Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Sci-Fi '72: Z.P.G. (Zero Population Growth)


In 1968, author Paul R. Erlich had an unexpected best seller with a book entitled The Population Bomb.  It sold over two million copies and yet was vociferously derided by the forces of the extreme right and the extreme left in America.  

In short, Erlich's book suggested that if birth-rate trends continued unabated, over-population would cause mass starvation and country-wide die-outs in the 1970s and 1980s.  

Since we survived those years and decades without any such famine or mass-deaths, it is tempting to gaze at The Population Bomb today as just another end-of-the-word scenario that didn't come to pass. At the time of publication, critics widely termed The Population Bomb "alarmist" for what they termed the author's wild "predictions."

But jokes, political agendas, and critiques aside, The Population Bomb remains an initiative that contains at least some kernel of currency in our world today; the idea of Earth's "finite capacity to sustain human civilization," as the author himself put it in a defense entitled The Population Bomb Revisited, available in The Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development. 

In terms of film theory, if we recall the axiom that movies universally mirror their social-political contexts, then The Population Bomb is certainly a major "bugaboo" and influencing factor in the late 1960s and early 1970s genre cinema. This period -- pre-Star Wars (1977) --  was a highly inventive one for filmmakers, who veritably obsessed on dystopian futures and apocalyptic scenarios.  

Aside from the brilliant Planet of the Apes films (1968-1973), the social commentary of  John Boorman's Zardoz (1974), and the satirical Death Race 2000 (1975) there were several major films of this epoch that explicitly broached the topic of overpopulation and suggested (mostly horrible...) ways to "sustain human civilization" in the event of planetary disaster.  

Among these  notable efforts were George Lucas's visually-dynamic THX-1138 (1971), the macabre Soylent Green (1973), the colorful and action-packed Logan's Run (1976) and the subject of today's review, ZPG: Zero Population Growth (1972).

In some ways, ZPG was just as casually dismissed by critics of the day as had been The Population Bomb.  

The New York Times' Vincent Canby wrote disparagingly of the film that it was "a sometimes funny (unintentionally), untimely meditation on the earth's over-population problems, set in some future smog-bound England where the World Deliberation Council has decreed that for 30 years there shall be no babies born. Women mad for motherhood who refuse to be content with mechanical dolls programmed to say "Mummy, I love you Mummy," take to giving birth in cellars and stealing each other's offspring."

Even in science fiction circles today, ZPG is rarely discussed or debated, despite the fact that it is an intriguing and rather forward-looking sci-fi film. A grave atmosphere of despair hangs over the entire picture, and the film by director Michael Campus paints an unforgettable portrait of a totalitarian society that controls every aspect of the citizenry's day-to-day life.  

Most importantly, however, ZPG is worthwhile for the main questions it zeroes in on. What sacrifice is too great to save the planet? And secondly, should one generation be the one to carry that enormous burden?



"We conquered cancer and then heart disease...and for what?"

A hovering government craft announces the Zero Birth Edict; and forecasts Blade Runner's (1982) megapolis. 
Set in an unspecified future, ZPG begins as "The Society" and the "World Deliberation Council" announce over a smog-filled metropolis the inception of the "Zero Birth Edict."  For thirty years, no women will be allowed to bear children. Women already pregnant are to be registered with "The Department of State Security."

If, during this thirty year ban on child bearing, a woman does become pregnant, she has two options.  She can report to an "Ab Lab" (an Abortion Lab), or have a home abortion courtesy of a new bathroom appliance apparently installed in all houses.

At home abortion appliance, in close-up.

In the latter case, the pregnant woman need only press her swollen uterus against a kind of belt-like radiation device (glowing red) and hit the "abort" button. 

If, however, a woman should choose to go to term and is discovered, she and her husband (and the child too...) are captured, then suffocated inside transparent, mobile tents, in full view of the disapproving community-at-large.  

Those citizens who report such "criminals" are rewarded with bonus food rations. In the world of ZPG, child-bearing is "the gravest crime" imaginable.

Alas, the "Zero Birth Edict" is only the latest indignity that this unfortunate culture must suffer.  The surfeit of smog in the atmosphere has rendered the air largely unbreathable, and outside, all citizens must wear face masks, or make occasional stops at air stations strategically located throughout the city.

And overpopulation also means long lines to visit the local museum. The wait to get in -- for an hour, no less -- is four years, according to the dialogue. At the museum, you can also see extinct species like cats and dogs...stuffed, and featured in action-poses in dioramas.  

Another grim scene reveals a restaurant overflowing with patrons. Diners-in-waiting stand everywhere, surrounding seated diners, looking forever over their shoulders as the lucky ones eat first.

Despite the difficulties of this future, many companies have discovered a way to make a profit in such dark times. 

 The "MetroMart" is a TV-based department store-- that forecasts the Internet and online stores -- and makes a killing selling artificial Christmas trees and other rarities. And then there's "Babyland," a store where mechanical dolls are sold to men and women who long to be parents.  

The store's motto: "You come to us as a man and a woman, you leave as a family."

One of the best and most horrifying scenes in the film involves Babyland, and the desperation of prospective parents as they meekly accept plastic automatons as their "children."   These child dolls -- who make whirring, mechanical sounds when they turn to look at you -- are the stuff of nightmares. They walk, they talk, they demand attention, and their eyes are as dead as you can imagine.

The heart and soul of ZPG involves a young couple, Russ McNeil (Oliver Reed) and Carol McNeil (Geraldine Chaplin), who break the Zero Birth Edict and decide to conceive a child. They do so, I hasten to add, without really thinking out the consequences for their baby. Because of the Society's law on children, Carol must give birth in an old civil defense bunker. And worse than that, the child can never -- in his entire lifetime -- leave the bunker, for fear of discovery.

Russ and Carol's world has gotten very, very small.

The birth scene in ZPG is crafted artistically, if also in grim fashion.  It is a natural birth, since no doctors can be present. The director, Campus, charts the delivery entirely by focusing on the silhouettes moving over the bunker's stone wall.  It's like a weird cave birth from man's prehistory, a strange futuristic book-end to a long-forgotten and humble beginning.  

There's also a terrific shot in the film of Russ and Carol (pictured above) -- looking defeated -- inside that civil defense bunker. Their world is now tiny; they are visually, metaphorically and literally trapped, even as they seek to escape The Society's Zero Birth Edict.

After the baby is born, the infant develops a fever, and Russ and Carol's neighbors, George (Don Gordon) and Edna (Diane Cilento) discover what the McNeil's are hiding. Now these also-desperate, would-be parents want to "share" the baby, and their demands on Russ and Carol just grow and grow.  

This passage of ZPG is a truly horrifying look at human nature. George and Edna resort to blackmail. They let Russ and Carol know that they could report them to The Society at a moment's notice, if the parents don't cave to their demands. This is ugly but also strangely believable behavior.

Refusing to give up or share their child, Russ and Carol make a last ditch effort to escape their neighbors and the rules of The Society...

"It is as it is..."
 Bonnie is ready to greet her new parents at "Babyland." 

There's not a single action-sequence or consequential effects sequence in ZPG, save for establishing shots of the city and the overhead vehicles that patrol it and catch law-breakers. Yet this 1972 film is fully engaging because of Carol, the character played by Geraldine Chaplin. She is desperate to be a mother, but her society has determined that no woman in her generation will be permitted to play that role.  

There are no do-overs in life. We all get one shot on this mortal coil, and yet Carol -- for the sake of the planet -- is asked to give up her child-rearing years; her only shot. She is in her late twenties, perhaps, so will be too old in thirty years, to become a mother. The joy of being a parent is thus something forbidden; never for her to experience. This situation raises all kinds of moral questions.

Does the good of "The Society" and the need for the human race to endure outweigh the personal dreams and aspiration of one woman, or one man, for that matter?   

And secondly, why is it so hard for Carol to share her joy -- her baby -- with one other couple, once she has staked out her position of defiance?  

Make no mistake, the movie lands firmly on Carol's side: she is right to reject the inhuman State that dominates her life; but there's another side too, that the movie subtly hints at.
 
Carol (Chaplin) and Russ (Reed) conceive a child.
Perhaps what it all comes down to is that Carol and Russ are just regular married folks, even in this crazy, Orwellian future. They want to live free, as they wish, and want to experience what we all do, particularly parenthood.They aren't fantasy heroes, or larger-than-life icons. They're just regular folk.  

They make some big mistakes in the movie, but that fact only makes them all the more human, and therefore touching.  There are times during the film you will grow infuriated with Carol and Russ for their decisions -- and for their lack of planning -- but you also understand their deep desire to be a family.

I wrote above that ZPG is a forward-looking film, and in several ways, it predicts the future world of Blade Runner (1982).  For instance, the opening scenes of the film involve a slow, hovering craft that makes governmental announcements to the populace far below. In Blade Runner, it was a blimp advertising "off world opportunity" but the image in ZPG is very much a primitive version of the one in Scott's (superior and more accomplished) film.


"This is called a gas pump..."

In terms of our society today, well, we've already seen some of strange things come to pass in the last decade, and ZPG is prophetic.

The idea of citizens turning in and spying on fellow citizens in ZPG is oddly reminiscent of the Bush Administration's proposal for "TIPS" post 9/11, the so-called "Terrorism Information and Prevention System" of 2002. It was designed to help "every American become active in the homeland security effort," much in the same way that the Society uses informants to report violators in the film.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are scenes in ZPG during which citizens are indoctrinated by movies that describe how poorly previous generations selected their diets and portion sizes.  In other words, "The Society" of the film tells people exactly what to eat and how much to eat. And, of course, there are those on the right side of the political spectrum who feel that th Obama Administration took the first steps down that same road.

So there's ample fodder here to read the film both as a critique of both right wing excess (particularly in the depiction of the companyies profiting off of the misery of Zero Birth Edict) and left wing excess, namely in the depiction of a Nanny State gone berserk.

But beyond questions of left and right, and of today and yesterday, ZPG is fascinating because of the questions it raises about community vs. the individual.  What would you give up to save the planet?   

Would you surrender your right to become a parent? 

Furthermore, what would you give up for the pursuit of your liberty in general? And if you pursued that liberty, what if you risked the very future in the process?

I can't declare that ZPG is always smart or knowing about the answers to these questions, only that it raises them in a fascinating and frequently terrifying way. Most of all, I'd describe the movie as haunting.  

Late in the film, there is a montage of Carol, Russ, George and Edna playing with the "illegal" child. The images are joyous: the realization of a dream, of an aspiration.  But the montage is scored with sinister, nay diabolical music that grows more and more unsettling as the sequence reaches its crescendo.

In microcosm, this scene gets at the problem of our human condition (and human contradictions).  We want our species to survive, but we also want the freedom to live life our way. Carol and Russ want a baby, period; they don't think about the future. There is no sense of balance, of weighing immediate gratification versus long-term stability. I mean, what kind of life will that baby have in this world, especially if other parents make the same choice as Carol and Russ?

Then the world would end; the planet couldn't sustain everyone. And yes, that would mean an end to the corrupt, Big Brother-esque Society, but also an end to love, and to all future generations of children.

I also appreciate how the film adopts the perspective of the future in several important, satirical scenes set at a museum.  On display in one such sequence is a 1971 gas tank and automobile, utilized as an object lesson for how the 20th century culture used up resources without any thought to the future. A later scene terms industrial leaders "inept" and even "criminal" for fostering the destruction of our environment, and the wholesale extinction of so many species.    

If a future like this does come to pass, it will be us -- the Boomers, the X'ers, etc. -- who are under such a microscope; who are judged for the way we live today. Right now, I'm not certain the future will judge us so kindly, but as always, I hope there's time to reverse that judgment.

Not an easy or simple movie to parse; ZPG is an underrated science fiction gem, and one well worth seeking out.  But don't go in expecting action and special effects.  Here, it's all about the concept and the characters, and a grim vision of the future that I hope is as erroneous as The Population Bomb's was in 1968.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

40 Years Ago Today: Blade Runner (1982)



Although released to decidedly mixed reviews and audience ennui in the summer of 1982, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner has since ascended to the pinnacle of the sci-fi cinema Valhalla.  

In fact, the Scott film is often mentioned in the same breath as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as, perhaps, the greatest science fiction film yet produced.

Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman wrote that “Blade Runner is a singular and enthralling experience. Never mind the plot. From its spectacular opening shot, a hellishly beautiful vision of 21st-century Los Angeles, the movie casts a druggy, hypnotic spell.”  

Reviewing the director’s cut of the film The Boston Globe wrote that the film was “a triumph of production design and cinematic mood.

As many reviews suggest, much of Blade Runner's now sterling reputation arises from the film's meticulously-crafted, pioneering production design and dazzling visual presentation. An heir to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), the 1982 Scott film visualizes a world of corporate control, class warfare, and the next-stage in our understanding of what it means to be man…or machine.  

Or as a special effects guru on the film noted to Richard Corliss in his Time Magazine review, “The environment in the film is almost a protagonist.”

Yet Blade Runner's triumph isn't merely one of forward-thinking, dramatic visualization. 

The film assiduously echoes the up-to-the-minute social worries of the era in which it was crafted (the 1980's), and obsesses on issues that remain of great importance in our nation, even today: race, and wealth.

Set in the future year of 2019 -- in a monolithic, blighted metropolis -- Blade Runner presents a future world in which business and technology have ballooned to titanic proportions and dwarfed the human spirit.


Advertisements for Coca-Cola and other products stand several stories high.  

And as human dwellings reach closer to the very sky itself, the more grand and opulent those residences appear. 

The lucky rich are literally awash in warm golden light, as though access to the sun is itself a perk of extreme wealth. We see this fact visualized in the classical, clean lines of Tyrell's (Joe Turkel) sun-soaked penthouse apartment: a veritable Mount Olympus, and a home not just for a Man, but for a God on Earth.

This is appropriate, because, of course, he is a man who plays God, creating a race of slaves, essentially, known as Replicants.


Meanwhile, far down below on street level...it's a roiling Hell of ugly industry, punk fashion, neon lights, steam, and ubiquitous rain. 

The hungry and the poor toil there like mindless ants, mostly unnoticed by those living in luxury and wealth high above.  

This is the world of today -- the haves vs. the have-nots -- but forecast into a grim future, where the divisions have grown even worse.

Again, it’s illustrative to consider Metropolis, and the idea there of a split “future” society: rich men above the Earth, living in opulent gardens and residences, while the lower class, the workers, dwell beneath the ground, in a utilitarian city carved out of rock.  Blade Runner takes that status quo, but adds a layer of fantastic new special effects visualizations to it.

Thematically, the world of Blade Runner might best be expressed by a throwaway line featured in the film: “If you're not a cop, you're little people.” 

And if you're not human, if you're a Replicant, you aren't even little people. 

Importantly, that dynamic represents the core of the film's race-based statement. That mankind has played God by creating the Replicants, but then steadfastly refused to acknowledge this creation, this child, with the very dignities we all cherish every day: equality and liberty.

Like all underclasses throughout history, the android Replicants in Blade Runner are known by a derogatory slang term: skin-jobs. And Replicants also boast a built-in expiration date that makes them seem less than fully human: they die four years after their "incept date."

As you may well imagine, this fact doesn't sit well with some Replicants, and that's what precipitates much of the action in the film. A cadre of Replicants returns to Earth (from off-world) on a spiritual quest; on a search for more life that, in sub-textual terms, might be interpreted as the search for racial equality.  

The Replicants don’t want to be classified inferior, their very lives and identities unimportant and unrecognized.  

They want equality (and more life)…fucker.

Man Has Made His Match. Now It's His Problem.


In narrative terms, Blade Runner revolves around the hunt and pursuit of six renegade replicants. 

Yep, I wrote six, and that's according to Los Angeles' police chief, Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) in explicitly stated dialogue. 

This number is important to note, especially according to one specific interpretation of the film. But more on that reading later.

The man doing the hunting in this case is the laconic, hard-boiled and lonely Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former detective in a special police squad called Blade Runners. Blade Runners are famous for "retiring" skin jobs.

The quarry this time includes Leon (Brion James), Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). And yes, that's only four names, even though Bryant specifically mentioned six Replicants.

Over the course of his investigation, Deckard questions the latest model of Replicant, a new upgrade built by the Tyrell Corporation named Rachel (Sean Young). "More human than human" as the slogan goes, and Rachel doesn't realize she's actually a machine. She even boasts distinctive memories from her childhood. But these memories are really just clever implants; the memories of "Tyrell's niece."

Deckard soon falls in love with the winsome, confused Rachel and -- depending on which version of the film you see -- also experiences strange dreams of a unicorn in a primeval forest. After hunting down the last of the Replicants, Deckard must decide if he should pursue his romantic relationship with a Replicant.

Meanwhile, the aggrieved Replicants go in search of their God, Tyrell, only to learn that he knowingly created not children...but slaves.

"I Think It Was Manufactured Locally:" 1980's Terrors Lurking in Los Angeles, 2019


Early in the 1980's, many citizens in the United States of America feared that the country had a new, powerful and sinister competitor: Japan. At the time, that Pacific nation excelled in industry, manufacturing, and the development of new technologies. 

Importantly, Japan was also the United States' main international creditor in this era, and it benefited financially from a forty-to-fifty-billion dollar trade gap with the United States.

In particular, the Japanese auto industry seemed to be cleaning Detroit's clock. Many World War II veterans who had fought in the Pacific and had witnessed the draconian, brutal behavior of the Japanese in a time of conflict, perceived a new danger to America from this old foe.

As a character in Die Hard (1988) knowingly jokes, "Pearl Harbor didn't work" so Japan was conquering the United States economically: with "VCRs." There were many Americans of the Greatest Generation who felt precisely that way in the early 1980's, and my beloved, now-deceased paternal grandfather was one of them. He never bought a Japanese car.

Although structurally and visually a deliberate reprise of the 1940's film noir (an era, incidentally of actual rather than economic war with Japan), one of Blade Runner's many undercurrents involves this 1980's'incursion of Japanese business interests in future America.

In particular, it appears that in 2019, American business (always ahead of the curve and looking for ways to stay alive....), has assimilated Japanese business interests into its very structure so as to continue turning huge profits and remain on the top of the food chain.  

Or, as authors Douglas Kellner, Flo Leibowitz and Michael Ryan wrote in their essay, Blade Runner: A Diagnostic Critique (Jump Cut, February 1985, pages 6-8):

"Crowds of people mill through rain-soaked streets, evoking common fears about overpopulation and "foreigners" overrunning future cities. On the East and West coasts of the U.S., for example, Japanese ramen and sushi cafes have replaced U.S. fast food chains, and visibly prominent are many Asian merchants and street people. The film here seems to articulate paranoia about Japanese capitalism "taking over" the United States. Nevertheless, the film’s city (Los Angeles) seems under the hegemony of U.S. capitalism, which now seems to have incorporated its rivals into its structure. The society’s economic structure combines small, street-merchant-style, "free enterprise" with paternalistic capitalist control. Most of the merchants in the film are Asian or European, whereas the corporate president and executives of the Tyrell Corporation are all North Americans."

So Blade Runner acknowledges the timely fear of a Japanese take-over in America, but puts a spin on it. Even the resourceful Japanese have become slaves to a Corporate Nation – the 1% -- in the future.

Similarly, Replicants -- constructed piece-meal in Mom/Dad, Asian-controlled shops such as the Eye Factory run by Chew (James Hong) -- are another symbol of Big Business run amok in the future of Blade Runner; of the consumer culture of the 1980's carried to the next level. It's a world where human beings use other beings (androids) for pleasure, to fight wars, and to perform menial tasks that humans apparently no longer wish to do.

And yes, this description today rather uncannily mirrors how immigrants are viewed in modern American society. Interestingly, the film suggests that Big Business will go along with a new influx of workers from other nations, and even co-opt that work force so to stay on "top," literally, of the situation (living high, high above it, in palatial skyscrapers).

"Is This to Be An Empathy Test?" A Replicant Civil Rights Movement in Blade Runner


In the World War II era, a dedicated drive towards equality for all U.S. citizens was begun here at home. The 1940's was the epoch of Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802, which opened up new job possibilities for African-Americans. It was also the era in which white-only primaries were judged unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Importantly, the noir era in film was also the age of Truman's National Committee on Civil Rights, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and the election of Chicago's William Dawson in the House of Representatives. There was still a long way to go, but the long march towards racial equality was beginning in earnest.

Blade Runner explicitly discusses race and the history of race inequality in America. As I noted above, it speaks deliberately and forcefully in the film language (noir) of the 1940s, an era when race was a concern in the United States as enumerated above.

More than that, the Replicants in the film are described in historically racist terms, ones involving the nature of their skin, not the quality of their character. They are not "colored" or "negro," but "skin-jobs." Replicants are not considered "fully" human, and again, this reflects our very tragic history: In 1789, in the Constitution, African-Americans were considered 3/5s of a person...not the equivalent of a white person, in other words. 

Why is this important?  If you see someone as being less than fully human (like, say an "illegal"), that descriptor makes it much easier to enslave them, or to deny them basic human rights. In the film, Roy Batty acknowledges this fact and contextualizes his experience, and the experience of the Replicants…as slavery. He discusses with Deckard what "it is to be a slave."

I suppose there is no need to describe Deckard's hunt of the Replicants as a "high-tech lynching" but certainly, the Replicants are treated harshly as a matter of course in 2019. Deckard shoots Zhora in the back, exposing the ugly truth that Replicants have no legal rights in this society. They are not arrested and afforded due process of law. They are not innocent until proven guilty. 

Instead, Replicants are shot on sight because of what they are, not because of their conduct. This is the essential characteristic of institutional racism: denying people freedom not because of their behavior; but because of their origin, skin color and heritage. 


If you desire to delve deeply into the visuals of Blade Runner, consider that Zhora is murdered while crashing through a series of transparent glass barriers, a metaphor, perhaps, for the oft-mentioned "glass ceiling" that keeps racial/ethnic minorities from achieving high level positions in society.

Leon attempts to kill Deckard and says to him, "painful to live in fear, isn't it?" And that too is a crucial part of the racial equation. For the Replicants, it's the knowledge that they can be shot and killed at any time simply for living in a city where the authorities deem they do not belong. 

You can travel pretty deep down the rabbit hole with this interpretation of the film, if that's your inclination. 

There's a test in Blade Runner for determining if a person is human or Replicant, and it is called a "Voigt-Kampff" Test. That name sounds uncomfortably like Hitler's manifesto Mein Kampf, doesn't it? And when we think of the Nazis, we remember their belief in racial purity, the subjugating of "lesser" races, right? The Voight-Kampf functions as a tool to identify one such lesser race: the Replicant.

And interestingly, what this test seeks is the "empathy" response in the iris, in the eyeball. 

"Empathy," of course, has become a racial code word in America today, as we saw during the two Supreme Court justice nominating processes in the Obama Era. What Blade Runner doesn't make plain, however, is if Replicants possess a surfeit or lack of empathy in their iris responses. What do humans possess?  More or less empathy than a Replicant?

Finally, what's abundantly clear in Blade Runner is that Replicants are people too. They are, as the saying goes, more human than human.  They love, they mourn, and they want what all human beings want: more life. 

In fact, the Replicants undergo a real spiritual quest in the film. They seek to find their God, Tyrell, and petition him for more life. They seek forgiveness from him too, at least after a fashion, for their brutal methods of self-preservation. In answer, they are told by Tyrell, Our Corporate God, that they have done nothing "the God of biomechanics wouldn't let you into heaven for."

Of course, the Replicants then kill God, but the relevant point is that Replicants, like humans, seek to understand their very nature, and turn to the divine for that knowledge. Some might say that by playing God, humans too have killed God.

Roy Batty does even more than that, however. He not only seeks answers from his God, but, ultimately, shows mercy to his enemies, which is something you cannot say for the police in Blade Runner. Batty could kill Deckard...but chooses to save his life instead.  In his final moment of life, he decides that life is too beautiful to snuff out, even in an enemy.


In this beautiful and emotionally-wrenching climactic scene of Blade Runner, Batty is depicted grasping a white dove as his time on Earth runs out. 

This bird is a representation of the Holy Spirit in Christian Mythology, and its presence suggests that Batty is truly one of God's creatures and, through his mercy, has earned the right to be considered such. 

When the dove flies heavenward, released by Batty, the image suggests that Batty's soul has fled his body; that he was more than just a machine.  Like all of us, he possesses a spirit.

You've Done A Man's Job, or Less Human Than Human: The Deckard Equation


One of the key questions regarding Blade Runner involves its protagonist, Deckard. Director Ridley Scott has suggested that Deckard is, in fact, a Replicant himself. Harrison Ford has gone on record as saying he believes the opposite, that Deckard is human.

As in all great art, a case can probably be made either way.

If Deckard is a Replicant, then he is clearly "passing" as a human being, and that seems to fit in with the film's racial overtones.  

Indeed, there are passages of dialogue in the film that hint at Deckard's mechanical nature. In particular, Gaff (Edward James Olmos) tells Deckard after Batty is dead that the blade runner performed a "man's job." 

In other words, a job worthy of a man, or a human being.  

This description could be interpreted to mean that the Replicant Deckard has performed as well as a human would under similar circumstances. It is thus a race-centric remark (Hey, you did good….for a black guy!) and thus an acknowledgment of Deckard's genetic origin.

Also, Gaff leaves behind at Deckard's apartment a small origami Unicorn. In the director's cut of Blade Runner, Deckard dreams of a unicorn in the forest. If Gaff is aware that all Replicants are encoded with the unicorn dream as part of their unusual genetic make-up, then he has left behind the origami unicorn to help Deckard understand the truth about himself. If only Deckard can put it all together...

In the final battle at the Bradbury building, Batty also says to Deckard "let's see what you're made of," as if there is a question about Deckard truly is made of, genetically-speaking. 

Well, what is Deckard made of?


The ensuing fight scene suggests that our hero is made of much the same stuff as Batty. 

Notice that during this fight, Scott's camera catches both Deckard and Batty mending damaged hands at roughly the same time, through the art of cross-cutting. 

This editing choice could represent a subtle, visual connection. Both men share something in common: an injury. 

On one level this could simply be an indication that a Replicant boasts the same survival instinct as a human does. 

On another level, it could mean that these men share a different kind of "kinship," Replicant-hood, if that's a word. 

Also, it's important to note that both Batty and Deckard are slaves, though in service of different masters. But this too could be interpreted either way. To demonstrate, perhaps, that the gulf between human and Replicant is not so wide; or more pointedly, to sub-textually suggest that both men are Replicants.

Lastly, remember that Bryant discussed six free Replicants.  

Yet the movie depicts four Replicants, and notes that one (the fifth?) was killed attempting to cross a border, a fence (a death which again, reeks of racial connotations in today's America). 

That leaves one Replicant remaining, right? 

So who is the sixth and final Replicant?  It can't be Rachel, because when Bryant conveys the story of the six Replicants to Deckard, Rachel has not yet left the custodianship of Tyrell.  

Therefore, by process of elimination, the sixth Replicant must be Deckard himself.

Finally, the very form that Blade Runner utilizes -- the film noir detective story -- suggests Deckard's mechanical heritage. In the best film noir movies, the investigation by a detective leads, inevitably, to some shattering personal revelation. 

Consider Johnny Favorite's journey of self-discovery in a Blade Runner contemporary, Angel Heart (1987), or the shattering revelation by Faye Dunaway's character in Polanski's Chinatown (1974). 

In noir, we must conclude that the ultimate discovery is not who-did-it. 

Rather, it is "who am I?," the discovery or assertion of identity

If Deckard is indeed a Replicant, then the film adheres closely to this noir format and tradition. That's ultimately why I favor this interpretation (that Deckard is a machine); it seems encoded in the film's very DNA.

On the other side of the equation, if Deckard is not a Replicant, then, at the very least the film's racial overtones carry an optimistic message to go out on. If even a Blade Runner can fall in love with a Replicant, as Deckard does here, then there is hope yet for the human race to overcome bigotry and prejudice. There is some hope of future equality for these artificial people.

But whether Deckard is a Replicant or a human being, Blade Runner remains a brilliantly-conceived and dynamically-executed motion picture. The film noir approach grants some breathing room for the film to contextualize the Replicant experience of 2019 in language that we all understand and recognize, at least subconsciously. It is the language of race, spoken in an inherently unequal society in terms of wealth.

Blade Runner is so packed with fascinating ideas and subtexts (like the quest for immortality; for example), that it's almost impossible to do the film any sort of justice in one blog post.  As critic Rita Kempley wrote in The Washington Post (back in 1992): 

"Every viewing of "Blade Runner" brings new discoveries..."

40 Years Ago Today: John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)


"I know I'm human. And if you were all these things, then you'd just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn't want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It'll fight if it has to, but it's vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it's won."

-- MacReady (Kurt Russell), in John Carpenter's The Thing.


In the waning days of the summer of 1982, my parents took me to an afternoon matinee, a double-feature at a second-run theater in Los Angeles. I couldn’t have guessed so beforehand, but this excursion to the movies was a life-changing event for me.

That description sounds like unwarranted hyperbole until you understand that the double-bill consisted of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Imagine -- just for a moment -- seeing those particular films back-to-back, one after the other, on the big screen.

Then consider the impact these two genre films have on our pop culture had over time. It's...staggering.

If you consider it, both productions share more in common than may appear obvious at first blush. Primarily, both Blade Runner and The Thing explore the existential angst of what it means to be human. 

Protagonists in each film combat creatures that mimic or imitate the human shape, but are indistinctly inhuman. In both films, the impostor is also an infiltrator...virtually unrecognizable -- hidden -- in a larger population. 

Both films also feature ambiguous endings, as well: we're not exactly certain if humanity is victorious. In far more grounded terms, both genre movies have outlived overwhelming mainstream critical disdain and poor box-office receipts. 

Indeed, Blade Runner and The Thing have emerged as two of the most beloved (and forward-looking…) films of the Age of Reagan. They've defined the direction of their respective genres too.

Suffice it to say, I had much to think about in the days and weeks (and months and years…) following that double feature matinee in the summer of '82.  Today, I want to gaze at The Thing, the film that almost literally cost John Carpenter his career in Hollywood.

Why? Well, in the summer of Spielberg's E.T. -- in the days of the Moral Majority -- a great many critics found Carpenter’s trailblazing horror film…questionable

On one notorious occasion, the auteur was actually termed a “pornographer of violence” for what was, in essence, a faithful visual recreation of a short story written in 1938 (“Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell). The moral watch guards weren't alone in their condemnation of The Thing; an older generation of horror fans raised on Howard Hawks' original version of The Thing also seemed to reflexively dislike this remake. This dislike was in spite of many deliberate and elaborate Carpenter homages to that famous screen predecessor.

I summarized the poisonous critical reception to The Thing in my book, The Films of John Carpenter (McFarland; 2000), but for context and history, I wanted to provide at least a handful of quotes here and now, so you might accurately glean a sense of the absolute vitriol spewed at this film and its helmsman.

Newsweek called The Thing an example of “the New Aesthetic – atrocity for atrocity’s sake.” (David Ansen; Newsweek: “Frozen Slime,” June 28, 1982). 

Reviewing the film for Starlog, Alan Spencer wrote: “It’s my contention that John Carpenter was never meant to direct science fiction horror movies. Here’s some things he’d be better suited to direct: Traffic accidents, train wrecks and public floggings….” (Starlog # 64, November 1982, page 69.)

And that’s just the tip of the bloody iceberg, to adopt an appropriate metaphor.

Yet today - forty years later - John Carpenter’s The Thing is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece. It resides in the top 250 movies of all-time on the IMDB last time I checked, and I counted it as the best horror film of its decade in Horror Films of the 1980s (McFarland; 2007).

Of The ThingThe Village Voice’s Scott Foundas wrote in 2008: “this spatial masterpiece of desolate Arctic vistas at odds with close-quarters claustrophobia has...been hailed as a high totem of modern horror-making. There remains something deeply unnerving about Carpenter's ambiguity as to whether the movie's shape-shifting alien is distorting its hosts' personalities or merely revealing something of their primal selves.”

For me, The Thing stands the test of time as a great film for several reasons. It’s not only the film’s finely-honed sense of paranoia that makes it a remarkable achievement, but the glacial, icy feelings of personal “alienation” from society that the story and presentation seem to evoke so powerfully.

Furthermore, John Carpenter’s The Thing involves not just alienation from civilization. It also makes a very squeamish, very uneasy case for the frailty and fragility of the human form itself, Call it alienation of the flesh.

Additionally, it’s difficult not to interpret the “invasion” by the shape-shifting thing as an early harbinger of AIDS, a malady whispered about at the time of the film’s genesis as a “wasting disease” or “The Gay Plague," in the unfortunate terminology of the 1980's. In much more general form, the film succeeds in raising hackles over the universal fear of contagion, of disease…of the body subverted, co-opted, and deformed by an implacable and invisible intruder. If not AIDS, the invader could be cancer, another STD, even old age itself.

Finally, The Thing represents such a singular experience because of the titular monster. Never before in the history of the horror film had audiences witnessed such an elusive, transcendent entity: a life-form in constant evolution and motion, never pausing -- never stopping -- long enough for us to get a grasp of what it "was." Although Scott's Alien was undeniably brilliant and fascinating in its depiction of an alien life-cycle, that life-cycle still had, ultimately, a recognizable shape and a direction (egg, face hugger, chest burster, adult drone...). By contrast, Carpenter's "Thing" was always...becoming.

There also begin to arise a sense in late 70's-early 80's America that the person next door – your very neighbor -- could actually be a monster in disguise…a person that, despite all physical appearances to the contrary, could be harboring monstrous, murderous secrets (think David Lynch's Blue Velvet [1986]).

In part, this uncertainty about the nature of "the next door neighbor" was a result of an unexpected reversal in population migration patterns. Whereas in earlier decades of the 20th century, people from small-towns had moved to the big cities (as part of industrialization…), in the early 1980's we saw “counter-urbanization:” a flight or escape from metropolitan population centers in favor of quieter, emptier areas, whether rural or suburban. This pattern was possible because of increased car production and affordability, and governmental incentives that made new home construction and home-ownership easier.

But the evils and eccentricities that some people (rightly or wrongly) associated with “big” cities also came home to roost in suburban America in this process of counter-urbanization. The Evils were named, in some instances, Ted Bundy, or John Wayne Gacy. On the surface: normal appearing. The truth: monsters in human shape.

John Carpenter’s The Thing is very deliberately crafted in this world of estrangement and alienation. 

Consider that all the men at Outpost 31 have left behind their mother society (America), much as many disaffected youngsters in the early 1970's attempted to leave the American culture for "new" communal societies. An early version of Bill Lancaster's script allegedly revealed MacReady’s specific sense of “displacement” after the Vietnam War, another expression of alienation from country.

Specifically, the men of Outpost 31 carry with them the three tell-tale psychological signs or symptoms of alienation. These are: social isolation, the absence of norms; and, finally, a life lacking meaning.

Let's go down that list. 

At Outpost 31, there is no sense of “norms” whatsoever. The men stationed there have chosen life in a frozen, inhospitable wasteland. There are no women present, and thus no opportunity to procreate (a rejection of the long-held Western belief of "be fruitful and multiply.") Because of the continent’s wintry storms, the Outpost is almost perpetually out of contact with the remainder of the world. Thus, the men there easily fit the definition of “socially isolated.”

Furthermore, these men in self-imposed exile from society don’t seem to perform much by way of legitimate scientific research. We are never told about a single ongoing project being completed or processed, for example. The “work” life and 9:00 to 5:00 routine that we live and die by in the States is thus entirely absent in The Thing, replaced by something…else. Not only do these men not reproduce...they don't produce.

It’s a life of what some conservative critics might exaggeratedly term “liberal permissiveness.” 

Think about it: the men of Outpost 31 don’t even provide for themselves or their continued survival. Rather, their supplies are all shipped in from elsewhere; making the camp, in essence, the ultimate welfare state. And, when the Thing arrives, Fuchs suggests as antidote (or rather, preventative…) the re-assertion of traditional/conservative values; that all the denizens (gasp!) prepare their own food…that they cook their own meals (increasingly a rarity in the fast-food American culture of the late 20th century).

Instead of actually producing anything of use to the larger culture (in terms of scientific discoveries), the men of Outpost 31 (like Palmer…) incessantly smoke weed, play computer chess with mechanical partners, drink whiskey (MacReady), watch game show reruns on TV, including Let’s Make a Deal (Childs and Palmer), and spend abundant amounts of time lounging in the communal “rec room.” There, an arcade game console and a pool table achieve visual prominence in many compositions. In one scene, model-kit boxes -- another fun hobby (but not strictly a useful endeavor...) -- can be viewed on a book shelf.

Without a productive routine or overriding set of societal norms, the leisurely lives of these men lack any sort of larger meaning. Instead, it is a life of exaggerated petty grievances and arguments. 

Nauls complains when a “disrespectful” man throws his dirty clothes in the kitchen garbage. But hypocritically, Nauls is rather disrespectful too. When Bennings (who is attempting to relax after being shot in the legs…) asks Nauls to turn down his radio, Nauls just…turns it up. 

It's a culture of self-gratification and no responsibility, or common purpose. As scholar Thomas Doherty observed, this Thing features "a collection of autonomous, angry, unpleasant and self-interested individuals, as chilly and as the stark Antarctican landscape they inhabit." ("Genre, Gender and the Aliens Trilogy." The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, University of Texas Press, 1996, page 191.)

It is not until the arrival of the impostor – the chameleon - that the men are roused to that missing common purpose. They choose to fight back against the common enemy, but are already so alienated from one another (and from life itself...) that their efforts are largely unsuccessful. At one point, Blair states he doesn’t know whom to trust, and MacReady cynically suggests another traditional/conservative (but not terribly effective...) ameliorative: “Why don’t you trust in the Lord?”

Because the men of Outpost 31 don’t trust each other, their plans to defeat the Thing continually fail. Fuchs commits suicide rather than fight what he believes is a hopeless battle. Blair destroys all the vehicles and radio equipment rather than trust that his fellow man will do the right thing and help him stop the Thing there and then (before reaching society). Palmer refuses to search alongside Windows. MacReady maintains loose authority and leadership over the group only because he is equipped, alternately, with gun, flame-thrower, and dynamite. He leads the others by holding them at bay, and uses draconian force to keep them in line. He shoots Clark (Richard Masur) in the head, for instance, when Clark attempts a decapitation strike.

Scholar Jonathan Lake Crane writes that the Carpenter film is "exquisitely constructed to deny every attempt from the pathetic to the brilliant, on the part of its supposed protagonists, to master their world." (Terror and Everyday Life: Singular Moments in the History of the Horror Film, Sage Publications, 1994, page 137.). 


Sounds like a microcosm in America, circa 1978-1982, particularly under Carter. Several hundred of our citizens were held hostage in Iraq for over a year, and even with our supposed military might, we could not successfully rescue them (Operation Iron Claw; April 24, 1980). By contrast, there was a post-war sense of triumphalism, camaraderie, and even romance in Hawks' The Thing. 

Yet in this Carpenter version there is no brotherhood to speak of, only distrust and cynicism.

What Crane is talking about there is the inevitable end result, perhaps, of excessive alienation: powerlessness

In the end, a lone man, MacReady is able to battle the thing barely to a draw. The film’s end is ambiguous in regards to his victory. He could be The Thing, fellow survivor Childs could be the Thing, or the Thing could still be “out there." Not one of those options is particularly attractive, or decisive.

Carpenter’s careful selection of visuals gets at the leitmotif of alienation in some intriguing and artistic ways. 

He often positions his camera at the center of a circle (or half-circle), gazing out from that point, so that the men of Outpost 31 are facing the audience, and essentially, surrounding the audience in a kind of half-moon configuration (representative perhaps, of the way we are surrounded by our larger society). We search in their “human” faces for sign of contagion and contamination, but can’t find it. We don't know what anyone is thinking, whether man or "Thing." 

Often this is so because their human expressions are “cloaked” behind large goggles, shielded in parka hoods, or otherwise obscured. The larger point is certainly that we can't read what is in a person (or monster's...) heart from a facial expression. 

Evil can hide behind a pleasant human face, or even a familiar one.

As viewers, we seek out signs of common humanity among those who surround us, but are, many times in The Thing, denied a view of the eyes, the window to the soul. Thus, in some small way, we begin to understand the existential crisis of these alienated men. The Thing has arrived and deviously replaced some members of the circle, but because each denizen has lived a life of isolation, leisure and even “disrespect,” the intuiting of the humanity of those around us is impossible. 

We have no history of humanity by which to judge the potential "thingness" of a neighbor. In The Los Angeles Times, reviewer Linda Gross (on June 25, 1982), appropriately described The Thing as “bereft, despairing and nihilistic,” and noted that the most disturbing aspect of Carpenter's film is its “terrible absence of love.”

Indeed, the “alienated” dramatis personae of The Thing have squandered and ignored their common humanity for too long, and now, when their lives are threatened, attempt lamely to re-assert it. 

This is what I call The Planet of the Apes Principle of Character Arc. In that film, Charlton Heston’s Taylor is a misanthrope who leaves behind the human race (on a deep space mission) only to find himself in the position of forcibly becoming mankind’s only defender (in the face of Ape Culture). The socially isolated outcasts of Outpost 31 of The Thing have similarly shunned and abandoned their world but, by battling the Thing, are forced to be society’s (unlikely and unsuccessful) defenders. 

MacReady alone seems worthy of that honor, though he is never delineated in larger-than-life terms. He makes many a mistake (killing Clark, trusting Nauls, suggesting Gary is the saboteur...)

Again, you might think that a movie about a battle between emotional humanity and alien assimilation device would highlight the differences between species, but the important take away from The Thing is that the alien is pretty much undetectable in a world where we don’t know our neighbors, don’t understand our countrymen, and have “checked” out from the normal ebb and flow of society. 

The Thing’s great power is not that it is super strong, but that it has found a place where it can successfully hide. In some ways, it is but a measly coward -- hiding and just waiting out the other cowards. It would rather “pretend” to be one of the pack than either engage, or combat the culture of the enemy.

Is That a Man in There? Or Something Else? – Alienation of the Flesh

The Thing serves as the first movement in John Carpenter’s self-named “Apocalypse Trilogy” (followed by 1987’s Prince of Darkness and 1994’s In The Mouth of Madness), and most genre fans are familiar with the general outline of the story, either from the remarkable Campbell literary work, or the 1950s Howard Hawks version, The Thing from Another World (1951).

In short, John Carpenter’s The Thing lands us in freezing Antarctica during the winter of 1982. A strange incident occurs at American Outpost 31, when a Norwegian helicopter breaks the peace and silence of snow.

The foreign chopper pilot and his cohort seem to be relentlessly (and madly...) pursuing a dog, a malamute. The pilot attempts to kill the canine, but in the ensuing scuffle the helicopter is destroyed and an armed Norwegian is shot dead by Outpost 31’s macho commander, Garry (Moffat).

Curious about what could have possibly driven the Norwegian scientists to such heights of apparent insanity, Outpost 31's Doc Copper (Richard Dysart) and helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) travel to the foreign camp and find it utterly ruined, destroyed. Record tapes reveal that the Norwegians unearthed a flying saucer – and an alien – frozen in the ice for 100,000 years. They used Thermite charges to bring both to the surface. MacReady and Copper bring back the tapes, and also the inhuman, half-burned corpse of...something.

Before long, the men of Outpost 31 must grapple with the fact that an alien life form is loose in their camp. It is a chameleon who can perfectly imitate human beings right down to the minutest memories and speech patterns. Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) calculates that after 27,000 hours from first contact with the civilized world, the entire planet Earth will be infected by the extra-terrestrial shape shifter. MacReady and the others must now determine -- in short order -- who is a “thing” and who is a man, and arrange for a blood serum test to help them identify the interloper (or interlopers) hiding in their midst.

Nobody Trusts Anybody Now: Alienation from the World At Large


The political and societal turbulence of the 1970's (from Vietnam to Watergate to the Energy Crisis to Three Mile Island) gave rise in some cases to a deepening sense of personal, community and spiritual dissatisfaction in America of the late 1970's and early 1980's.

One might term this mood the “spirit of the times,” but whatever we call it, many Americans began to feel deep misgivings about the status quo, about an increasingly untrustworthy, shallow, unjust, and material culture. The nation’s confidence -- which had so memorably suffered a “crisis” in Carter’s America -- had eroded.

Punk/thrash music gave voice to this sense of discontentment in popular music throughout the 1980's; and horror films such as George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) and The Amityville Horror (1979) pinpointed sources of anxiety in the consumer culture and such seemingly-sturdy American cultural pillars as home-ownership and commerce.

In these visions, the faceless masses at the local shopping mall were actually slobbering zombies, and monthly mortgage payments could run you out of your too-expensive house faster than your average demonic possession.

The fear in The Thing is even more basic. The flesh betrays us. 

That’s a core theme of John Carpenter’s The Thing. In fact, the director makes viewers feel acutely uncomfortable about the softness or weakness of the protective “flesh” that represents our “armor” from a painful and sharp outside world. To adopt a politically charged term, The Thing reveals that our flesh is…a porous border.

That point is hammered home via Carpenter’s canny use of insert or cut-in shots in The Thing. I suspect this may be the very reason the film was derided as being so overtly violent and bloody, but again, the critics didn’t ask themselves why; or question what Carpenter was attempting to accomplish with these unblinking close-ups of grotesque wounds and other “gore” shots. These compositions do serve a purpose, a very important one in the narrative.

In short order in The Thing we see: (in inserts/cutaways) a dead Norwegian with an eye blown out. We witness a perforated knee (belonging to Bennings) undergoing surgery as Copper stitches it up. The tender skin pulls and gives as the doctor sews it.

Later (and also in close inserts) we see fingers sliced open with silver scalpels and then the wounded digits squeezed and pressed so tightly that blood spurts out (copiously...) into small containers.

We also see human skin stretched (in Naul’s death scene…), burned (in the case of Fuchs), and ripped apart (in the case of Windows). We witness our very blood appear in various forms too; frozen in icicles (after a Norwegian’s suicide attempt in the cold), burned and singed under hot copper wire (in the serum test), and discarded as though spilled, spoiled milk in Doc Copper’s sabotaged refrigerator. But this is not atrocity for atrocity's sake: it's a catalog of the flesh's...pliable and soft nature.

Carpenter doesn’t spare audiences a detailed, blunt-faced autopsy scene either. We watch Blair conduct a clinical examination of the dead “thing,” extracting and tagging various internal organs in the process. The scene culminates with a slow-motion shot of Blair hanging his head in disgust – as though he is suppressing the urge to vomit – before we fade slowly to black.

One at a time, we might question these individual moments as gratuitous or unnecessary. Taken together, however, these moments represent a directorial tactic: a full-scale attack on mainstream sensibilities; an uncomfortable forced realization that we are inherently fragile creatures operating inside fragile, easily damaged bodies. 

Many horror movies thrive on exploiting fears, but only the most transgressive and honest of them assert so plainly the weakness of our human vessels, the nearness of mortality, and our real proximity to destruction.

And this is under normal “earthly” circumstances.

What the Thing does to human bodies is…savage. A human chest becomes a giant fanged maw and snaps off Copper’s arms. In the same scene, Norris’s head stretches (like stringy mozzarella cheese) from a burning corpse, then miraculously sprouts ridged spider legs and bulbous eye-chutes. Then it skitters away from a threat, a literal phoenix re-born from the flames.

We also see the innocent face of a beautiful dog peel apart into several fleshy, flower petals. We witness eyes open up -- awake -- inside lumpy fat pockets. We see human faces lodged inside the skin, alive, moving and aware. Again, the flesh that we cherish is perverted to serve something...alien. Inimical. It is overwhelming to face this enemy because there's no sense of movie decorum about it: it's a blunt, almost documentary-style presentation of bodies shattered and mutilated before our eyes in something akin to real-time. Because the special effects are so good, we don't sense trickery or phoniness.

On and on the horror of the flesh goes, and the result is inescapable: we recognize just how vulnerable we really are to an invader from within; from disease. The “alien” in The Thing is extra-terrestrial on the literal level, but symbolic of something else entirely. On a metaphorical level, these disturbing visuals of our flesh subverted and twisted remind us of real-life microscopic invaders; of a fear of infection, of disease, of sickness.

Author and scholar Eduard Guerrero (in “AIDS as Monster in Science Fiction and Horror Cinema”) suggested that The Thing’s progression through Outpost 31 was a metaphor for the new and mysterious AIDS epidemic unfolding in America in the early 1980's. 

Specifically, he noted that “the monster’s mode of operation clearly parallels the AIDS virus’ geometric spread” and that the “great fear” driving the Carpenter film was that of “not being able to detect those who have been penetrated and replicated” by the titular monster. (Guerrero, Eduard. Journal of Popular Film and Television, Volume # 18, Fall, 1990, pages 87 -93.)

Guerrero also wrote that certain aspects of The Thing served as a metaphor for the so-called homosexual life-style, making note of the same-sex characters living a lifestyle of “liberal permissiveness” and “lack of norms." I’m not sure entirely how I feel about this analysis, but it certainly tracks with elements the movie. And it is indeed critical to note the importance of the “blood test” in The Thing's gestalt; the very test that in real life detects Hepatitis, AIDS and other illnesses.

Yet another transmission method for AIDS involves intravenous drug use and shared needles. Accordingly, John Carpenter’s The Thing also features several close-ups of syringes lancing human skin…another resonant image of the 1980's and another uncomfortable image of flesh subverted. Even the Thing’s style-of-attack -- “ripping through clothes” (especially underwear) -- seems to connote some form of sexual aggression or sexual transmission. Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness made the AIDS metaphor even more explicit: with an “Evil” force (Satan himself…) passed between partners by -- well, there's no polite way to say it -- ejaculated fluid.

The anxiety and paranoia of The Thing involves what I termed the “fragility” or “frailty” of the flesh in The Films of John Carpenter

Although it is not politically correct to admit it, we still often shun the sick, the diseased. President Reagan never made a public speech about AIDS until 1987, and we all remember those crazy stories from the 1980's about people contracting AIDS from sitting down on public restroom toilets. Carpenter himself had touched on the topic of societal response to disease in The Fog, but there the subject was Leprosy, and how the overriding “fear of the sick” gave Antonio Bay’s co-conspirators the cover they needed to exploit the leper, Blake. 

If movies reflect the times of their creation, then The Thing -- in selecting a disease-based Bogeyman -- certainly reflects the atmosphere of paranoia and dread about a new and unknown disease on the rise in the 1980's.

The Thing succeeds in no small part because it exploits this universal fear ruthlessly. We all dread getting sick; we all fear contagion. And if we don’t know our neighbors, how do we know they aren’t sick? If contact can come by touch…shouldn’t we lock our doors?

It’s a matter of vanity too; not merely a health concern. Sickness leads to death, but sickness also steals beauty and robs one of physical perfection. And lord knows the 1980's represents the era of films such as Perfect (1983), the Jane Fonda aerobics trend, and songs such as Olivia Newton John’s “Physical.” (1981). These were paeans to the glory of physical beautiful, not "inner" beauty.

“Cheating Bitch! Is Survival of the Fittest Just a Game?”

Is all of life just a game? 

More pertinently, is the battle between species in The Thing (1982) but a game, a chess match, in particular?

Consider: the first scenes of the Carpenter film find MacReady in his cabin, locked in combat of sorts with a computer chess game called Chess Wizard.  When MacReady loses, rather than accept the loss, he pours ice from a whiskey cup into the computer, destroying the board, essentially, and making certain that no one wins. The game will never be played again.  This is a scorched Earth-type approach to game playing.

Not coincidentally, this scorched-Earth approach is also MacReady’s final approach to battling the thing, during the film’s climax. When it is clear that The Thing “cheats” -- hiding and eluding detection -- MacReady again destroys the board, blowing up Outpost 31. When faced with losing, then, humanity changes the rules; refuses to accept defeat. 
Or at least this particular human does.

The Chess Wizard sequence is therefore, symbolically, a representation of the film’s action. MacReady loses at chess, and loses in battle with The Thing. But in both cases, he ekes out a stalemate, even victory of sorts, by robbing the enemy of a victory. This quality of refusing to surrender may be the factor that makes a human different from a Thing in the final analysis.

Intriguingly, the idea of games not only book-ends Carpenter’s film (the chess match, and MacReady’s final “move” setting up the destruction of the base at the end), it recurs in other crucial sequences. 

Take the famous blood-test scene, for instance. When Palmer stalks Windows, we see, very clearly, in frame, the image of a (Milton Bradley) game called “Stay Alive.”  This board game came out in 1978, and was advertised as the “ultimate survival” game, which is also a pretty good description of the film’s events, for its human characters and titular alien.  One ad-line for the film called the thing “the ultimate alien terror.”

Then, moments later in the same scene, when Palmer is torched by MacReady, another board game becomes apparent in frame. The title? “Number’s Up!” The Thing’s number is up, literally, just as the game title indicates. This Milton Bradley game concerns a “count-down against the clock.” Again, that’s a perfect metaphor for MacReady’s plight in the movie, counting down against the clock as The Thing assimilates each human being.

When taken in conjunction, the Chess Wizard, “Stay Alive” and “Number’s Up” all focus on the competition or game aspect of the inter-world contest of The Thing.

It Could Have Imitated a Million Life Forms on a Million Planets: Man is the Warmest Place to Hide.


As much as Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World remains admired -- and rightly so -- that superb 1950's film simply can’t hold a candle to John Carpenter’s remake in terms of the visualization of the monster. 


James Arness played a big-headed humanoid -- a “walking-carrot” -- in the original.

Things in the 1982 film are much more…complex. We witness the alien invader in dozens, perhaps literally hundreds of different incarnation, each new and frightening, each “morphing” before our very eyes into another unimaginable, Lovecraftian-style horror.

These amazing effects were accomplished on set by Rob Bottin, and there was no digital tinkering or CGI involved whatsoever. That fact alone should earn the film a high degree of admiration. And having watched John Carpenter’s The Thing again this week, I can state unequivocally that the practical effects hold up far better than those of most CGI epics (think An American Werewolf in Paris [1997].

The “monster” effects in The Thing are revolutionary, gorgeous and horrifying, but unlike computer generated images, they still appear real, even to the trained eye. I believe this is because -- as objects created and manipulated in the real world -- they carry weight; they obey gravity, and they appear to have substance. In David Cronenberg’s The Fly remake of 1986, Jeff Goldblum observed that computers don’t understand flesh, and to a large extent, I maintain that is also true of CGI today. I enjoyed Wonder Woman (2017) as much as the next red blooded American this summer, but some of the CGI work was so bad that it took me right out of the narrative.

The organic, mutable nature of the alien “flesh” in The Thing somehow reads as true or authentic, even today (perhaps even more so today, since younger audiences may be unaccustomed to the “old fashioned” approach to horror effects). It's not just that the creature's always-changing nature is revolutionary, it's that the depiction of that shape-shifting threat is revolutionary too.

The effects are even more effective because of the careful way Carpenter directs his actors and stages the scenes with the beast. Simply put, these moments are…utter pandemonium.

In an otherwise restrained, almost buttoned-down film, the “attack” scenes stand-out as absolute masterpieces of chaos. Things go wrong on a regular basis. Innocent bystanders get burned, macho men shriek in horror, and the alien does everything in its power to survive. Twisting, stretching, ripping, pulling at the flesh in ways that no audience prior to 1982 could have conceived.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” one character exclaims, as the Thing -- now a spidery-mutation -- unceremoniously tip-toes past a group of humans with their attention diverted elsewhere. 


Ironically, the person making that very human exhortation (Palmer) was already a thing at that point. 

I remember that exact line reading -- and that moment -- in the movie theater experience in Los Angeles. The audience burst to life, laughing, screaming...thoroughly involved. That dialogue of disbelief perfectly mirrored the effect of the scene on the matinee crowd. We were astonished, agape, horrified...nervous. Nobody, and I mean nobody had ever seen anything like this before. Not even in Alien.

Behind only the picturesque The Fog, perhaps, The Thing boasts Carpenter’s finest visual evocation of place and space. His 1982 film feels claustrophobic and cloistered due to Carpenter’s relentlessly tight framing. Often times, he stages whooshing, racing shots through narrow hallways from a first person, P.O.V. perspective so it feels like we’re running through the cluttered, tight corridors ourselves. 


Other times, he offers shiver-provoking montages of “empty” rooms (much as he did in the finale of Halloween [1978]). The purpose is the same in both instances: to chart the space where the powerful nemesis is absent. We know the Bogeyman (Myers or the Thing…) is about somewhere, but Carpenter takes us on a tour of all the places where he isn’t in a successful effort to generate suspense and build anticipation.

I began this review by comparing, at least a little bit, Blade Runner and The Thing. In the end, what separates the humans from the Replicants of Scott’s film is simply life-span. The Androids live for four years instead of seventy or so. By the end of Blade Runner, however, even that rule may need revision. 


In The Thing, we can't distinguish between man and thing even to that minimal degree. Ambiguity reigns and we never truly gain insight into how a “replicated” or “imitated” human is different (or inferior...) from the genetic source material.

For instance, the Thing imitates Norris so perfectly that the imitation suffers from the same coronary condition as the original human being. The Thing…has a heart attack. It’s clear too that the monster boasts the ability to absorb the memories and speech patterns of the host organism, since it is able to successfully hide inside Norris, Palmer, and others for a rather considerable length of time. This raises an important question. If a “replicated” person is so accurate an imitation -- down to memories and a heart problem -- how exactly is it different from us?

The only answer we have for sure is that the Thing is characterized by a more developed sense of survival. Every piece of it – every cell – seems bred for survival. When we bleed, it’s just “tissue” as MacReady notes smartly. When a Thing bleeds…it’s every particle, every cell, for itself. Italic

But there’s still so much we don’t know. When the Thing imitates more than one person at the same time, for instance, it doesn’t appear to communicate or team up with other infected "things;" with kindred. Palmer and Norris, by my reckoning, are both “Things” at the same time…but they don’t appear to collaborate or help one another. 


Again, hiding is the monster’s primary mode of operation, even when there are other "allies"/monsters about that it could seek assistance from. Honestly, the Thing doesn’t seem to care for its fellow “thing” any more than the men of Outpost 31 care for one another.

The existential question is this: if the Thing imitates us, down to the most minute physical similarities and mental quirks…is it…in fact…us? 


Only 'us" with super-cells that will resist death? If that’s the only difference, is there, perhaps, a claim to be made that The Thing somehow perfects the imperfect human being? 

I mean, a Thing as human can change shape and escape from any physical threat…and it can regenerate itself from one tiny particle. But at the same time, it still possess all our weaknesses, both physical and by inference, emotional

So..can a thing...love? Is an imitation of love the same thing as love?

It’s important to note that the Thing doesn’t want to take over the Earth in the hoary, conventional ID4 sense. It doesn’t have an agenda for invasion (like, for example, the Daleks…). It merely wants to hide, and in doing so, survive. It will take over every human on Earth to accomplish that aim, but not as an aggressive imperialist invader seeking territory…but as a fearful creature finding a pathway to survival.


Perhaps an anti-social world can only be dominated by an anti-social alien.

I suppose what I’m getting at is this philosophical question: what is the substantive, existential difference between a “thing” and a "person?" Both are flesh and blood. Both have human memories and human failings. And both want to survive. Carpenter’s film asks that question as much as does Blade Runner.


The Thing ultimately provides no answers, and -- as in the best works of art -- we are left to seek them for ourselves. This too infuriated many an audience back in the day. Viewers wanted closure, answers, and a sense of victory over the "monster." What Carpenter gave them instead was an ambiguous meditation on the frigid state of humanity in 1982. 

Who won? Who was still human? Did it even matter anymore?

In the final analysis, how do we know we aren’t already living in a world composed of “things?”

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