John Carpenter’s 1982 cult classic horror film “The Thing” is an exploration of survival in unimaginably harsh conditions, those both created by the Antarctic environment and an unfathomable shape shifting opponent whose existence breaks reason and logic. There is much to say about the events in the research station destined to explode with deception, distrust, and panic, but it simply cannot be analyzed without first looking at a seemingly innocuous character scene: the pilot R.J. MacReady playing computer chess. Sipping his cocktail, our protagonist smugly enters a move he is convinced spells victory, but when the computer puts him in checkmate from a direction he hadn’t predicted, he angrily dumps his drink over the circuit boards and fries the computer to a burst of sparks. This small scene not only introduces us to “The Thing’s” core theme of imitation and its strategies, but is the film’s pivotal moment for which the entire climax rests, and is especially important to understand against an opponent that must move its pieces in secret and can capture any of your allies over to its side.
The story starts in media res as a helicopter with mounted sniper chases a husky across the vast snowy tundra and straight to MacReady’s facility. The Americans are immediately on the defensive as the man curses in an unknown tongue and fires erratically at the innocent-looking dog, and the team has no choice but to fire back on the suspicious intruder. When Mac flies a crew to investigate, they find the fiery wreckage of the Norwegian station littered with the corpses of the scientists, grotesque, otherworldy bodies killed in deformed agony, and footage of the team unearthing a massive extraterrestrial ship frozen beneath the snow. It’s obvious that they had pulled an alien from the ice, but where did it go? When the adopted husky back at home explodes in a tangle of tentacles and consumes all within the kennel it was placed, all Hell breaks loose for the MacReady and colleagues. This was the deception the Norwegian team had discovered, and its true form the face of doom.
Mimicry is a successful survival strategy because it offers so many different opportunities, from how the king snake’s resemblance to the coral snake tricks predators into evading it to how the cuckoo bird lays its eggs in other bird’s nests to raise its young. Successful as it can be for the imitator, the act creates natural revulsion in the human psyche, as it destroys the victim’s ability to trust their own senses and destabilizes their perception of reality, assaulting an important interpersonal contract society relies on. Because people have an innate need to be able to trust their neighbors as it leaves them more confident in their own survival, this deception threatens social cohesion and triggers a violent emotional reaction.
John Carpenter had largely defined horror’s slasher subgenre with “Halloween” by giving us a set of characters and systematically killing them off until we have a sole survivor, and the structure continued here. We witness the mundane existence at the station early on but “The Thing’s” narrative expertly destabilizes it. When the thing-in-husky-form wanders the station and into a room where we can only see the shadow of some unrecognizable crew member, the narrative twists implications into suspicion as anyone could have been infected, and risks being the entry point to the larger group. The film understands that the more something becomes one thing the less it becomes something else, and as a test shows that the alien’s every drop of blood is capable of reacting to stimuli, is itself alive, a small impurity can have catastrophic consequences.
The indescribable, formless terror of the thing breaks all human understanding of biology and elevates it to Lovecraftian cosmic horror, but it is the unknowable, deceptive capacities that we find truly unnerving. Consider what the remote frozen station represents, a habitat of people with different roles who, even on their best day, must cooperate to survive the frozen wasteland. The cook, the shepherd, the radio operator, they all have specialized roles within the social dynamic and a loss of one wounds them all. Just as the station is a container of individual parts, the alien itself is its own colony, and the shapeshifting process is the parts reorganizing; any one part can separate from the whole, morph into its own thing, or invade a host to assimilate it from the inside. This invasion is haunting on a psychological level, as it implies that nothing is safe from the subversion, and so with every team member that is taken over the remaining humans’ chances of survival drop to zero. Of course, the thing wants desperately to escape its arctic prison, and if it reaches civilization, humanity is at risk of being totally assimilated. By the film’s climax, it is human survival that is at stake.
So how does Mac’s chess game at the beginning come into play? Where the alien represented mimicry of organic life, the chess program represents it for an inorganic one, an artificial intelligence that came from humanity rather than the cosmos, confined to its computer casing. This loss prepared MacReady, taught him to recognize an important potential outcome for the game of survival. As his colleagues all died, as the specialized pieces on his side of the board were taken, Mac was able to identify his impending defeat and make the best move he could with his remaining options. Dousing the facility in gasoline as he had the computer in alcohol, he moved to blow the board sky high early enough to force a stalemate rather than suffer a humanity-ending loss, and send the thing back into hibernation. As the game’s two remaining kings slouch down in the freezing cold snow, Mac, unsure whether he spoke to Man or Thing, shared a drink with his opponent rather than pour it over him.