1982’s The Thing opens with a haunting bass line and a splendid view of the antarctic. A helicopter comes into view. A man leans out of it. He is looking for something down below. He spots a husky. The dog briefly stops, looks at the helicopter and then continues to run away from it. The helicopter circles around the dog, the man now hanging out of it with a gun. He tries to shoot the husky. Unsuccessfully.
The husky approaches and then runs into an American research station. As the Americans stationed there greet the dog, the helicopter lands. The man with the gun gets out. He pulls out a grenade and throws it towards the dog, but in mid-air it slides from his hand: backwards towards the helicopter. A loud explosion follows. The helicopter is no more.
The man is now down on the ground. Unfazed, he gets back up and starts to shout in Norwegian approaching the baffled Americans. He then aims his rifle at the dog and shoots. He misses and inadvertently shoots one of the Americans in the leg. Unperturbed he walks past the delegation and continues to march after the dog. Again he raises his gun, but then collapses to the ground. The station commander has shot him through the head. The dog lives.
Origins of The Thing
The Thing is based on the novella “Who Goes There” by John W. Campbell Jr. and was adapted to film three times, once in 1951, again in 1982 by John Carpenter, and finally in 2011. Interestingly, Campbell wrote a longer version titled “Frozen Hell”, which was recovered only in 2018. This version is yet to be adapted into a feature film.
If you haven’t seen the 1982 version yet: do so. Though not recognized at the time, it belongs to a group of one of the most memorable horror movies of the eighties. It’s also one of John Carpenter’s best overall movies. Spoilers beyond the opening follow from this point.
What is The Thing?
The Thing’s premise is uncomplicated and compelling. A group of researchers adopt a husky into their midst. That dog though turns out to not just be a dog. The American crew gradually finds out that the Norwegian Arctic expedition encountered the alien “The Thing” frozen in a block of ice. They revived it, whilst being unaware of what this alien was really capable of. This story of the Norwegian camp is in fact the focus of the 2011 film.
So, what is The Thing really? As the story progresses it becomes clear that it is some sort of organism that takes over other living things. Much like a silent symptom-free virus. That is until it is threatened: then it responds aggressively. When the Americans discover the truth behind The Thing they become alarmed and concerned with it taking over the planet.
Who has turned into The Thing cannot be easily distinguished from who hasn’t, leading the group into a downwards spiral of paranoia. The classic horror trope turned on its head: it is no longer about who is going to die next, but about who still lives that is no longer really one of us.
Indeed, a large amount of tension in the film concern the question: who is still one of us and who has become the other? And that brings us to Westworld.
Westworld opens with a scene of a woman lying on bed. A fly lands on her opened eye. She does not try to remove the fly. She does not even bat her eyelid. Instead she remains totally unresponsive. The sunlight comes in. She gets up, walks outside and greets her father.
All of this happens under a voiced over dialogue between said woman and an interrogator:
“First, have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”
“No”, the woman answers.
“Tell us what you think of your world.”
“Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray. I choose to see the beauty. To believe, there is an order to our days. A purpose.”
Then we cut to a train with guests, newcomers, that are on their way to where the woman lives.
Westworld was conceived by Michael Chrichton. Yes, the same Micheal Chrichton that gave us Jurassic Park. In 1972 he both wrote the screenplay and directed Westworld, which was released a year later. However, the opening scene above is from the 2016 adaptation into a television series by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy.
Westworld is a worthwhile watch. Three seasons have been released so far. Whilst the later seasons do not have the narrative tightness of the first, and are perhaps a bit too ambitious in expanding the scope of the story, they still turn out to be quite entertaining. Owing also to the excellent acting.
What is Westworld?
Westworld is about an amusement park in which the guests, real people, can walk around freely and take part in narrative loops that involve humanoid robots called hosts. One such host is called Dolores. She is featured in the opening scene described above, and in fact the series revolves around her.
Guests can do whatever they want with the hosts, and indeed we learn that some unleash the darkest parts of themselves within the confines of the park, whilst others stay within familiar societal bounds. The hosts can not fight back or damage the guests. Their memories are reset after each loop, so they also retain no permanent memory of what happened to them.
That is: until the creator of the hosts decides to endow them with the capacity to daydream about their earlier experiences, termed reveries, in an attempt to enable them to become conscious. It is this mental, and physical, unshackling of the robotic hosts that drives the plot.
This is echoed in the first episode with the Dolores host killing a fly with her bare hand, signifying an awakening due to the reveries, and foreshadowing what is to come later in the season.
Conclusion: The Intersection
In many ways The Thing and Westworld differ: one is a movie, the other a television series. One is about an organism, the other about humanoid robots, etc … Both have their own unique story to tell. Nevertheless, they also share many similarities.
Both The Thing and Westworld feature people that are not really people, and that can function like a hive. In The Thing they are an alien entity, in Westworld a set of networked robots. Both try desperately to break from their confines. The Thing wants to be set free beyond Antartica. The Westworld hosts, at least some of them, want to become sentient and be set free beyond the park.
Additionally, there is also a deeper thematic intersection. Remember that in The Thing, the American researchers become increasingly paranoid and suspicious of each other as they can no longer distinguish who belongs to them, and who does not. Similarly in Westworld it becomes increasingly harder to distinguish who is a robot and who is a human, and who can be trusted and who can’t.
Both stories share the theme of trust, of us versus the them, and the paranoia this can induce. This brings me to the defining common thread between both stories: the fear of the other, or xenophobia.
What do you think? Do they The Thing and Westworld have more in common than described here? Feel free to comment below.