Internal or External Evil?
John Carpenter's The Thing is a timeless horror classic. It takes the bones of the 1951 The Thing from Another World (and the 1938 novella Who Goes There?) and creates a tense and taught thriller where no one can be trusted and anyone could be a shape-shifting alien beast. It's impressive and scary and gory, the kind of film that sticks with you long after you've seen.
While it may not have been a success upon its release, ignored by audiences and reviled by critics, The Thing has gone on to be considered one of the great films of the sci-fi/horror form. So many have come to the movie and walked away wanting more. Universal knew that, likely seeing the continued sales for the physical discs of the movie, and they decided the create a prequel, 2011's The Thing. They dropped the ball, failing to understand what made the 1982 film so special, instead creating a movie that explained things that didn't need to be explained while failing to create real horror in the process. This was an extension of the brand no one asked for and, again, audiences failed to gel with the film (although, this time around, no one came back to say, "hey, you know, this film was actually good").
That doesn't mean an extension of the story is impossible. It just takes more thought, and more skill, that Universal's team could muster. there was a 2002 video game that acted as a sequel and, but most accounts, did a good job of creating that palpable sense of fear and distrust that the 1982 movie crafted. That game focused on a new team and tried to put you back into the same kind of story as the movie. It works, in a way, but there's another way to look at The Thing and see potential stories. There's a character, lurking, beyond the humans we already know. There's the Thing itself. The film doesn't explore it, but maybe someone else could.
Written in 2010 by Peter Watts (before Universal announced their prequel), "The Things" is a short story that covers the events of the 1982 film from the perspective of the alien itself. Well, from the perspective of one version of the alien because, as we learn in the story, the alien is a sentient mass that can grow and expand and "commune" with the biomass of other living creatures, becoming one with them and taking them over. Each character in the film from Blair to Childs to MacReady, could have been the Thing, that was the point of the movie. But maybe they were all infected, at least a little. Maybe they were all the things and they just didn't know it, not yet.
That's the angle of the story as the Thing, inside of Childs near the end of the film, reflects back on what's happened since it made it to the US Antarctic base inside of the dog at the start of the film. It was chased there, and then it "found communion" with the other dogs in the kennel. From there it grew and spread, slowly adding itself to each member of the base it could find, learning each of these beings and discovering what made them tick, all while it worked to find some means of escape off the planet so it could head back to the stars and find the rest of itself. To commune with the greater whole once more.
The perspective shift in the story is interesting. It takes the whole of the film and flips it, not just because it removes the question who is infected and who isn't (as far as the alien knows, they're all at various levels of infected), but also because it creates a different concept for the alien invasion. Yes, the creature is here to ingest and adapt and become, but there's no sense of malice from it... not at the start, anyway. The human fear of the other is what makes us thing of the Thing as the monster, but from the perspective of the alien biomass, we're all the monsters.
The alien is never explored as a real character in the film. It's a monster, an alien thing. The novella, though, gives us a sentient character within the alien, viewing us as the aliens in fact because we're so different from it, so abnormal from its perspective. It's a creature where each cell is part of the whole, each iota sentient, and to come across us with single bodies that are of single mind, where so much of us isn't sentient, seems abnormal to the beast. It's wrong. We're wrong.
A detail I love from the story is the utter incomprehension the creature has about the humans its taken over. The worlds it explored before Earth had organisms not unlike itself -- cellular, diverse, able to grown and spread and adapt. But humanity has a weird system, a single sentient piece of meat at the top of its carapace. The alien thinks of it like a cancer, a globule of wrong tissue that shouldn't exist in a properly created being. It's horrified at the creatures it's inhabiting, these things that haven't adapted properly.
But that also gets to an important point about this creature: it's still alien to us. Its motivations are foreign and its desires completely opposite to our own. On those other worlds it moved in and adapted to the creatures living there, finding similar organisms to itself. But by coming to Earth (thousands of years ago in a crash) it's landed in an ecosystem it doesn't understand and it's trying to force itself into beings that can't coexists... if that was even something the alien was wanting to do.
That the alien forces its way in also gets to something important about the novella: despite the creature having its own perspective in this story, that doesn't make it the hero of the tale. It's still a monster, it just doesn't understand why. It's so foreign that it's an invader and there is no way for it to take over here and coexist... and maybe it never did on the other worlds, either. Perhaps it was always the monster, on every world. Always the invader, taking over and bending the creature to its will. We get to see the intelligence and sentience of the being, but that doesn't mean we have to like it.
As an unofficial extension of The Thing (one that, due to when it came out, doesn't even pay attention to the continuity of the prequel), "The Things" gives us an interesting perspective on the story. it allows us to view the events of the 1982 movie in a new way, and find new things to creep us out all over again. It doesn't change the events, but it does change our perspective, and that proves to be a smart choice. Instead of just trying to extend this story expands and adapt. Like the monster at the center of the tale in infests the story and adapts it in its own way. It's almost a story about itself, metaphorically, and I really liked that.
- Read "The Things" on the Clarkesworld Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine website