Thing ticks. DESPITE their knowing they and the rest of the human race will be obliterated. More importantly, the novella takes time with its characters, especially McReady, as they figure out how they can tell a human from a Thingified human. They deal with the conundrum: would a Thing-person help the non-Thing persons in determining who is a Thing? If the Thing exactly replicates a human, might not this Thing-person realize he’s a Thing? Might this, in fact, be the Thing’s very deep strategy to get out of Antarctica? (This reminds me of the Russian moles in Telefon , who don’t know they’re moles until Donald Pleasence recites some Robert Frost to them over the telephone. Might our undercover Things be brought to full Thingness by the Isley Brothers song?) More chilling than our world being conquered by aliens would be a world overrun by an enemy unconscious of itself.
Alas, no. The Thing’s many Things are part of its singular consciousness and, apparently, its Achilles heel. For McReady (and MacReady), putting an electrical charge into blood determines one’s Thingness or lack thereof.
The difference between reading “Who Goes There?” and seeing Carpenter’s Thing is so great that it seems as if we are experiencing two totally different Things. The Thing films overall are bent on scaring the shit out of us and do an excellent job. The horrible monster in plain sight has noble lineage: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Alien (1979). Carpenter, indeed, owes much to the former film.
Really, who has time for Heidegger?
Even I didn’t. When I started making notes on the last two Things, it wasn’t until I had read the novella that I explored Heidegger’s Thing. It seemed irresistible.
- Faraway, So Close
Carpenter’s Thing depicts the Thing’s victims already succumbing to their inner Thingness (theoretically separating it from the novella). However, in the end, their inability to see who has or has not become Thingified is no different from the novella. Unlike in the first Thing, the group never coheres into a formal unit combating the ominous menace (the “menace” of communist subversion). Such is the importance in the respective depiction of the Things. The formal, external menace, in 1951, becomes an invisible force thirty years later, much more difficult to stop (adhering to classical horror film stakes: the remake is more terrifying). The menace to society – American society – becomes the Society itself, which has the potential of becoming the Thing itself! Carpenter reiterates this internal threat in a parallel alien takeover in They Live (1988).
Is the Thing’s threat in the novella and Carpenter’s film strictly a Heideggerian issue? Did either of these works have time for Heidegger? Is the Heideggerian pressure I am applying to the Things a spurious issue? Or does this issue of Thingness beg to be addressed given the coincidence of the publication of the Heidegger essay and the appearance of the first film? Perhaps I am a critical Thing Thingifying The Thing films? And how exactly does the Heidegger Thing work in the films? Are the men threatened by the Thing’s Heideggerian capabilities? Beyond the pedestrian feeling of “being scared” (this goes for the audience as well), are they suffering from the imminent loss of their Being?
Heidegger writes that “the nature of the thing never comes to light.” It is true that we, the men and us, cannot penetrate the Thing’s identity. There is no communication. The first Thing, with the non-Heidggerian Thing, illustrates this “problem” when the scientist, Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), approaches it (James Arness). Carrington believes “there are no enemies in science, only Phenomena to be studied,” and characterizes the Thing as having “no pleasure, no pain . . . no emotion, no heart. Our superior in every way.” His view reveals, beyond his total prostration before absolute power, a misguided and very naive understanding of the reality of that “power.” The scientist espouses the force of unfeeling Nature over a deluded human race. His views make him a secondary villain in the film and the more reprehensible of the two! Unfortunately for Dr. Carrington, the Arness Thing greets him with a power blow knocking him across the corridor, killing him. One might surmise that the Thing (if it had feelings) is jealously guarding its own Thing-ly power, unwilling to share it with a groveling scientist. In the same manner, the Thing (Heidegger’s) knocks Thingamabob critics violently away from its empty, if defining, space. But not hard enough to kill our speculation.
The Thing desires to be, no, must be, closer to humans. Only, our peerless shape-shifter is no angel. Its mission is to Thingify the human race. We will become a race of Things. Do humans become less of an object as they become a Thing? How do we tell the difference? We can treat people “like objects,” things to be used, but how do we deal with a Thing? How it becomes “present to us in new ways” means also we become a Thing? It is imperative in the novella and Carpenter’s film: DO NOT BE ALONE WITH IT.
A human becoming a Thing, in Heidegger’s terms, means we’ve lost a common function. Our sole purpose is to replicate our Thingness. Which gets us back to the horror of this particular monster. Apparently, a planet of Thing(s) decides to navigate the universe of Space. The goal: to make any living creature it encounters a project of their Thingness.
Heidegger wrote “The Thing” amid a group of essays under the title “Questions Concerning Technology.” The threat of technology he sees as “losing the sense of revealing and truth.” We become more remote from the world.
All distances in time and space are shrinking. Man now reaches overnight, by plane, places which formerly took weeks and months of travel. He now receives instant information, by radio, of events which he formerly learned about only years later, if at all. The germination and growth of plants, which remained hidden throughout the seasons, is now exhibited publicly in a minute, on film. Distant sites of the most ancient cultures are shown on film as if they stood this very moment amidst today’s street traffic. Moreover, the film attests to what it shows by presenting also the camera and its operators at work. The peak of this abolition of every possibility of remoteness is reached by television, which will soon pervade and dominate the whole machinery of communication.4
Technology has abolished our distance from the world without bringing the truth of the world any closer to us. “The peak of this abolition of every possibility of remoteness is reached by television, which will soon pervade and dominate the whole machinery of communication.”
The world of the men at the Antarctic base is Carpenter’s mock-up of Heidegger’s fear. MacReady, Childs, and the others have already succumbed to the technological threat before the Thing arrives in camp. For Carpenter, the Thing infiltrates a world ready to submit completely to being Thingified. The fight against the monster ends with its greater destruction, but there’s some doubt that its mission has been stopped. The final conversation emphasizes the doubt:
Childs: Fire’s got the temperature up all over the camp. Won’t last long though.
MacReady: Neither will we.
Childs: How will we make it?
MacReady: Maybe we shouldn’t.
Childs: If you’re worried about me . . .
MacReady: If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think we’re in much shape to do anything about it.
Childs: Well, what do we do?
MacReady: Why don’t we just . . . wait here for a little while . . . see what happens?
The comparison to the ending of The Thing from Another World is illustrative. The Thing is destroyed, a toasted intellectual vegetable. Scotty (Douglas Spencer) has announced that “One of the world’s greatest battles was fought and won by the human race.” So it may have seemed, symbolically, through the movies, that our cunning and courage were enough. However, this is before television gained ground in our culture. The Thing’s secret weapon has been created by humans and introduced, soon to proliferate exponentially and become the focal point of our lives.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the films being discussed.
- https://wp.nyu.edu/darknessspeaks/wp-content/uploads/sites/3674/2016/09/who_goes_there.pdf [↩]
- Heidegger, Martin. 2013. . Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: Harper. [↩]
- http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~ryanshaw/nmwg/the.thing-heidegger.pdf [↩]
- Heidegger, Poetry, 193. [↩]