Of Things and Replicants

th1One of the pleasures/appeals of both The Thing and Blade Runner originate from their…. I hesitate to call them ‘mistakes’, but in all honesty it’s hard to consider them deliberate constructions.  Both films somehow created genius from chaos, perfection from accident. One of the timeless appeals of Blade Runner is the question of whether Deckard is human or Replicant, but during the making of the film it wasn’t a deliberate conceit, more one created from the melting-pot of the films confused conception. The writers wrote the character as human, the actor played him as human- the idea of him actually being that which he was hunting was an idea that appealed to director Ridley Scott and is one he has played upon ever since, particularly in subsequent re-edits of the film.  The strength of it is the ambiguity of it’; there seems no definitive answer, only hints and suggestions and contradictions which are left for the viewer to decipher.

I suppose it raises the issue of authorship; who is the central creator of a film and whose opinion really matters. Or maybe it’s all about teamwork which even includes the viewer as a participant in that teamwork and authorship.

In the case of The Thing, the role of the viewer as author is based upon the films confusion regards who is the Thing and what constitutes the Thing in the first place, all of which predicates on how one ‘sees’ the ending of the film. The film is never clear (except perhaps in two or three cases) who exactly is the Thing or when the they ‘became’ the Thing. A strength of this is the rising state of paranoia and conspiracy as the events unfold, but one might also view it as confusing and a lack of control by the film-makers. It establishes that the Thing ‘infects’ a subject and on a cellular level absorbs or replicates that host, but on a macro level demonstrates that it feeds and destroys that host as it duplicates it (what it does to the dogs in the kennel early on, or how we see it attacking some of the humans later, or leaves torn and bloody clothing in its wake). I have often felt that much of this stems from Rob Bottin and his creature effects crew dreaming up ever wilder and graphic set-pieces which, while spectacular, are almost at odds with the more subtle suggestions from the screenplay.

There is a suggestion, for instance, that one does not know one is the Thing, while also a suggestion that the Thing knows who is the Thing (due to glances between characters like Palmer and Norris). The latter would infer that at the films conclusion, at least one of Childs or MacReady must be human because they don’t ‘know’ each other’s real identity of human or Thing (because if they were both the Thing they would be triumphant and content to wait out eventual rescue). We are offered alternatives- they are both human but suspicious of each other, or one is the Thing and content to let the human die while it is content to freeze and thaw out later upon rescue, or both are The Thing and don’t know it. It could be any of those possibilities. Should the film be settling upon one and establishing it?

The blood test sequence is a highlight of the film and it is based upon the mystery of not knowing who is the Thing or indeed if oneself is the Thing- witness the relief on characters faces when they pass the test, a fantastically paranoid conceit which which means nothing if the Thing knows it is the Thing.  But whilst it establishes that Palmer fails the test and is indeed the Thing (betrayed by his own blood cells, which raises other questions of what constitutes the Thing and hive mentality etc), it always raises questions in me regards why he/it doesn’t act sooner, why he allows himself/itself to be tied up and cornered like that. Unless he doesn’t know, but this itself seems at odds with his apparent resignation just prior to being discovered as the alien. And yet a little earlier when he delivers his famous line “You’ve got to be fucking kidding!” he seems so human and so shocked at what Bottin magic he is witnessing. Its as if the script and the film is wrestling with itself, a chaotic mess from which order may or may not emerge.

All this confusion and apparent lack of control allows room for the viewer to step in and interpret things (sic) as he wishes. A critical view might suggest that this ambiguity is a weakness in Carpenter’s direction, that perhaps he himself lost control of who is the Thing and when, and indeed what the Thing actually is. But it undoubtedly becomes the films strength, when even at films end, viewers can have opposing views of what it all means or what has actually just happened. Happy accident/coincidence? Or just the viewer repairing a broken film?

One thought on “Of Things and Replicants

  1. Debates like this always remind me of a comment Danny Boyle once made about Apocalypse Now when naming it as one of his favourite films: “It’s imperfect; which every film should be.” He didn’t expand on that, but I think it can be in imperfections that we insert ourselves, as it were — explaining them away, justifying them, or just in the way they contrast everything else that does work about the movie. But it is interesting how some films overcome their flaws or inconsistencies to be great regardless, while others are condemned for them. I guess there’s an awful lot of luck and chance involved in which way that falls.

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