Monday, September 10, 2012

Villains with Clear Motives

This weekend I watched last year's premaquel* of The Thing.  It was... fine.  That's really all I can say about it.  It achieved its goals, given that its goal was to essentially be a widely release fanfilm about what happened at the Norwegian camp before the events in John Carpenter's The Thing

Now, I should say, Carpenter's movie is possibly one of my favorite movies of all time.  I don't get obsessive about it-- I really can't recall the actual characters' names**, nor am I invested in Who Got Turned When. But it's a fun thriller with damn cool practical creature effects, and it's a movie I can happily re-watch again and again.****

 But, that praise given, I've always been puzzled by the Thing itself, what its motivations are, what it's trying to accomplish, and how its actions further those accomplishments.  These questions pop out even more in the premaquel. 

For those who've never seen either (or don't recall the details), the creature has been frozen in the antarctic ice for millennia, and once its out, it's eating the occasional person or dog, and then mimicking them.  Why does it do this?  Because it can, of course.  That, and to blend in.  Until any particular iteration of The Thing doesn't feel like blending in anymore, and then it becomes all tentacles and teeth.

But this brings up questions: what does The Thing want?  There's some lip service to the idea that it might want to get to civilization so it can make all 4 billion***** of us into tasty cakes.  But I don't think that's the plan, because if it was, it makes terrible decisions.  (In the 2011 version, at one point there's a helicopter taking off to McMurdo station, and the thingified person in there goes into tentacle mode, making the chopper crash just a little ways out.  So "getting away" is hardly the plan.)  In terms of what it does, getting the hell off of Earth might be the real plan, since in the remake one iteration goes back to the ship and powers it up, and in the Carpenter version, one iteration is building a ship in the tunnels under the camp. 

The thing (ha!) that always jumps out at me is that The Thing is clearly intelligent, rather than a reactive animal, and in mimicking humans, is capable of holding conversation as a mimicked human.  So you would think that, once confronted it could go, "Look, I just want to go home.  Sorry about the mess." or words to that effect.  But it never does.  Once someone is revealed as being Thingified, they just go into full-on monster mode.  No more talking, no more mimicking-- just tentacles and teeth and SMASH EVERYTHING.  Which looks cool, but it reads more as Angry Alien Badger rather than Intelligent Alien.

Now, one can excuse some of that with the word "Alien": it doesn't think like us, so we can't understand how it thinks.  And that's fine.

But for villains that are human, you need clear answers.  What they want, why they want it, and how what they are doing helps to achieve that.  The minute you have them do something bad just "because their evil", you've lost something critical in the storytelling.

 *- It's a prequel! It's a remake!  It's kind of both!
**- It's pretty much Kurt Russell, Wilfred Brimley, David Keith***, that guy from LA Law, and a bunch of other guys.
***- Or is it Keith David?  I always mix up which is which.
****- And, as of this writing, it's streamable on Netflix!  Just saying.
*****- This was 1982, after all.


Michael Caton said...

Lots of bad things happen at Norwegian camps...

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Sounds like you have some experience along those lines.