Friday, December 28, 2012

Darkness falls

One of my favorite movies of all time is John Carpenter's The Thing, a remake of Howard Hawks' 1951 classic The Thing From Another World. It's the story of a research station in the Antarctic that is attacked by an alien life form capable of assuming other forms and imitating them. The story line becomes one of deep paranoia--as anyone could be the alien creature--in a world of claustrophobia, amid isolation and endless expanse.

In the end, the alien is defeated--for the moment--but the station goes up in flames, while the final two survivors share a drink as they await the end of the fire and their own certain death. There's very little humor in the movie, no happy ending, and a great deal of sheer terror (both for the people in the movie and for the audience). I like to watch the movie--I watch it once or twice a year--late at night, by myself and in darkened silence, so as to absorb the feel of it.

And even after all of these years, after having seen the movie at least twenty-five times, there's still something very unnerving about that "feel," about watching the build-up to the climatic end with a fade to black that really is exactly that in the world of the movie. Hope? It's for suckers. Bravery and honor go unrewarded; indeed, cowards and heroes share the same fate with no means for those who may come later to decipher who was who. And again, the victory--over the alien--may only be an ephemeral one.

The movie was largely panned by critics when it hit the theaters. It was a high-budget production (for 1982) that barely made a profit in its theatrical release. Yet today, it remains widely popular, having actually been recognized as one of the best Sci-Fi movies of all time (by a number of different groups/people), one of the scariest movies of all time, and indeed even one of the best (top 500) movies of all times by some.

Take a look at the top grossing movies from the same year. As far as major moments go in the film industry, 1982 was chock full of them with films like E.T., Ghandi, and The Verdict all having been released in that year (all three are in AFI's Top 500 Films of All Time). Another film released in 1982 is Bladerunner, an equally dark film that did better at the box office than The Thing but still was not in the top 20 highest grossing list (though it comes in at #50 on the AFI list).

I happen to be a huge Bladerunner aficionado, as well. And it remains a so-called cult classic. The other movies mentioned above are likewise well-deserving of the praise they receive. But none of them moves me like The Thing, none of them are--in my estimation--as timeless in terms of what they say about the human condition.

As we approach yet another new year, as the U.S. teeters on the edge of a "Fiscal Cliff," as Europe continues to topple over one of their own, even as nations desperately try to cling to the edge, as we struggle to hold on to vestiges of tradition and community in the face of modernity and the continued rise of anonymity, it is perhaps worth remembering a hard truth: every person really is an island, under the right set of conditions.

What we do in life rarely--if ever--echoes through eternity, there is naught but the moment and our own consciousness. In that moment, in every moment, there is a choice to be made. That choice may be conditioned by many, many factors but it is still a choice, such is the nature of free will. But sometimes, there is no way out, there is no good choice to be had when the weight of the world is crushing down upon us. And no matter what we do--or do not do---no one will care, no one will really know. We live with only ourselves and our time is short.
If you have seen truly where the matter lies, then leave behind your reputation and be content even if you live the remainder of life, however long [it may be], as your nature wills.--Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Yes, The Thing is a tale of stoicism, a philosophical tradition that has become largely irrelevant in the past several decades. A good life is its own reward, no matter how long or short that life is, no matter if one dies peacefully or in extreme agony, no matter if one is loved or hated, no matter if one is rich or poor. We want to believe in--we desperately need to believe in--things like karma, fate, and cosmic justice. They are illusions. Pain and suffering can come to the noble as easily as the wicked, so too can riches and happiness.

New Year's Eve is upon us, the time for making resolutions and promises rarely kept. I offer one resolution for all, an ancient prescriptive for the self, not for achieving some sort of mythical Nirvana, but for simply finding peace with the world and one's limited place in it:
Know thyself.
Cheers, all.