MacReady: Why don’t we just… Wait here for a little while… See what happens?
In the years since John Carpenter’s version of THE THING was released, the film’s estimation in the hearts and minds of genre fans has expanded to astronomical levels, and rightfully so. It’s a triumphant slow-burn big-bang of storytelling, craft, performance, and atmosphere. No doubt it’d have earned its adoring audience on its first 107 minutes alone, but it’s the very end of the movie, that beautiful, upsetting, thoroughly satisfying ambiguity, that has kept THE THING alive in our imaginations all these years. “The Thing,” that never-actually-named alien entity who is able to mimic the appearance and even (as it quickly evolves) the basic personalities of the earthbound creatures it kills and replaces, is not believed by the survivors of the main action of the film to have been vanquished. They give it their all, but in the end, they can’t be sure “The Thing” is truly gone. In point of fact, they seem fairly certain it may have survived.
Thirty-three-year-old spoilers to follow.
Out of the dozen (by my count) American men who staff the Antarctic research base where “The Thing” arrives, only two remain alive in the movie’s final moment: The pilot, R.J. MacReady, and the mechanic, Childs. Neither of them look to be convinced that their last-ditch effort to destroy their enemy had succeeded. Since both of them are exhausted and stranded in the middle of sub-zero climes with no method of communication or transportation, their own deaths are assured — unless, of course, one or the other of them has already been taken over by “The Thing,” in which case the creature can just go back to sleep in the ice until it’s awakened again by hapless explorers, like the since-eradicated Norwegians who first unearthed it before the movie’s beginning, and the Americans after them. In a laugh-at-the-Devil fatalistic moment that makes fans of THE THING smile at the thought of it, MacReady and Childs, unable to trust each other in their final moment, share a pull from a flask, making the best of a moment that in the ideal outcome only means both of their deaths. If one of them is “The Thing,” it could mean the end of all humanity, though the other won’t be around to care.
To my estimation, there are at least four people who would know for sure whether MacReady or Childs — not both, but maybe neither — are “The Thing,” and those four would be:
1) Bill Lancaster, the film’s screenwriter, since sadly deceased (in 1997). I haven’t been able to find any interviews with him directly, but this 1999 interview with John Carpenter mentions their collaboration in some detail, without answering the question at hand.
2) John Carpenter, the film’s director, and he ain’t saying. In 2013, Carpenter said, “Now, I do know, in the end, who “The Thing” is, but I cannot tell you.” This would imply that one of them IS in fact “The Thing,” but it’s not in Carpenter’s DNA to reveal that answer. A potential clue can be found in the 2001 book John Carpenter: The Prince Of Darkness, the director told interviewer Gilles Boulenger that he’d considered a sequel: “I have a great story, which starts off with the two characters we left in the end.” But while this indicates that, in Carpenter’s mind, MacReady and Childs last a couple minutes longer than the endpoint of THE THING, meaning neither of them is dead by the time the credits role, it does not of course confirm which of the two may or may not be “The Thing.”
3) Kurt Russell, Carpenter’s frequent collaborator, who played the role of MacReady. If he has confirmed his interpretation one way or another, I sure can’t find it. The closest I’ve come is this oft-circulated article, in which this exchange is found: Russell: “The only thing we did know was that MacReady was not.” Carpenter: “He could be.” (Both men laughed.) These good-natured but inconclusive quotes appear to come from the commentary to the DVD release, and they only serve to underline the intended ambiguity of the film’s ending.
4) Keith David, who teamed with Carpenter one more time for 1988’s THEY LIVE, and who played the role of Childs. As of tonight, Keith David does have an answer.
While answering fan questions on Twitter, here’s what he wrote:
— KeithDavid (@ImKeithDavid) September 23, 2015
Trying to avoid running into The Thing. It wasn’t me. No one believes me, but it wasn’t. https://t.co/2jjYrKIqx1
— KeithDavid (@ImKeithDavid) September 23, 2015
That seems fairly conclusive. Doesn’t read like a joke. Pretty damn direct answer to a question many people have asked for many years.
So if Childs wasn’t “The Thing,” what does that mean?
Watching THE THING in my youth, the sunshine-seeking optimist in me wanted to believe that neither of them was, that somehow MacReady’s disappearance up to Blair’s cabin was what he’d claimed, that in the end, our human heroes managed to ward off the extraterrestrial scourge and saved the world, at the greatest personal cost.
But as a student of John Carpenter’s films, I don’t think that’s what he believes. Carpenter’s stories most frequently end in pyrrhic victories, or tragic ones, or cynical gags, or temporary victories where some small amount of evil is shown in the final shot of the film to survive. The good guys and gals don’t tend to ride off into the sunset hand in hand in a John Carpenter movie. In the aforementioned book of interviews with Gilles Boulenger, Carpenter indicates he sees THE THING as the first in an unofficial “trilogy” of films, continuing with 1987’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS and 1993’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, saying “they are very much the end of everything.”
If that’s the case, if we can take him at his word (filmmakers have every right to be inconsistent in their evaluations of their own art), but if that’s the case, then “The Thing” survives the end ofTHE THING. That as feared, it goes back into hibernation, and once re-awakened, it makes its way to civilization and makes us all cosmic history.
And if “The Thing” survives the film, we can be almost positive that either MacReady or Childs is “The Thing.”
And if it is not Childs, then it is MacReady.
Any optimists left out there?
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