Directed by John Carpenter. Screenplay by Bill Lancaster; based upon the short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell. Produced by David Foster, Lawrence Turman. Music by Ennio Morricone. Photographed by Dean Cundey. Edited by Todd C. Ramsay. Production designed by John J. Lloyd. Starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, Joel Polis, Thomas G. Waites.
It’s such an attractive concept. An alien crash lands on Earth. One who has the ability to shape-shift into human form and, more alarmingly, mimic human behavior. This simple plot has been used again and again in moves like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (multiple versions) and even in non-horror works like The Day the Earth Stood Still (multiple version). And also—let’s just get to it—John Carpenter’s The Thing and its numerous relations: not just the new-in-theaters remake, countless imitators or its somewhat-less-known 1951 predecessor (Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World), but also the original short story upon which all of them are based, John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” (1938). Campbell, one of the godfathers of science fiction, liked stories about scientists and professionals dealing with sci-fi dilemmas, and you can see that influence in this strand of narratives that collectively raise the seemingly innocent question of what is human and what is not.
The concept is durable because it touches and even disturbs us on a primal level: we are the dominant species on Earth, of course, but what achievement is that when a visitor can hide within our social structure so easily, and deceive us? If we are so easily copied and corrupted, then what are we, really? The original Body Snatchers movie is also seen as a reactionary parable on the same page with McCarthyism, and while that reading is fair, it trivializes the larger points about the loss of identity and fear of coercion. These are stirring points to center a narrative upon, and when they work, they truly work well.
John Carpenter’s The Thing works, it must be said, pretty well. It is a tense and bracing piece of sci-fi horror that has smarts, courage, and, above all, a superb mastery of both special effects and filmmaking craft. If it falls a little shorter that it should have, I think that failing can be pinned entirely upon the characterizations: they are not given quite enough room to develop before they are plunged into a series of setpieces and confrontations, ones that depend entirely upon behavior that we have not been given enough insight into.
Compare Carpenter’s The Thing to Ridley Scott’s Alien, which observes its characters closely before sweeping them into a horror plot: its approach is cold, but not glib. The Thing, conversely, is in a bit of a hurry. We barely meet our heroes before they are dealing with an explosion, a suicide, a trashed research station, and an alien spaceship. Too much, too soon. We can be patient as a movie slowly draws us in by introducing us to its cast, but that’s not exactly what happens here, so many of the crucial decisions that inform the later sections of the film feel arbitrary, not organic extensions of character.
This flaw–let’s be clear–is not a critical failing. But it does keep The Thing from reaching its maximum potential. Since the story is an engine fueled by neurosis, suspicion and paranoia, Carpenter’s antiseptic approach means that he only gives himself half a tank. It is only through the strength of some of the valuable actors here that some of the characters are able to make an impression at all: not just Kurt Russell, but also Donald Moffat, Keith David, and the invaluable Wilfred Brimley. Some of these names you may not recognize, but their faces are familiar, and they carry buried associations with other roles, which help to create the illusion of strong characters. They’re not, actually, but they are performed very well to seem like they are.
The real star of the movie is Carpenter (Halloween), who displays once again a natural ability for conjuring tension out of thin air. Literally, since the first shot is of a mountain range in the Antarctica, as a chill supplies a melody to Ennio Morricone’s spare, rhythmic score, which sounds again and again like a heartbeat waiting in great anxiety of…something. We’re not exactly put at ease by the following sequence, either, which follows a helicopter crew as they hunt a dog scampering across the tundra with a rifle. When the helicopter lands and deposits a Norwegian at an American research station, right before he screams something and blows himself and his chopper to kingdom come with a grenade…well, by that point, something is definitively wrong, but the point is, that sign is our hardly our first warning.
Even before the violence hits, the film does an unusually effective job of drawing us in. It makes its Arctic research station feel vivid and real, with a geography that we can understand and rooms that feel lived in. The props feel authentic, the characters look weathered, and the environments feel oppressive, damp, and cold. Dean Cundey’s scope photography creates a shivery aesthetic, one so bleak that we’re tempted to tell the alien we don’t need him to show up in order to get depressed and scared.
The Americans, led by the grizzled helicopter pilot MacReedy (Kurt Russell, in what must be called a pinnacle Kurt Russell performance) visit their sister Norwegian station in an attempt to uncover this mystery, and get only more questions. Since the new Thing–released in theaters this weekend–is a prequel about the what happened to the Norwegians, you may want to stop reading if you don’t want to know that their camp is destroyed and everyone is presumed dead. All that’s left is notes, videotapes of an odd discovery in the snow, and a large block of ice that is hollow, as if it recently contained something that found a way out.
Unlike in Alien, this field trip to a creepy location sheds light on the approaching danger, but doesn’t supply it. That’s already accomplished with the adoption of the stray dog into the base’s circle. Surprise! The dog turns out to be the alien being in the form of a dog. But he doesn’t stay a dog. Oh no, he eventually shape-shifts into a scary, unclassifiable biomass. This Thing is quite a nasty piece of work: not only does it have the ability to absorb and mimic life forms, effectively replacing them with pod people, but it also can multiply through the spread of its genetic material, infecting unwilling hosts and turning them into fellow Things, from the inside out.
To explain more about the plot of the film is difficult. Not only do I wish to avoid spoilers, but there are some elements of the film that are completely un-spoilerable, because they are so deliberately vague about who is human, who is a thing, who suspects they are a thing, who thinks others are things, and what a person’s motivations are, at any time, whether or not they are things or not, and what exactly can be proved. It sounds maddeningly elliptical, but it’s not: it’s more like The Thing is a fascinating game where at any moment every character’s actions and thoughts can be read multiple ways. The Thing hopes to hitch a ride back to civilization and therefore prefers to lay low, only revealing himself when he is threatened. This raises the intriguing paradox of an organism that seems human but is not, and whether, at times, it even realizes that it is not.
This central dilemma feeds into The Thing’s second half, which alternates between gruesome special effects sequences and procedural elements, as MacReedy takes charge and tries to prove who is real, while the others begin to distrust each other, as well as MacReedy. Long-simmering resentments are amplified, and the team practically comes to blows. The older scientist Blair (Brimley) goes berserk and destroys equipment, effectively stranding research team. Is that an attempt to protect The Thing, or protect the rest of the world? The fragile scientist Norris (Charles Hallahan) has a heart attack during an intense scene of suspicion, so that clears him—right? And then there is Childs (Keith David), who gets down to brass tacks, poking MacReedy with righteous anger when a crew member is cleared only after his death: “You know what that makes you? A murderer.” Cruel. But, also: point.
The film hews closer to Campbell’s short story than Hawks’ (still very good) 1951 film, to its benefit. It shares Campbell’s love of professionals that deal with problems, and preserves the overriding darkness that the story demands. The two filmic approaches–Hawks’ and Carpenter’s–are intriguing in the ways they diverge, most notably because the Hawks film is about people coming together to respond to a crisis, while the Carpenter film (being truer to the horror elements) is about a team that falls apart. The dynamic of the tight-knit group that violently unravels when an outside force applies pressure is a horror chestnut, but it’s a chilling conceit every single time, so don’t talk to me about clichés.
Less effective are the movie’s special effects. Not because they are dated, but because there are too many of them. While it’s fun at first to see the alien morph into a cellular mass that suggests tentacles, human flesh, and random parts of dog, it gets a little repetitive. A later sequence goes over the top, and another goes even more so: by the time a human head is skittering across the ground (“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the men say aptly), the inherent campiness threatens the fabric of the film. We’re supposed to be watching something scary, not an fx-demo reel. Again: too much, too soon.
Still, the effects are well done, and commendable for the amount of work that obviously went into them. Many film buffs rate practical special effects above CGI because of their sheer physicality and heft, and I think that’s fair. But a lot of the admiration for that craft should also be informed by the fact that we know, instinctively, that we are watching the product of many long hours laboring over a real object in the pursuit of perfectionism. When CGI becomes involved, no matter how skilled it is, we’re still watching the end result of simply people playing on a computer. Even when such effects look good, how much admiration can we truly have for technicians who simply pressed the appropriate amount of buttons?
Carpenter’s film pushes buttons, too, but they are emotional ones that summon up dread and menace, and Carpenter pays them off handsomely. While the film’s ending of course has the requisite finale explosion, that is not so intrusive because it has been foreshadowed by the grisly fate by the Norwegian team, and adds a cyclical function to the story that is haunting. And then there’s the final scene, which sounds notes of futility and nihilism. For the all the hand-wringing between what is human and what is thing, there’s something chilling about the film’s ultimate conclusion, which suggests that, in the grand scheme of things, it barely matters.
The Thing is famously regarded as one of the classics of John Carpenter’s career. I am not quite as certain of its classic status. Certainly it is good, and in other films Carpenter has shown an uncanny ability to provoke unrestrained fright, but The Thing is only as tense as its character development will allow, and I think that element comes up just a tad short. But perhaps that is part of Carpenter’s overall approach. By keeping many of the characters indistinct, he makes them pointedly interchangeable, and emphasizes the Thing’s buried themes of identity loss. Perhaps. Whatever flaws are present, The Thing certainly didn’t deserve the cold reception at the box office in 1982. 1982, you may recall, was the summer of E.T., and so audiences presumably didn’t want a gooey special effects alien horror show. That failure probably helped to derail John Carpenter’s Hollywood career, and that’s a real shame.
I liked The Thing. I didn’t love it, for it’s flaws, but I liked Carpenter’s approach, his style, his vision. And maybe I even liked its flaws, as well, because they helped give it a homemade quality. It’s a movie that’s rough around the edges, but that somehow adds to the appeal. It makes it feel human. Certainly more so than the new remake, which reportedly is cold and mechanical. It’s not human. It’s a thing.
NOTE: Some may take issue with my labeling the new movie as a “remake,” since technically it is a prequel. My take on this: if a movie features similar characters making identical discoveries and finding themselves locked within the exact same plot, with the title of the moving even being exactly the same, then it is a remake. Plain and simple.
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