At the beginning of the movie The Thing, we find MacReady by himself in his shack. The first scene firmly establishes his character. He’s a loner. Also, he’s playing Chess Wizard. This reveals another trait of his character. He’s a tactician. True, he’s losing at the moment, though he does not know it.
However, it remains academic whether he lost the single most important game of his life – against a lethal shapeshifting alien.
He also has a short temper. He pours whiskey over the circuitry of the computer after being check-mated. This is clearly overreacted, though the scene could also serve as a visual pun. In the last scene, MacReady also offers a bottle of spirits to the last surviving team member. Is this supposed to be a gesture of trust and camaraderie? Or is MacReady putting a drink into his opponent before he burns it up?!
Almost from the first scene, he asserts naturally his leadership to the other characters. They turn to him for advice and guidance. There is an interesting parallel between him and Garry, the official commander of the station. The latter has all the trappings of authority, including the uniform and gun, but he’s lacking where it really counts, as the events in the movie show.
MacReady seems to stand apart from the group at the beginning of the movie, but as the drama unfolds his moves center stage and assumes control of the expedition. That makes the difference between commanders in name only and true hands-on leaders. Nobody misses up on this.
Occasionally he comes across as a resigned realist. He sums up the events in the first few minutes of the movie, “First goddamned week of winter.”, as though foretelling that the worst is yet to come. He’s not particularly endowed in the compassion department. When the others coax him into taking off and flying on a rescue mission to the Norwegian camp he relents, but after some deliberation. He is not the one to stick his neck out for anybody.
Also, he is not a deep thinker. He leaves that to the scientists on the team. Blair, Copper, and Fuchs will have to tease out the nature of the alien. And yet we constantly get the sense of him as thinking. He is thinking through the variations of the same game – how to stay alive.
His drive to survive sets him apart from the others – where they seem to be floundering around he never loses a sense of direction. Though he can at times seem just as blundering as anybody else, for instance, when the thing outmaneuvered him by planting the evidence against him – the shredded clothing that had his name on it – and nearly had his buddies kill him by shutting him outside in a blizzard. Then again, who could have expected such a subtle move from a thing from space?
As humans always find out, the things from space can be skillful tacticians just as they can be ruthless killers. Or another time he comes across as complete washout is when at a crucial moment in the movie he says he wants to get up in his shack and get drunk.
But that at least is a human response and it is something we can all relate to. Is there anybody who didn’t feel just like giving it all up after a long day in the office or after realizing that their business has just gone down? Or after finding out that their buddies could be killer aliens from space?
However, these moments of weakness are rare, and MacReady quickly bounces back eagerly as ever, control freak if there ever was one. Gun or flame thrower or a dynamite stick in hand, ready to hunt the killer alien till kingdom come. And when the alien has him cornered he will scream his defiance in the face of death.
“Yeah, fuck you too.” What one-liner! Maybe not something we would stick on a platinum disc before we send it to space as a message to an extraterrestrial intelligence but certainly something each one of us would readily yell out in the face of anything brazen enough to come along and make a mess of our lives – our idle games of chess or long private sessions with J&B.;
In that respect, MacReady is an everyman swept up in events. He’s also the survivor type who has no qualms about saving his skin. That makes his position within the team highly ambiguous. Everybody seems to acknowledge his drive and defer to him, and yet they never seem to fully trust him.
That is the problem with the survivor type. You can trust his instincts to see you through thick and think, but you’d better make sure you keep up with him because he is not going to be looking over his shoulder to check if you’re there.
Oddly enough, his drive and his concern for self-preservation make him strangely akin to his adversary. The thing is quick to recognize that and focuses its attack on him. That is the moment when our everyman does something extraordinary.
Confronted with the inevitability of his own death he rises to the occasion. He accepts the necessity of self-sacrifice as that seems the only way he can ensure the demise of the alien pursuer. We leave MacReady utterly hopeless, purposeful, and defiant to the end.