Major Themes of The Thing (1982)


Written by Bryce Waller

John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic, The Thing, is one of the greatest films ever made – regardless of genre.

Disregarding how much fun the film is to watch, you look at everything it had to over come to reach the cult status it has achieved today and it is outstanding! I will get into the analysis of the film soon, but I think it is only fair to let you know where The Thing started.

Released June 25, 1982, The Thing was released the same friggin’ day as Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra TerrestrialE.T. dominated the box office that weekend, leaving The Thing with a terrible box office haul, and little to no praise from critics. This was when film critics still mattered.

And who could argue with this?

And who could argue with this?

E.T. provided Americans with a much-needed, upbeat film. You have to look at The Thing at the time of its release, and America was fresh off the 1970’s. A time of government distrust and polarization across all borders. These realities were a main driving force behind films like Dirty Harry and the success they had.

People could relate to Clint Eastwood’s character, but they did not want that relationship any more. Ronald “Merica” Reagan had come into office two years earlier and created a major paradigm shift every where. E.T. gave them that substitute and they loved it. The Thing was still pushing issues like corruption and distrust, but maybe those issues needed to pushed and not swept under a hypothetical rug Reagan’s mom stitched together with the hairs off his red, white, and blue back hair.


One of the main themes in The Thing is Macready’s (Kurt Russell) objective to stop a system corrupted by an alien being…much like how Nixon/Carter had corrupted America throughout the 1970s. This theme was no longer relevant, or perhaps, people did not want to acknowledge it as relevant any more (#ThanksObama).

I think this major plot point is something I love about the film. Carpenter was not ready to throw in the towel and bow to the wishes of the masses, who essentially wrote his paychecks. He had a vision for the film; he had a voice for the film and he was going to let that voice be heard. It is sad that it took the American people and critics alike so long to see how amazing this film is but it is awesome to see it recognized in so many ways today.

Now that we have the non-success out of the way, let’s discuss some of the major themes of the film that made it all come together and work so well.




You don’t have to search this film hard to see that masculinity plays a key role in it. There are literally no women in this film. Some scholars have argued that the creature, the thing, is representative of women (the way it threatens a society dominated by males), but I don’t think I want to dive that deep into this movie today.

When women are not to be found, it is usually a fun time for men. We drink, we eat, and we watch sports…ya know…guy stuff. But this camaraderie was surprisingly missing from this film. We never got the sense that the men at the National Science Institute Station 4 were BFFs. This leads to an important part of the film later, but it is interesting that Carpenter would take that direction in this film, but it ultimately worked.

Macready actually sleeps in a separate area from the rest of the men at the camp and not trusting of any one from the first day that he arrives. (Side note: he has the coolest hat in the history of cinema!)

kurt russell the thing hat

I can see the reflection of my hat in the snow…I am awesome!

This lack of camaraderie plays perfectly throughout the film as these men are never overly worried about the well-being of the men standing next to them.

This major theme of “mistrust” mentioned earlier in the film is again relied on heavily at this time. The men distrust each other, and rightfully so, and this was a direct reflection of the American people just years before.

This idea of masculinity and mistrust are evident even until the very last scene when MacReady believes he is the only survivor; only to be surprised by Child’s return after MacReady believes the thing has been destroyed and he is free to die in subzero temperatures. Gosh darn it if he doesn’t have to stay alive now and fight off potentially becoming a “thing.”


Masculinity is tight!

This theme of masculinity was heavily altered in the 2011 remake of the same name, The Thing, with the main protagonist being Kate Lloyd (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead). This feminist approach is played almost as heavily in the remake as masculinity is in the original.

I would like to point out that there is another woman in the remake, albeit an irrelevant woman, but there were two women in the remake. Just sayin’. I did not actually like the fact that a woman was in charge in the remake.


Maybe if they would have chosen a stronger female lead it would have been more believable, but Winstead didn’t make me believe she could control a situation like that. There wasn’t really any animosity towards her coming from the men of the group either (other than Dr. Halvorson). I just think that whole dynamic didn’t play out well, but that is just my opinion.

Either way, the remake had a major departure from the original in its theme of masculinity.

The Will to Survive

What would you do to ensure your survival on this planet? That is one question John Carpenter begs the audience to think about after you watch The Thing. The men at Station 4 might think they are entirely different from the alien they hunt and then hide from, but they are alike in a couple of ways.

Both man and alien alike act independently, and both seek to stay alive throughout The Thing by whatever means they see fit. Neither wants to do anything that would put itself in danger of losing said life, and that is where they could not be more alike.


Who doesn’t love this scene!!! Am I right!

One thing Carpenter introduces to the audience through Kurt Russell’s character is how the alien “thing” can act as an individual being. The parts that separate from bodies can transform into their own being which immediately seeks to survive.

Even the blood extracted from the thing is a living organism that seeks to ensure its existence – as proven by the test conducted by Mr. MacReady and his industrial-size blowtorch.  I find this extremely interesting as it is a direct comparison to the men of the camp. As stated earlier, there is no brotherhood amongst the group. “Every men for himself” is the quote of the day the thing attacks, and this is one way the alien manages to spread so fast between group members.

The best predators will take a group down one at a time. My friend, Dutch taught me that one a few years ago. The men and the thing all act independently of each other, and in the “things” case, itself. If only the men would have stayed together, you have to believe their chances of survival would have increased, if only a little bit. Their will to survive is strong, but their survival skills clearly were not.

"OhGodohGodohGod..." -Hyena

“OhGodohGodohGod…” -Hyena

Other than their independence, the men and the thing would both do anything to survive. Probably my favorite scene in the film is where Blair (Wilford Brimley) is running an analysis of what would happen if the thing were released into the general population. “If intruder organism reaches civilized areas, entire world population infected 27,000 hours from first contact.” I love the anxiety we feel at this moment. That feeling of “HOLY CRAP, we are all going to die…so fast!”

This is the first time in the film that we see a character really do something else for someone other than himself. Blair goes and starts destroying anything that can be used to reach the outside world: radio, helicopter, etc. in an attempt to stop the thing from reaching anyone else.


“The dingo ate your baby!”

Blair’s character could be the only connection this movie has to the feelings of America in 1982. His attempt to essentially save everyone was the most unified act in the entire film. This is what I would like to believe we would all do in this situation, but who really knows.  Blair is one of the few, if not the only one, that thought of the survival of the human race before he thought of his own survival – a shift of perspective taking place in modern-day America at the time.

Kudos to you, Mr. Blair! The rest of the group is like “Screw it. I want the flamethrower to save my booty.” The thing and the majority of the group will do anything to survive. Typical.

These are just a couple, simple themes I noticed after watching John Carpenter’s The Thing for the 50th time. I find the deviation of this film from the feelings of “every day” Americans during the early 1980’s to be very interesting. It is always nice to see directors challenge the “status quo,” and in the long run, be rewarded for it.

It is also interesting to see how America treated this film during the time of its release. Like a body fighting off a virus that disagrees with its very way of living, America fought this film in a literal and psychological way. Literal by depriving The Thing off box-office gains. Psychological by distancing itself from the film until years later. Americans did not want to be subjected to discourse and chaos; they were tired of that regardless of how prevalent it still was at the time. They ate up E.T. like Bruce eats up chocolate cake.


Often times I wonder if America has shifted away from that mentality of “if we don’t see it, it’s not really happening.” I like to think that John Carpenter was thinking this same thing back in the early 1980’s while making The Thing. I won’t get too deep with this post, but it is always interesting to think about these things. Anyways, what other themes did you find throughout The Thing (1982)? Comment and let us know what you think. Were we wrong in our assumptions of the major themes we listed above? Revisit this classic film and let us know what you think.



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