The Thing (1982)

The Thing (1982)Synopsis: Horror-meister John Carpenter (Halloween, Escape from New York) teams Kurt Russell’s outstanding performance with incredible visuals to build this chilling version of the classic The Thing.

In the winter of 1982, a twelve-man research team at a remote Antarctic research station discovers an alien buried in the snow for over 100,000 years. Soon unfrozen, the form-changing alien wreaks havoc, creates terror and becomes one of them.

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The Thing (1982) 8.0

eyelights: John Carpenter’s mastery. Ennio Morricone’s astonishing score.
eyesores: the creature effects.

“Somebody in this camp ain’t what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us. By spring, it could be all of us.”

John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ is a science-fiction thriller based on John W. Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?” – like its predecessor, ‘The Thing From Another World‘. Unlike the 1951 film, however, it is much closer to the source material, returning the story to the Antarctic and focusing on the growing distrust and paranoia inside the outpost.

Its tone is entirely different. Whereas the original picture was a mixture of comedy and suspense, this one is pure dread. It is also distinct in showing the antagonist right from the onset, whereas the 1951 film built up to its great reveal. It also eschews the ethical and philosophical dilemmas that were then proposed, being more visceral than intellectual.

The cleverness of ‘The Thing’ is in using the book’s original creature, which was a parasitical shape-shifter that completely absorbs the qualities of the creatures around it to hide in its environment. This allowed Carpenter to leave the audience hanging by never revealing who was infected. Plus which it built up on-screen tension as the characters turn on each other.

It’s also backed by a brilliant electronic score by Ennio Morricone (perhaps one of his most notable, if not his finest), an atmospheric piece that pulsates heavily, suggesting a heartbeat – just not a human one. And the wintry desolation. Brrr. Add to it the grimness and isolation of Antarctica and ‘The Thing’ is a perfectly claustrophobic picture, a real chiller.

Amazingly enough, the picture was not a success upon release: critics lambasted it and audiences preferred to see a more family-friendly alien picture, ‘E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial’. While ‘The Thing’ remained in the top ten for three weeks, it barely recouped it production budget. It was later, on home video, that the picture finally found its audience and became a classic.

The first time that I saw it was nearly twenty years after its release. I had seen it around in video stores but its impressive poster/cover artwork somehow didn’t draw me in. One day, however, while we were discussing our favourite horror films, a work colleague told me that ‘The Thing’ was the best he’d ever seen. So I went out and bought it on DVD sight-unseen.

I was terribly disappointed. It didn’t really scare me (few movies do, truth be told) or stimulate me. I was also left incredulous by the landmark creature effects, which have not aged particularly well. I just sat there in disbelief at how unrealistic they were, ruining each scene that put them on display. To me, it was like watching people acting with puppets.

‘The Thing’ was not scary. Or immersive.

Now, years later, ‘The Thing’ has grown on me considerably: I can overlook the effects (which, in all fairness, were groundbreaking in 1982), and its desperate, nearly-hopeless, vibe grabs my attention fully. It’s very hard to imagine what this crew can do to escape their predicament, isolated as they are from each other and the rest of the world.

This is entirely thanks to John Carpenter, who was clearly at the height of his powers here. While I’m no great fan of his, finding him rather over-rated (two or three great movies, many lackluster ones), he knows how to leave the audience hanging here, even as he gives up many of the best cards in his hand and focuses too much on gore and effects.

Particularly impressive is his use of fade-outs to leave the audience hanging. Characters are often left reflective, being posed questions they don’t answer or making grim realizations only to slowly fade out – forcing the audience to sit with the heaviness of the moment, to absorb the direness of the situation. It’s a far more psychological picture than its predecessor.

It also adapts the story to nod at its predecessor. Instead of finding the alien themselves, a Norwegian outpost found it. The Americans’ trek instead is to the Norwegian outpost, where they find the aftermath of the alien encounter. They also discover videos, showing the Norwegian explorers finding the flying saucer, in a scene reminiscent of the 1951 original.

It’s an excellent way to be faithful to the original story, but without repeating ‘The Thing From Another World’. Since the original film used the same opening as the book, ‘The Thing’ eschews that but hints at it. Then it takes up where the original left off – with the alien taking hold of various characters at the outpost and the growing paranoia.

It’s a superb approach, the best of both worlds.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

But, as with any self-respecting John Carpenter picture, ‘The Thing’ has some plot issues:

  • When we first encounter the alien, why wouldn’t it change back from its dog shape to escape the Norwegian hunters? At the time it makes perfect sense because we don’t know that the dog is an alien. Instead, we are meant to think that the Norwegians are crazy (although, if you can speak the language you’d know better: they clearly state that the dog is a shape-shifter). But, in retrospect, it doesn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t it change shape into something that can run faster, or fly, even? Can it only stay in a shape until it finds another to emulate, maybe?
  • This is a minor detail, I suppose, but when MacReady loses at computer chess, he dumps a drink in the computer out of spite. Given how isolated they are, and how expensive computers were in 1982, this seems like a really moronic thing to do. It was meant to be funny, but it shows either how stupid MacReady is, or how erratic he can be. This is not someone I would trust. And yet, he’s to become our protagonist.
  • Why is the body that they bring back from the Norwegian outpost still smouldering? I mean, it wasn’t set alight just recently. And, even it had, surely it had time to cool off in transit. I’m sure it was just for effect, or to hide the limitations of the blob of plastic, but it doesn’t make sense.
  • Why would the alien want to absorb the other dogs if it was already a dog – and the same breed at that? I mean, it’s clear that this was entirely contrived to show-off the creature effects, but it doesn’t make sense. The alien, whose life depends on remain concealed, unfound, wouldn’t make such a dumb move.
  • When they go out to look at the flying saucer, it is all dug up, intact (unlike the original story and film, in which it’s accidentally destroyed). But how could this massive thing be unburied without anyone noticing? And even if they could have done this work unnoticed, how did it remain unseen – even by satellite?
  • When MacReady has everyone draw blood so that they can find out who’s alien and who’s not, they carve deeply into their thumbs, which is a stupid thing to do because they don’t need that much blood, plus which it will impair them for the next few days – a cut like that will sting like mad if they try to use their thumb. Which they will have to, even if it was on their least-used hand.
  • It simply doesn’t make sense to blow everything up at the end, when they realize that the generator’s been destroyed and that they’ll all freeze to death in six hours. They themselves say that the alien wants to freeze, so that it can remain in stasis until someone finds them. So destroying everything ensures that it will have no shelter and freeze faster. As will they. I really didn’t understand the logic of this action. It was likely just a contrivance to provide audiences with some fireworks. Bah.

And then there’s not inconsiderable matter of the creature effects. While I love what Rob Bottin attempted to do (there are some great ideas there), I can’t say that it is in any way, shape or form successful. I found none of the creatures credible-looking, and at their worst were absolutely ridiculous-looking. This took the air out an otherwise bursting balloon.

I really don’t mean to be disparaging of Bottin’s work. I recognize how ground-breaking it is, I am fully aware that he had 40-50 people working on the effects (sometimes just to animate one creature!), and I am impressed by the sheer amount of skill and work that was put into this (Bottin was famously hospitalized due to exhaustion for this film).

It’s the results that bother me.

To me, none of it looks real, but the worst of it comes when Windows gets attacked and is held up by his head and flung about. It is so obvious that it is a mannequin, it’s inexcusable – even in 1982. The stupid thing was half empty and didn’t hold the shape of a human being, let alone Windows. It looks so stupid that you’re almost prone to laughing at that scene.

And then there’s the final conflict between MacReady and the alien. This is usually supposed to be the most memorable encounter of them all, but the damned thing looked like a bunch of melted plastic (which wasn’t helped by the fire reflecting on it). When I first saw this scene, I was seriously underwhelmed, if not gutted. I felt like Carpenter had dropped the ball.

Honestly, ‘The Thing’ is one of those rare movies that I would love to see enhanced with CGI to render the creature effects more realistic. I usually scoff at the idea, but this picture is so good on all the other levels that it’s a shame that the effects spoil it. This wouldn’t be a frivolous embellishment. It would help retain the tension that was so skillfully built.

So I would definitely want to see special edition of this picture. But I would make both available. Naturally.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

Carpenter is so on top of his game here that he purposely left the audience hanging at the end, subtly giving them hints of what would come next, but not showing anything. Instead, he ended the picture on a grim note, with a question hanging heavily in the air. A Hollywood ending would have felt false, but a darker ending would have been too much.

So he let the audience invent their own. Brilliant.

‘The Thing’ isn’t so much a remake of ‘The Thing From Another World’ as it is a parallel picture with the same roots; it avoids all the strengths and weaknesses of the original to become an entirely different thing. It’s an imperfect picture, yes, but it is nonetheless a gripping one. And it’s one of the best examples of John Carpenter’s movie-making abilities.

‘The Thing’ is well wroth seeing.

Story: 8.0
Acting: 7.5
Production: 8.0

Chills: 4.0
Gore: 5.0
Violence: 4.0

Date of viewing: Jan 5, 2015

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