John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing From Outer Space is one of the few remakes that actually proves better than the original, combining the director’s visceral body horror style with an unknowable alien entity - recognised only as the titular ‘Thing’.
The master class in horror film functions as a sick type of murder mystery, with no one knowing exactly what the creature is, or who it may be inhabiting at any given time. Following the discovery of an alien life form buried deep in the ice on an arctic research expedition, it soon attempts to assimilate the scientists in their isolated facility, taking over their bodies and minds one by one, until only two are left alive to toast their inevitable deaths in the cold.
These two would be our main hero MacReady played by the moustache himself Kurt Russell, and Childs, Keith David’s scientist that gets lost in the commotion earlier on in the film. There’s reasonable doubt, however, that they’re both actually men at all - did you just assume their gender? - and that at least one of them is assimilated by the time the credits roll.
MacReady thinks he has put an end to the reign of terror the thing has put his team through by blowing up the facility, at least, until Childs turns up out of the blue. With the pair choosing to sit in an uneasy alliance as the buildings burn, MacReady hands Childs his bottle of whiskey, and they wait out their eventual death-by-freezing as the night grows ever darker.
So how do we know both characters are human? Can we trust what appears on screen, or is there more to it?
Looking at the prodigal Childs then, there’s clearly some signs that he’s not all there - having returned for the end of the film after going missing for much of the last act. If you look closely at the pair in the final sequence, the most telling sign of Childs' inhuman nature comes in the absence of breath. Whilst MacReady’s panting is clearly visible against the night sky, Childs’ breathing is conspicuously invisible - raising the question of if he’s even breathing at all. Humans need to breathe, aliens don’t. Science, b*tch.
Childs’ untimely disappearance obviously plays into the theory that he’s been assimilated, but what’s even more damning is his change of outfit. Throughout the movie, it’s well established that the thing will tear through its victim’s clothes when imitating them, meaning that the new coat could potentially be a cover up for the alien to disguise its attack.
Furthermore, Childs taking a drink from MacReady’s whiskey is the final nail in the coffin. Earlier in the film, we see MacReady make molotov cocktails with the very same alcohol - it isn’t a far stretch to assume that he’s done the same with the final bottle, filling it with petrol; especially as the established drinker never takes a sip. This is important as the thing will have no idea what whiskey or petrol tastes like, and won’t react to drinking fuel as a human would. When Childs takes a swig, MacReady’s world-weary chuckle to himself and the resumption of the creepy music tell us he knows that his friend Childs is less than human. He just can’t do anything about it.
Of course, there’s evidence the other way too. There’s obviously the naive notion that Childs is just Childs, and the two survivors are spending their last moments on Earth hateful and mistrusting - a fitting ending to a film that puts these emotions at its very core. If 2011’s prequel is also taken into account then there’s also the introduction of another feature of the alien thing - that it can’t replicate non-organic material.
This would mean Childs’ earring is enough to prove his humanity in the final sequence; but considering the thing’s history of learning and adapting, it isn’t a far stretch to see the creature learning to cover its tracks by taking the jewellery from the real Childs’ body after this discovery in the ‘first’ movie.
In any case, we can at least attest for MacReady’s humanity as we follow him throughout the film, leaving very little space for him to have been assimilated off-screen. Or at least, that’s what you’d like to think...
There’s some slim chance the change is slow acting and MacReady is aware he’s infected, and has set a blaze alight to cover his deceptive tracks as the last ‘thing’ standing to gain the uneasy trust of Childs. It would make sense since he’s holding a giant flamethrower, after all. If this is the case, it could be that his initial contraction came from sharing a bottle with Blair - meaning his chuckle at Childs’ consumption of his whiskey has a much more sinister undertone: he would have infected him too.
Carpenter himself has admitted that one of the men left is assimilated, but won’t reveal who, and whilse there’s a plethora of comics and video games that make the decision for us: the real beauty lies in The Thing’s ambiguous ending and our ability to decide what our OWN truth is. Maybe they’re both infected, maybe they’re not - either way, The Thing will remain a genre classic and the standard intense storytelling. No one does it quite like Carpenter.
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