Monday, 17 July 2017

It's In The Computer: technology and the unknowable in John Carpenter's 'The Thing' and 'Prince of Darkness'

This weekend I attended a 35th anniversary screening of John Carpenter's The Thing. It was every bit as mad and visionary as I remember, but I also felt I was now far more able to appreciate the impressive degree of humour which carries the suspense of the script. There's the absurdities of Childs and MacReady's punchy, hyper-masculine dialogue, and the occasional drifts into slapstick, but the scene that raised the biggest laugh was the sequence in which Blair, the station's doctor, turns to his computer in search of answers.

Aside from representing a now conspicuously convenient exposition device, one of the biggest sources of amusement here was the idea that it was possible for a computer to plot so accurately the behaviour of this entity in so short a time, and in such a specific fashion based on a scattering of initial data. It's easy to put this down to the technological ignorance of an audience for whom computers were something still largely beyond their grasp. This was after all a time in cinema where a film in which Matthew Broderick accidentally hacks into the US's nuclear defence network via a computer game could still make a viable plot. This trope was even lampooned in Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (2004), with Dr Liz Asher's famous line: I'll cross-fertilise the data.

But this scene is perhaps not as absurd as it seems. Advances in epidemiology had been taking place for much of the later part of the 20th century, with computers assisting in the creation of sophisticated modelling software to support large scale research projects. As Luke at the Pencil Neck Record Geek blog points out, this was also the year in which AIDS finally gained national recognition, and the behaviour of viruses suddenly became a matter major popular concern amid a climate of growing paranoia. But while the film actually now seems weirdly prescient in light of the recent story of the 'coming back to life' of the largest virus ever discovered, preserved for 30,000 years in the Siberian Permafrost, this application of computing would have been high on the agenda in the scientific community even then.

This wasn't impossible technology. But even so, such an analysis would only be possible if they had the software with them at the base that had been designed with a similar purpose in mind. This then begs the question of what exactly they were researching at Outpost #31 that they would have access to such a resources (plus flamethrowers)? Given the costs of maintaining and staffing an Antarctic research station, it's likely that multiple projects would be running simultaneously across the base, and this does seem to be the case. The cast lists Blair and Fuchs as biologists, Norris as a geologist and Bennings as a meteorologist, together comprising pretty much all the fields of study you would really cover in an Antarctic research station. MacReady is also identified as a meteorologist in the book but is re-introduced as the company pilot, most likely so as to be more in-keeping with  Kurt Russel's characterisation as the hardbitten, whiskey-fuelled badass we see in the film.

Yet there is another dimension to the presence of this technology in Carpenter's film. One of the first segments of dialogue is between MacReady and and the dedicated chess computer: Chess Wizard. And while her role in the film itself is short lived, her precocious intelligence being written off after beating MacReady (MacReady's 'cheating bitch!' line made all the more pointed given that hers is the only female voice in an otherwise all male film), she marks an important thematic aspect of the film - the idea of Computers against the unknown.

The unknown and the unknowable is a persistent trope in horror. Much of how we conceive of it today is shaped by its role in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. His fiction is filled with unnameable terrors, made frightening not by the absence of their description but the impossibility of their description. Eugene Thacker explores it in his book In the Dust of this Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 1, and points to a trend of persistent and conspicuous vagueness in the descriptions used in film titles like Them, and They Live. The Thing, and its amorphous, implacable alien nemesis is no exception from this trend. Yet it is important to note the quality of unknowability is a figment of human subjectivity. Not so, perhaps, for the objective mind of a computer. And the fact that this is even fleetingly identified as a feminine presence, while all around men are turning on one another, is certainly worth bearing in mind when approaching the film from a critical perspective.

The Thing is not the only one of John Carpenter's films of that decade to feature a computer as an interface with the unknown. 1987 saw the release of his less celebrated but equally visionary Prince of Darkness. Like its predecessor, Prince of Darkness also features a research team holed up in a building against an invading entity. But in the later film they are transposed from the icy wastes of Antarctica to the dilapidated cityscape of downtown L.A. where they establish a research post in an abandoned church with a murky occult history. Here the horrors that await them are more overtly supernatural, and the team set to analyse them represent a significantly more diverse bunch consisting of theologians, mathematicians, ancient language scholars and philosophy professors alongside the scientists.

Even more so than in The Thing, computers provide an insight into the unknown. They are able to present hidden meaning in the words of ancient texts, and reveal the presence of impossibly sophisticated differential equations recorded therein, before eventually becoming the mouthpiece of the entity that is the eponymous Prince of Darkness.

But there is a second technological presence in the film, one that is far more speculative. It appears in the recurrent dream sequence, where the team begin experiencing the same vision of the church in the not so distant future, accompanied by the chilling message:

We are unable to transmit through conscious neural interference. You are receiving this broadcast as a dream. We are transmitting from the year one, nine, nine, nine...

The introduction of broadcasting technology as a means of transcending time into an already conceptually dense film was a daring decision on Carpenter's part. But as well as heightening the occult technological undertones present in the drama, it also represents a call back to an earlier film: The Stone Tape. Created by Nigel Kneale for the BBC in 1971 as part of its 'Ghost stories at Christmas' series, it is cited as being among the principle inspirations of Carpenter's later film. 

The Stone Tape was witness to another point of transgression of science into the realms of the paranormal. It sees a team of scientists attempt to turn their knowledge and their impressive array of audio-tech to examine an apparition of a screaming woman materialising in an ancient stone vault. Like Carpenter's L.A. church, this chamber is located in the lower levels of a semi-ruined manor house. But their experiments  soon turn up something more far less prosaic than an mere haunting.

Again, there is a heavily gendered dimension to the interplay of science and the supernatural in Kneale's work. It features Jane Asher as the brilliant, dedicated and much underappreciated protagonist Jill who, as the data analyst for the team, providing a central role in the work of the team. Yet this goes ignored even when her discoveries prove the only insight into what is really going on. She is also notably the only one able to empathise with the humanity of the dead woman beyond a simple piece of data, all the more poignant given her ultimate fate.

The historic association of programming and femininity is a lost chapter in the history computers that has only recently come back into the public consciousness through films like Hidden Figures (2016) and the growing cult following around Ada Lovelace. This trend carries over profoundly into Carpenter's later film. Even though by this point the field of computing and its image in the popular imagination had been almost entirely claimed by men women are continually depicted as the guardians to the computers. Through them, they stare boldly into the unknown, holding council with CPUs like the participants of some elaborate digital seance.

Prince of Darkness has sadly achieved nothing like the kind of critical acclaim of Carpenter's other works like The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13. But despite all the schlock dialogue, the cod philosophy and gross-out special effects, I believe it is and remains one of his most important and visionary films of the 1980s.