Exploring the world through global cinema

Deliverance

This week: blue-collar Antarctica. And aliens.

So far in this series, we’ve explored the triumph of science in the South Pole, looking at the ways in which Antarctica has been a frontier for advancing the human endeavour and a deeper understanding of our planet, both in fiction and genuine footage of a famous expedition. Time for a change of pace now. Antarctica isn’t a place of eternal wonder for all who have worked there, or, as with Virus: Day Of Resurrection last week, a land where the nations of the world put aside their differences for the greater good. Behind every polar expedition there were the grunts – the blue collar workers who carried out the actual hard work and fixed things when they broke down. Inevitably, their Antarctica would be far less glamourous.

Neither is Antarctica universally seen as simply a giant laboratory for altruistic science. Even during Byrd’s time, there were many who saw the South Pole as new land to conquer, its position more of strategic than scientific value. The U.S. Antarctic Expedition of 1939-1941 had as much to do with establishing an American presence there as it did exploration. Today, when the major nations have indeed become a permanent fixture at McMurdo and other base camps, many who work there simply see it as a job – one they are even taxed for – and certainly bound by government and commercial interests just as with anywhere else. Add to that the fact that Antarctica is a hostile environment far from most of the basic comforts, where holding onto one’s sanity is a very real concern, and where one is frequently trapped for months on end with people they don’t necessarily like, and the rose-coloured lens through which the Byrds of the world viewed Antarctica become mottled.

This rather sobering perspective forms the ethos for John Carpenter’s excellent remake of The Thing From Another World, itself an adaptation of the novella ‘Who Goes There?’ by John W. Campbell Jr, published in the August 1938 edition of America’s longest-running science fiction magazine, Astounding Stories. In terms of cinema, it is Carpenter’s version of the tale that has most famously – and most effectively – depicted the blue collar perspective on Antarctica, using the science fiction and horror of the novella as allegory for the difficulties they face there.

The Thing

(1982) Screenplay by Bill Lancaster          Directed by John Carpenter

(You can find a trailer at the bottom of last week’s post)

“Somebody in this camp ain’t what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us. By spring, it could be all of us.”

Far from being a wondrous, unexplored outpost of Earth, the Antarctica of ‘The Thing’ is a dangerous and claustrophobic wilderness.

In the story, a group of scientists stationed at an American Antarctic base encounter an alien life form able to change its shape into that of the host body it has infected. Suspicion turns to paranoia as it quickly becomes apparent that no-one is who he seems. As the fight for survival turns the base personnel against each other, the greater cost is soon realised: if the thing were ever to make contact with the outside world, all of humanity would be destroyed within three years.

One of the ways in which The Thing succeeds so well in its genre is the careful minimalism of Lancaster’s script and Carpenter’s direction. At no point do we ever truly learn, for example, of the alien’s origin, the reason it crashed to Earth, why it landed in Antarctica, whether or not it is sentient, or indeed its true objective in taking over other life forms. Even the title of the film makes this ambiguity plain and if anything, underscores not only the mystery, but the anti-intellectualism of the base personnel: it is simply a threat to be dealt with, its extra-terrestrial identity more of an irritation than of interest. Unsurprisingly, any survivors might argue that its lethality renders any such disinterest entirely justified.

“Behind every polar expedition there were the grunts – the blue collar workers who carried out the actual hard work and fixed things when they broke down. Inevitably, their Antarctica would be far less glamourous.”

Single carrier: the base is infiltrated by a husky. Or something that looks like a husky.

Nor indeed do we learn a great deal about the characters themselves or the purpose of their presence in Antarctica. There seems little, if any, significant research being conducted there and what work does take place is of supreme indifference to the staff. They are simply filling out a contract and counting down the days to its completion. The base staff in turn appear merely to tolerate each other akin to Adamsian office workers, albeit office workers forced to see their colleagues round the clock and to the exclusion of all else. Conversation is stifled by familiarity, contempt, and lack of stimulus (until the drama begins) and entertainment takes the form of alcohol, months-old off-air television recordings, ping-pong, and a well-worn record collection.

Embodying this seemingly-pointless, isolated existence is the classic antihero and main character of R.J. MacReady, very convincingly played by a young and hirsute Kurt Russell. The perpetually Stetson-wearing, hard-bitten and cynical time-server is purposely constructed as a cowboy of the modern age, able to fit quite easily into the seedy saloon bar of some Tombstone-like frontier town of over a century ago. The anti-intellectualism inherent in MacReady and his fellows is expertly summed up in an early scene where his response to losing at computer chess is to pour the remains of his whisky into its circuitry.

Explorations of the Norwegian base suggest the inhabitants may have had good reason to reduce the local dog population.

The cynicism and mistrust is further exemplified and exacerbated by other common elements of Antarctic life. Not only is technology seen to cause problems rather than solve them, but so too other nations – a far cry from the spirit of global fellowship seen in Virus. It is the Norwegians – often derided by others in Antarctica for their prowess in polar climates (and derogatively dubbed ‘Swedes’ by the main character) – who bring the alien to the U.S. base, having failed ironically to deal with it. Even in Virus, it is the Norwegians who are quicker to succumb than their multinational counterparts. Elsewhere, in another role-reversal, an Alaskan malamute, typically used as a sled dog, is the initial carrier of the alien creature.

The Antarctica of The Thing is not the land of adventure and opportunity. Its snow-covered jagged mountains are uninviting, its rolling plains bleak and lifeless, and its terrain offering nothing but mortal danger. It is far from the warmth of civilisation, will quickly kill anyone who strays from their electric-powered shelters with its sub-zero temperatures, and the ground beneath harbours monsters who bring swift, painful oblivion. The ‘thing’ is the ultimate Antarctic allegory for the long-term resident – the near-unbeatable agent of death who threatens to rob them of their humanity, not with merciful swiftness, but by rotting them slowly from within. The South Pole is still the giant laboratory it has always been for those looking at the other end of the microscope: at the furthest frontier of civilisation, humans are unwittingly being tested to see how they fare in extreme conditions. In reality, British Columbia doubles for the frozen continent, but is visually no less convincing to all but perhaps the skilled geologist. The brooding atmosphere is strongly accentuated by Ennio Morricone’s evocative score, different in style from Carpenter’s own compositions and unsurprisingly smoother and more accomplished, yet still fitting quite well into the era of the early Halloweens and The Fog.

The veteran horror director had by this point established his expertise in suspense-filled, well-paced tales of the macabre. The two films mentioned above were both classic examples of highly-effective base-under-siege drama, and in The Thing, Carpenter finally takes the term to its most literal conclusion. The cold, functional, and labyrinthine Antarctic base we see in the film is a perfect counterpoint to the bleak perpetual winter of nothingness outside. The disillusioned denizens inside provide only a candle-flame of human warmth, serving not even enlightened self-interest, but simply the powers of inertia. This disillusion is Carpenter’s contribution to the story, with the original novella produced during the positivist golden era of Byrd-mania. As is typically the case, the remake shows the rising cynicism of the public since the time of the original, no longer so easily caught up in nationalist fervour.

“The Antarctica of The Thing is not the land of adventure and opportunity. Its snow-covered jagged mountains are uninviting, its rolling plains bleak and lifeless, and its terrain offering nothing but mortal danger.”

As the mysterious infection begins to spread, the protagonists discover that it may not be home-grown in origin.

Carpenter and Russell had already collaborated on the director’s earlier apocalyptic outing, Escape From New York, with the young star by now fully aware of what was required of him. Other standouts in the cast include Wilford Brimley as Blair, the scientist who realises no-one present should be allowed to get out alive, Keith David as disbelieving aggressor Childs, and Donald Moffat as Garry, the self-admitting ineffectual leader of the base. A great deal of credit at this point should also go to both Jed, the Alaskan malamute, and his trainer, who between them do an excellent job of creating the dog’s alien nature. Jed, who would go on to play the title character in White Fang, though obviously unaware of the script, is one of the best trained dogs in the business, his body language convincing the viewer of his alter-ego’s menace with every step.

Pushing the envelope for early-80s practical effects is master of gore Rob Bottin, who in The Thing really gives contemporary innards wizard Lucio Fulci a run for his money. Bottin, whose make-up effects work includes The Howling, Twilight Zone: The Movie and Total Recall, lived on set for over a year during the making of The Thing, working round the clock to create visuals that were so gruesome for the period that they polarised film critics worldwide. While from a modern perspective, the clunky movement and obvious puppetry of the alien invaders is evident, so too is the sheer amount of detail in their construction. They are still far more ‘solid’ than any CGI equivalent, and still just as horrific in their design, helped by the well-matched screeching sound design. It could be argued effectively that a number of sequences exist simply to serve the visual effects extravaganza and a more cerebral interpretation of alien metamorphosis might have been employed. The Thing, however, is not intended to be The Midwich Cuckoos, and thanks to good pacing, does not fall into a long, drawn-out visual-effects love-fest at the cost of a story, which is more than can be said for Fulci’s The Beyond of the same period. It’s probably also fair to say that time and familiarity have dulled the senses with my reading of the film, and its efforts seem tame compared to say, Rob Zombie’s Halloween II.

Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady, the anti-intellectual, time-serving helicopter pilot given yet another reason to get the hell out of Antarctica.

The somewhat forgiving nature for old cinema and a healthy suspension of disbelief also help in areas where The Thing does not accurately depict Antarctic life, allegorical or otherwise. Compelling though his performance is, Kurt Russell’s cool cowboy image is more 80s action hero than Antarctic expedition pilot, likewise Childs and Garry fit the typical formula of antagonist and weak authority figure, while radio operator and Jeff Lynne lookalike contest runner-up Windows clearly went to the Crispin Glover school of ‘We’re All Going To Die, Man!’ acting. The easy availability of firearms and flame-throwers to all personnel, along with the high population of open-standing fuel drums also tends to stretch credulity, even before the coming of the Antarctic Treaty. It’s easy to hold up the extra-terrestrial element as justification for action-genre fantasy, but every story should still operate within its own internal logic. Nonetheless, the abundant weaponry and especially flamethrowers are used to satisfying effect, the latter proving especially critical in helping contain the alien menace. Dramatic license is well-served, and the film reaches the type of satisfying ending one would reasonably expect of its horror shoot-em-up credentials, indeed concluding in Carpenter’s signature open-ended dystopian fashion.

And it seems that the story is not over. In 2011, viewers will discover just what happened at the Norwegian base prior to the events of The Thing in a new prequel due for release at the end of the year. Only time will tell if the exercise worthwhile. In the meantime, I encourage interested parties to rediscover the flawed, but entertaining ‘original’ in all its blu-ray glory. I had occasion recently to do just this and found it held up extremely well. It needn’t wash away all that optimistic Antarctic fervour, but perhaps the last word should go to Mr. Campbell himself in this extract from Who Goes There? as the alien spacecraft is destroyed in a mass of flame:

Somehow in the blinding inferno we could see great hunched things, black bulks glowing, even so. They shed even the furious incandescence of the magnesium for a time. Those must have been the engines, we knew. Secrets going in a blazing glory -secrets that might have given Man the planets. Mysterious things that could lift and hurl that ship -and had soaked in the force of the Earth’s magnetic field.

The human adventure continues.

Further Reading

  • Keep up to date with the latest news on the U.S. Antarctic program and the people who make it possible with the Antarctic Sun.
  • Serious Thing enthusiasts might like to read Robert Meakin’s in-depth analysis of the film here.
  • Learn more about today’s Antarctic program and meet the people who actually work there, as well as discovering how they view the place.

 *****

Next Time

Antarctica, February 1953: The first year of Japan’s new Showa Station has drawn to a successful close. The expedition team depart from the base to make way for the relief crew, leaving 15 huskies remaining behind with a small supply of food to keep them nourished during the changeover. However, adverse weather conditions prevent landfall and the second expedition never arrives. The dogs are abandoned to their fate, forced to survive alone in the harsh, polar landscape. Antarctic Film Month concludes with the epic true story of Antarctica, when World On Film returns. Click below to see the original trailer.

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3 responses

  1. Ryan

    Not to be a buzz kill, but it would not take a couple of weeks to destroy the world if The Thing reached civilized areas. Case in point, Blaine’s computer screen says “Entire world population infected 27,000 hours from first contact”.

    That’s about 3 years, give or take.

    P.s.
    I’m a huge fan of John Carpenter’s The Thing 🙂

    May 13, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    • Ryan

      Opps, Blair * 😉

      May 13, 2012 at 6:46 pm

      • Well, whatever he’s called, you’re right about the mathematics! 😉 I actually watched ‘The Thing’ again a couple of weeks ago and picked up on that myself, though had completely forgotten what I’d written. Actually, all of that non-verbal exposition with Blair is one of the things I really like about the film. So much of his character is internalised, but you can see every thought process on Wilford Brimley’s face. Very nicely done.

        May 13, 2012 at 9:38 pm

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