Saturday, June 30, 2012

Posthumanism in John Carpenter's The Thin

gSociety has always held a curiosity for the non-conformal body, the deviant, the abomination, and the monster. From Beowulf's Grendel, the Victorian sideshow freak and Victor Frankenstein's laboratory creation, and through to the modern cinematic creations such as Giger's Alien, the posthuman has both fascinated and appalled. In some cases, such as with Mary Shelley's unfortunate beast, the monster has garnered pity; a misunderstood misfit that is sympathised more than it is feared. The posthuman "Other" is always identifiable, if not always associable.

Posthumanism is a critical theory that realises mankind's fallibility, vulnerability, and inconsequence within the universe. For the last century science fiction, through literature and cinema, has analysed the human, and exactly what defines the human, physically and psychologically, perhaps further than any other popular media. And the alien, more specifically the extra-terrestrial, presents us with a being that often rivals humanity in terms of intelligence and wisdom, and at other times cruelty and ignorance, but importantly, is always differs from us in appearance.

The extra terrestrial creature in John Carpenter's The Thing reminds us of our inferiority; genetically it is the superior life form. The Thing is an unusual creation, in that it is immediately identifiable, as is any effective cinematic creature design, despite having no secure form or consistent features. Instead, the sexless, faceless alien mimics its victims, which it must first consume, often merging several of these assimilated forms into grotesque, ever shifting amalgams that are only in part identifiable as human, a common trait of the postmodern subject. There is never genuine explanation as to why the creature must consume that which it mimics, though this could be considered essential to the plot; the Thing kills not because it is evil, but purely for self preservation, an important factor that separates the creature from our sentient values; Carpenter never reveals the Thing's motives, or exactly how intelligent it is.

In Carpenter's movie, the human body, mind and body, is viewed as little more than disposable flesh; though the alien mimics the form of those it has assimilated, its victims are inconsequential once gone. The mutation of the character's identities produces images hideous and shocking, but never less than magnificent; despite its alien design, the Thing demands a certain level of respect. It is the efficient hunter, one step above man on the evolutional ladder, never conforming to one analytical or interpretational state, a unified mind even in coexistent bodies. The non-identifiable Thing, far removed from the more traditional, sympathetic monster such as Dracula or Frankenstein's creation, is terrifying because it is simply the better beast, and not unlike the virus it is a form without our limitations that will continue to adapt and consume until it is the planet's dominant organism. To the Thing we are the threat, we are the alien. The film's downbeat ending, with MacReady and Childs unsure whether the creature has been destroyed or is in fact one of them, suggests that man has met his match.

The Enlightenment subject suggests that reason and rationality form the basis of human progress, that the human race, our actions dictated by reason, has its limits. Man is a self-governing body, unified and complete. The alien body, conversely, is inhuman, liminal and incomplete, often limitless, a randomised facsimile of our own form, that compels us to anxiously consider our own image. The way in which the Thing absorbs it victims could be seen as something similar, a violation of the human form, its complexity and uniqueness. The alien genetically rapes that which it assimilates; that it is able to mimic the scientist's actions and mannerisms suggests that it also absorbs the scientist's personalities to some degree, stealing intellect and memory as well as genetic makeup. This violation of the human form in which nothing is sacrilege, a simplification the flesh of the body into a leaking, simplified substance, opposes the essentialist basis of inherent identity; here, identity is something to be taken.

It s interesting to compare Carpenter's remake to the 1951 original, The Thing from Another World, an allegorical portrayal of the McCarthy era, and the American fear of communist intrusion. This political theme, of constant threat to an American identity ever susceptible to violation from foreign bodies, is near neglected in Carpenter's1982 remake, released only two weeks after the more optimistic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Though this version retains the themes of paranoia and confused identity, Carpenter's movie plays on a far more relevant fear; that of contagion. The inability to detect the Thing by sight alone, and the scientist's reliance on blood tests, reflects the world-wide hysteria around the AIDS virus that had emerged just a few years earlier. The Thing is not a physical creature as such, but a contamination, an infiltration of the system, detectable through examination of bodily fluids. Whereas The Thing from Another World's characters are united by their paranoia, MacReady and company are isolated and distanced in The Thing, despite the film's smaller scale. When MacReady kills one of his comrades, we realise that the scientists may be as much at risk from each other's suspicions as they are from the alien. The notion of the sociological subject, of identity formed by significant others, is perverted by the presence of the posthuman Other; identity is now unclear, unreliable and dangerous. Though it is tempting to see the Hollywood monster as pure spectacle, it is not the monster that we consider when witnessing the amorphous, leaking forms of the Thing, but ourselves.

Though it bears little resemblance to the alien from Philip Kaufman's original The Thing from Another Planet, Carpenter's creation is not unique, owing more than a little to the impostors from either version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But whereas the body snatcher could love, feel and hate (or at the very least express impressions of such human emotions) the Thing displays no desires other than consumption and self preservation. In Kaufman's 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, one of the most effective scenes involves our protagonist Bennell, played by Donald Sutherland, facing the cloned shell of his now deceased girlfriend Elizabeth, as she gains consciousness and stands naked before him. This moment of temptation, as Bennell is overwhelmed by panic and enchantment combined, is broken only when Elizabeth releases a piercing, inhuman scream, revealing that she will never be capable of replacing the dead partner. This scene possesses a certain level of identity anxiety that The Thing lacks, and asks a question that is at the centre of Tarkovsky's Solaris; could one come to accept that which is human only in appearance as a replacement for a deceased loved one?

Whereas Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers plays with themes of wide spread violation, an extra terrestrial insurrection which only Leonard Nimoy's peculiar psychiatrist eventually embraces, the protagonist in Solaris, confronted by a perfect replica of his dead wife, struggles to reject the warmth of illusion. This cold sexuality displayed by the replicas in Solaris and Body Snatchers, is an artificial empathy, almost android, with little understanding or appreciation of the human, takes the fear of violation in the opposite direction of The Thing's hunter/prey themes: man is replace by an equally civilised being, perhaps more so, which adapts naturally to man's normative identity. The body snatcher does not disrupt society but replace it with a new order, an order not suited toward man.

The 'uncanny valley', a hypothesis that suggests that the more human in appearance a robot may be, the more repulsive it will be received by a genuine human. Also applicable to dolls and computer generated characters, the uncanny valley suggests that we hold the body sacred, and become disturbed when something appears almost human... but not quite.

This is a far more complex identity anxiety to appreciate, in terms of visual or physical imagery, than the 'Other body' of the Thing. Giger's Xenomorph design, from Ridley Scott's Alien, is a humanoid, relatable evolution of the shark; engineered and phallic in design, externally based on both human genitalia and machine parts. The Xenomorph is ritually parasitic and sexless, both savage and motherly, vile and alluring. Strangely, the Thing lacks this fetishist attractiveness; when it does take on human parts, they are either a perfect mimic, or stretched and disfigured beyond association. But it does fascinate, if only through indifference, and for the film's stunning use of animatronic technology, itself a mechanical imitation of natural life. Though it is sexless (or at the very least, its gender is unidentifiable) the creature shares two common elements with man, a drive to consume and a desire to keep warm.

The case studies we have looked at, such as The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, are not set in futuristic dystopias or idealistic utopias, but grounded in our own present. The 'it could happen to you' impact of these films should not be overlooked. The Thing is a hideous half-resemblance of man, an amorphous, monstrous fake that not unlike the infection that it metaphorically represents, wants nothing more than to survive; to find food and shelter. In this respect, we are not so different. Science fiction has represented the posthuman in as many ways as it has the human, emphasizing that:

The Thing preys not only on the fear of contagion, but on the loss of individuality. Of all of the recent science fiction 'horrors' it reveals the human condition as much as it tells a good monster story. The films human characters are almost indistinguishable from one another. Cold and impersonal, they are a study of the human race as a whole than any one specimen. The protagonist MacReady's identity is defined not by similarity to his fellow men, but from his differences to the alien. In Carpenter's movie, the posthuman Other and the human form are indeterminable, and identity is indefinite.

Carl Doherty created under supervision of his doctor, who conceived the criticism and categorisation of every film that Carl watches as a way of tackling his obsessive compulsive disorder. Carl has now watched 23 films, and is not entirely sure he liked any of them. Carl currently resides in Southend-on-Sea where he shares an abandoned warehouse with a buffy-tufted marmoset named Tautilus Samson. Together they have all sorts of adventures. He is currently completing his second non-fiction book How to Build a Quantum Flux Capacitor in 8 Easy Steps, the sequel to the bestselling Manipulating Time and Space on a Budget. Or maybe not.