Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Thing (1982)

My first experience with John Carpenter was Ghosts of Mars, which is pretty terrible.  When I left the theater after the movie, I remember wondering aloud why someone would want to put their name above the title of something so obviously bad.  In the intervening years, I have seen many other Carpenter movies, and now know that the man is capable of directing some truly great films and some truly unfortunate ones.  With that understanding and wisdom, I approached John Carpenter's The Thing for the first time.

It is winter in Antarctica, 1982.  Because you need to know what season it is to justify snow in Antarctica.  The American research station down there is taken by surprise when they hear gunfire and a helicopter approaching; it is a chopper from the Swedish research station, and they appear to be trying to shoot a dog.  The dog, being fairly smart, decides to run to the American camp for cover; the Swedes, who managed to miss the dog several times over several miles, despite having a sniper rifle, accidentally crash their helicopter.  Before the Americans can react, a surviving Swede leaves the wreckage of the chopper, tries to shoot the dog, and instead shoots an American in the leg.  That's enough for the Americans to put the Swede down.
Not only are the Swedes crap shots, but their winter clothing choices are very suspect.  Is it ever warm enough for bikinis in Sweden?

So...why were the Swedes trying to murder a dog?  Helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and another researcher, Copper (Richard Dysart) fly to the Swedish research center to find out.  What do they find?  Dead people and signs of attack.  They also find some evidence that the Swedes had found something buried within some very old ice, as well as a mostly burned and at least partially human corpse.  So...what does any of this have to do with a Thing?
Aunt Petunia's favorite nephew wants answers or royalty checks, Carpenter!

Well, it seems that the Swedes dug up a frozen alien that can assimilate any animal and then assume its form.  For instance, it can (more or less) eat/absorb a person and then walk around looking like that person.  So, if you know there's a Thing in your group, you don't know who to trust.  It's not limited to just people, though.  In fact, there will soon be proof that it can disguise itself as a dog...

The Thing is an adaptation of the famous science fiction story Who Goes There? by legendary sci-fi editor John W. Campbell.  It is also sometimes credited as a remake of sci-fi movie classic The Thing From Another World, but the two are pretty significantly different; let's just say they take their inspiration from the same source and adapt it to their needs. 

All right, let's get the obvious stupidness out the way early.  In a movie where you don't know who to trust, the smart thing to do is to stay together as much as possible.  This is a sci-fi movie with more than a little bit of horror thrown into the mix, so it's safe to say that the characters are not that smart.  To be fair, the alien enters their group before they have any knowledge of its abilities, and they do make some efforts to stay in groups, but there are several occasions when the characters go off on their own anyway.  That is, by far, the weakest part of this story, so you might as well know that now.  If you can't get past that, I understand.  However, if you are willing to look past that obvious bit of horror movie idiocy, I think you'll really like this movie.

The cast is all male, which shouldn't be important, but I think it is.  How many survival-type movies throw in an unnecessary romantic interest?  And, since this was made in 1982, there is no hint of a homosexual romance, either, so there's no chance for any whiskey-soaked winter nights with Kurt Russell, fellas.  That gender casting allows this film to focus on the story with no subplots, which is nice.  "But what about Adrienne Barbeau?"  Okay, fine, the old school DOS-wannabe computer in the film is voiced by her, but I don't think that should count.  This movie focuses on suspense, which is exactly what you want when the question is "Who can you trust?"

The acting isn't fantastic, but it is definitely solid for a plot-driven movie.  Kurt Russell is pretty cool as the level-headed lead, and he comes across as believable as someone willing to do whatever it takes to solve this Thing problem.  This was only his second important non-Disney movie role at the time, so seeing him be such a tough guy was, at the time, an impressive stretch for Russell.  Wilford Brimley, who I don't normally care for (unless he's being a curmudgeon), was pretty awesome as the doctor who realizes the whole you-can't-trust-anyone problem early in the film and freaks the hell out.  Plus, you get to see some one knock him the eff out, and that was awesome.
He gets laid out in this movie.  Take that, diabetes!
This was Keith David's first credited film role (he was an extra in the Francis Ford Coppola-directed spinoff Disco Godfather), and I liked him.  David is a pretty solid supporting actor, even if he is often in mediocre movies, but this was a pretty impressive debut.  There are some other recognizable actors in the movie, like Donald Moffat, David Clennon, T.K. Carter (from Good Morning, Miss Bliss fame), and Richard Drysart, but they are mostly just adequate supporting cast members.

I really liked John Carpenter's direction with this film.  I love that he keeps the story taut, I like that none of the actors are too melodramatic (a hard task, when just about every character freaks out in a movie), and I really liked that he was able to step back and let other people handle certain tasks in the film.  Carpenter is kind of a one man film force, often directing, writing, and scoring his films, so it was nice to see him make an enjoyable collaborative movie.  The score is done by Ennio Morricone, and while it's no The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, it's still pretty good.  More importantly, it's not synthesizer-heavy for a change, like so many Carpenter scores.  The script was written by Bill Lancaster, the guy who did The Bad News Bears.  While that may not sound like a good fit for this movie, I thought he did a perfectly satisfactory job.  More importantly, that division of labor allowed Carpenter to spend more time working with the special effects (most of which were handled by The Howling and Star Wars veteran Rob Bottin), which made this movie so noteworthy.

Yes, the special effects in this movie are definitely the main attraction.  Why?  For starters, the dog monster.
These special effects all happen on-camera, which makes them extra awesome to watch.  Are they gross and slimy?  Absolutely.  Are they twisted and weird?  Most definitely.  Do they look good by today's standards?  Let me put it to you this way: The Thing is as good of an argument as you're going to find for good old-fashioned special effects and make-up.  It's that impressive.

The other thing I like about the movie is that it approaches the problem with logic.  Well, aside from letting people wander off on their own, it does.  There isn't an extended period of time where the audience knows what the problem is and the characters keep walking into traps.  The Thing is identified early and treated like the threat it is.  For me, that's the most important part of this movie.  I hate watching potentially good films waste my time with stupid characters.  When things like this show up, the cast of The Thing mans up and gets to killing.
That no-nonsense approach, combined with the amazing special effects and otherwise respectable filmmaking makes The Thing better than perhaps it should be.  And if you really want to, you can look at the film as an allegory between the East and the West during the Cold War.  I don't particularly care to approach it like that, but the subtext is certainly there.  And the ending is as perfect of a guy-movie ending as you're going to find; just about any other director would have copped out a little bit at the end, but Carpenter created a pretty great conclusion that stayed true to the logic of the characters, and that deserves respect.


  1. the thing is weird
    It looks like worm witha face and teeth

  2. Yes, it is. Wouldn't a worm with teeth freak you out, too?

  3. One of the rules of a good horror movie is that you need to establish a reason for the characters to stay together and then force them to split up. I didn't really have that problem with this film, mostly because when the characters are off on their own it's either (1)early in the film or (2)made necessary by the events of the film.

    This: "There isn't an extended period of time where the audience knows what the problem is and the characters keep walking into traps. The Thing is identified early and treated like the threat it is." Yes, yes, and again yes. Nicely worded and absolutely true.

  4. The characters that went off on their own early in the film don't bother me, really. It's just the whole "don't open the closet!" reaction I sometimes get from horror flicks. Later on, while I agree that the characters who go solo at some point (so...everyone) are making decisions that fit their characters and the plot, at the same time I just go >facepalm<