by Nick Orsini
I have a beard and trust issues. If I have a problem, best believe I'm taking a blowtorch to it. This isn't some radical accident, but rather, a product of seeing the 1982 alien classic, The Thing literally dozens of times. Something about the claustrophobic nightmare of being trapped with a shape-shifting alien in some freezing base in the middle of nowhere gets under my skin. But it's more than just cool creature effects and extreme amounts of crude explosives. The Thing is about being a man.
Kurt Russell plays RJ MacReady ...and, already toting one of the manliest character names in cinema history, he's forced to lead a group against the elements, the alien, and to keep them from tearing each other to pieces. The nature of manhood was told to me in the summer of my 12th year on this planet. I had gotten into a fight with a neighborhood kid. I never knew how to fight back, so I got beat up. When I came home from the scuffle, I quietly told my dad what happened. In his workshop, in the basement of our suburban home, he told me to never take shit. He told me, no matter what, to keep a head up and save face. In the winter of my 18th year, I grew a weak, scraggly first beard.
The men trapped in that arctic base in The Thing are guy's guys. They drink liquor out of the bottle and pull pranks on each other. They wear stained long johns and double layer sweaters/thermals. And when the rubber meets the road, and they're forced to start examining themselves to weed out who is an alien and who's still human, none of them are happy about it. They aren't used to being tested, pushed, or accused. Giving up their blood, and in turn deferring to MacReady as a leader, spells out a compromise...one that few men are willing to make. Keith David, an actor popular for films like Missing in Action and They Live plays Childs. Childs doesn't even have a first name. He just exists to turn the tables on MacReady ...accusing RJ of being taken over by the alien.
In grammar/middle school, groups of guys blow things up...like spray paint cans and lighter fluid bottles. They push things as far as they can. The Thing supersizes this. There are no guns, just industrial-grade flamethrowers and other explosives. The only way to get rid of the alien is to literally burn it to ashes, destroying every last cell. How do you harken back to days of youth gone by? Just add fire.
Even the alien itself comes to represent something deep-seeded. The alien is the distorted face of the people a man used to know. When the Blair monster explodes through the ground, he is a mixture of dogs and Blair and other pieces of things that the alien has picked up along the way. The alien becomes something more than just an enemy, it is the enemy wearing the face of a friend. And, although the past must remain where it is, the worst parts of it must always be burned.
The Thing is more than just science-fiction. It is the moment, all those summers ago, when my dad told me to stop backing down from a fight. Not every fight is physical...and, in the case of MacReady and Childs, the fight is more psychological than anything else. Being a man isn't something that you can assemble from an instruction manual. It doesn't come easily and it isn't as chauvinistic as everyone would have you believe. It's an art form and a balancing act...perfectly represented in The Thing (1982).
Nick Orsini is a writer and bearded New Jersey guy. His work can be found here.