An alien sense of isolation: A critical analysis of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982)

It’s Independence Day weekend, and while one alien invasion flick crash lands at the box office, I find myself turning to something a little more classic (and a little more horror, as far as the sub-genre goes). I recently re-viewed director John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” which is, in my opinion, among the finest of horror and science fiction films ever crafted, in part because it takes the best elements of both and utilizes them for psychological scares; one of the themes from horror that the movie uses is the theme of isolation, here married to the concept of an alien threat.

There are multiple ways that the characters at Outpost 31 are isolated. They are, most obviously, physically isolated from the rest of humanity by the Antarctic landscape, and they are infamously isolated from each other even before the arrival of the alien. In the establishing shots of the base, people are mostly engaged in solitary activities: reading magazines, lost in headphones–even our hero, Macready (Kurt Russell), plays computer chess far from the other men. The closest we have to human interaction is two scientists who play a curiously silent game of ping pong.

Further, the men are also isolated in their own humanity by the alien presence in their midst, which is both unknown, being an extraterrestrial life-form (“It’s not cellular structure as we know it,” Blair (Wilford Brimley) notes during the autopsy) and one that robs human identity of its knowable nature. The scientists and staff at the outpost cannot trust the people around them to still be people (“Trust is a hard thing to come by these days,” Macready quips in one of the film’s more familiar lines), making each man a paranoid island unto himself. The men are also isolated from their more knowledgeable comrades, the Norwegian scientists, by language. The alien itself is alone–far removed from its planet and its fellow life-forms. But it’s not only the characters and creatures that are isolating factors.

In many works of literature and cinema, architecture represents the characters within (haunted Bly in “The Turn of the Screw” or decadent Xanadu in “Citizen Kane”). “The Thing” is no exception. Carpenter uses the camera to frame Outpost 31 as a facility that is far from populated. Repeatedly, slow tracking shots showcase the long, lonely hallways and empty rooms of the buildings. This visual motif replays throughout the film until it comes to represent the men and their situation within: Outpost 31 is just as empty and lonely as the human beings that inhabit it.

While the images on screen isolate, the soundtrack alienates. Ennio Morricone’s masterful score is as alien as the threat; the use of Bartok-esque strings and inhuman sounding synthesizers is slow, atmospheric, and it utterly robs the audience of some of the louder tropes of horror film scores (it is certainly a far cry from Carpenter’s other films, which often feature a hard rock soundtrack from the director himself). Even during the explosive climax, where one would expect the soundtrack to ramp up and draw the audience into the action, the musical accompaniment is uncomfortably quiet and distant. But it’s what happens after the climax that might be the most isolating of all.

In most horror films, the appearance of another human being would signal a positive shift, but in “The Thing,” it’s far from comforting. When Childs (Keith David) appears from out of the night at the film’s conclusion, he does not represent a reunion with humanity for Macready; instead, he doubles up the isolation. While before Macready had been alone on the remains of the burning base, now he has to contend with a possibly inhuman foe. Too exhausted to react, Macready settles into himself, utterly isolated from a humanity that is 1,000 miles away and from the one man who is six feet in front of him.