The Thing About “The Thing”
John Carpenter’s The Thing has aged like a fine wine. Pulling in a meager box office and panned reviews upon its release in 1982, it has since gathered an ever-growing cult following. With this age of over-saturated CG blockbuster epics, as beautiful as they may be, it has made the audience jaded and clamoring for something real and grounded, which has only furthered the respect for The Thing. Even by today’s standards, many of the effects shots in The Thing are some of the best, particularly when it comes to the scifi/horror genres. But despite the love for its effects, the subtlety of the story’s who-done-it mystery has also become adored over time.
For those unaware of the premise, The Thing follows a small US crew in the Antarctic that are suddenly besieged by a couple of Norwegians in a helicopter chasing after a husky. After the Norwegians are killed in the chaos, the husky is taken into the facility. Hours later, the husky is revealed to be an alien organism, able to genetically assimilate and copy any being it comes in contact with. But who on the base is an alien and who can be trusted?
And it is within this mystery that one of the true gems of Carpenter’s masterpiece is hidden. The entire film is a game of chess. We are alluded to this premise early on in the film, when in the montage of introducing our characters, McCree (played by Kurt Russell) loses to a computer in a game of chess, and rather than try again, he loses his cool and fries the system with his alcoholic beverage. This seemingly mild scene is actually foreshadowing for the entirety of the film, as McCree and the alien wage strategic and psychological warfare…you know…between brutal slayings and mutilated alien/human monstrosities.
The alien plays primarily with pawns, often appearing to sacrifice entities of itself to pull suspicion off of it and move its larger pieces into place. While this works a majority of the time, McCree prefers to work with his heavy-hitters, swinging in with knight and rook moves that attack the alien head on (in other words, using fire and explosives to draw the Thing out).
So as pawns fall, the alien has fewer and fewer pieces to hide behind and is forced to bring out its queen to try and finish off McCree (the king). Unfortunately for the alien, McCree blindsides the queen with his own and takes out what is argued to be the last of the alien entities.
But the conclusion of The Thing is argued by many. There are two people left. McCree and Childs. Childs has been missing for a while, then suddenly turns up, seemingly human. So is Childs the alien king playing its last move inconspicuously on McCree, or are they both the last remaining pieces on the chess board for team Earth?
It is implied that Childs is an alien. I believe the main piece of evidence to this is that Childs’ coat is different. It is surmised throughout the film that the alien tears up clothes when it assimilates someone, so this is a dead giveaway that Childs is the last remaining alien. I haven’t actually verified this change in attire myself, but that seems like a weird thing to make up when it can be so easily checked.
But it is this superb attention to detail in the plot that hides behind the crazy gore effects that makes The Thing so brilliant. It’s a masterpiece of filmmaking that went unappreciated in its time. The Thing is, in my opinion, the best film Carpenter has ever done by far, evidenced primarily by his clever game of chess.