It’s Debate Day! This week we’re continuing our aliens theme. Last Friday we discussed the best benevolent movie alien, and this week we’re debating the best (or worst) evil movie alien. If you want to fill your head with nonsense, you can view Aaron’s side of the argument here.
Aliens are the ultimate unknown. What lies out there in the furthest reaches of space? When man finally encounters new life on other worlds, will it be a kind and gentle race? Will it be something so different from us that we can’t even comprehend it? Or will it be something so sinister, so terrifying, that we feel powerless and insignificant in comparison?
Movies are chock full of evil aliens. Many of them are hokey due to shlocky writing and cheesy special effects, but a select few fill us with primordial horror. The best evil aliens hold up a dark mirror to ourselves and show us the blackness in our own hearts. For me, no alien embodies this more than the titular creature in John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Spoilers ahoy! It’s an old movie, though, so don’t sweat it too hard. Also, somewhat graphic images ahoy. Not for the faint of heart.
The Thing (1982 is the tale of the Antarctic research station U.S. Outpost 31 and its crew. Everything is going fine for them, except for the fact that they’re freezing their nuts off in Antarctica, until one day they encounter some dudes from the nearby Norwegian research station. The bungling Norwegians are chasing an Alaskan Malamute Dog with a helicopter, which they accidentally blow up with a thermite charge. The last surviving Norwegian is shooting at the dog when the American commander, Garry, is forced to kill him.
So the Malamute survives. The Americans put it in the kennel with the rest of their sled dogs, and write off the bizarre incident as Norwegians acting foolish. But then the Malamute metamorphoses into a horrifying nightmare creature, killing the other dogs. The Americans quickly realize what the Norwegians were afraid of: an extraterrestrial parasite capable of infecting and perfectly mimicking any living creature. With sickening horror, they conclude that any one of them could be a Thing in disguise.
Even with the likes of R. J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), Childs (Keith David), and Blair (Wilford Brimley) on the case, the Thing disturbs us on a preterite level. It’s a being capable of horrific violence that walks among us wearing human skin. It looks like us, walks like us, and talks like us — a perfect actor, leaving us totally convinced until it’s already too late.
Aliens like the Xenomorph from Alien and the Predator from Predator terrify us because of how immediately terrible they are. They come from the unknown and seek to destroy us with tremendous speed and shocking capabilities. But at least with them we know what we’re up against. The Thing doesn’t just scare us; it makes us paranoid. They Americans at Outpost 31 don’t just fear the creature from another world — they fear each other.
That’s really what’s so terrifying about The Thing. We can be pretty sure that our dashing hero, Kurt Russell, is free from infection. But what about everyone else? Any one of them could be the monster. We share MacReady’s paranoia as he suspects all of his crewmates, and is in turn suspected by them. Their distrust eventually causes them to destroy all methods of escape and communication with the outside world, leaving them hopelessly trapped with one another.
The only way to destroy the Thing is with fire, and as it turns out, heat is also the only way to detect a Thing. Each cell of a Thing is an individual organism, which means that Thing-blood will recoil from heat. So MacReady is able to develop a test for Things: applying a hot wire to blood samples from each human. Unfortunately, the other humans aren’t willing subjects, because everyone suspects each other and no one wants to be tested — the perfect cover for a Thing in hiding that’s slowly killing off the humans.
When MacReady finally manages to test the others, even that proves traumatic. A Thing is revealed, but it immediately transforms into a terrible monster. Thanks to some truly disturbing makeup and special effects, the transformation is shocking. If something like that could be just beneath the surface of our friends and co-workers, then how can we look at them the same way anymore?
In the end, the surviving humans mount a last-ditch effort to destroy the Things by blowing up the outpost. MacReady and Childs, the only two survivors, run into each other outside the ruined station. With death seeming inevitable, the two sit down to share a bottle of scotch. In the chaos of the explosion, the audience has lost track of the characters, and they’ve lost track of each other. We know that either of them, even Russell, could be a Thing now, and the characters know it too. As the fire burns down around them, the two men are resigned to their fate: either they both die of exposure, or one of them is a Thing. In any case, they’re both too weary to do anything about it.
Thanks to the likes of E.T., which came out the same year, The Thing didn’t perform very strongly at the box office. Most audiences would prefer to watch a saccharine film with an optimistic outlook on alien visitations. But if you’re looking for a grim window into the terror and darkness that lurks within us all, you can’t do better than The Thing. That’s why the terrifying alien metamorph is, without a doubt, the best evil movie alien.