Every Monday we look back at a classic science fiction film. Last week we looked back at Ridley Scott’s influential Alien. Our second Monday of sci-fi films brings us to John Carpenters The Thing (1982).
The Thing has resonated with me from an early age. I would have been around 8 or 9 when I first watched it. I remember having the volume down low and watching it late on a Friday night. Neither of my parents was horror or sci-fi fans, so I would never be able to watch something like this with them. So, alone in my bedroom I would watch the film and without fail, I would never get past THAT dog scene. This happened for a couple of years anytime it came on. I would try to get past it and, just nope I couldn’t.
Then one time, it was as if I had forgotten about it and got through the dog scene and goodness what a film. I kept being shocked and closing my eyes (like most kids I guess), but I didn’t want to stop watching, I kept going and I loved it. A truly scary movie with aliens for me and one of the first I had seen. Anyway, let’s get onto the review!
An American scientific expedition in Antarctica is disturbed when a Norwegian team come flying through seemingly shooting and hunting a runaway dog. The dog runs to the safety of the Americans and due to the gunfire, the Norwegians are killed and the team have to discover what caused the Norwegians to act the way they did? What they find is a monstrous mess that they can only hope to escape from.
Originally an adaption of John W Campbell’s novella Who Goes There?, which was made into The Thing from Another World. The Thing is, in fact, a remake. But what a remake… Anyway, with such a simple plotline the film could have gone any which way and with such a large cast it seemed like it would be a nightmare not just for the filmmakers, but the audience. Yet the audience is able to differentiate quite easily among the group and that is thanks to the excellent casting. While Kurt Russell’s MacReady, Keith David’s Childs and Wilford Brimley’s Blair are the main characters we go through the film with, the rest of the ensemble is more than memorable.
Usually, you start a film with such a cast with scenes that get to know them before the action starts. A nice precursor to what we can expect from our team. You got this with Alien. You understood everyone’s roles for the group. The Thing has a much larger cast who are all vying for screen time and this as Carpenter later states in interviews and commentaries was an utter headache to work around. Yet we do not get that here in as innocent a way. We start with the Norwegian dog attack and from that, we get a general idea about some of the group and then we fully learn and pick our favourites until they fly off to the Norwegian camp.
The fact that even now I can remember certain things specific characters had as traits or said is a testament to the great work Bill Lancaster did with the screenplay. They all feel real, no more real than after the famous blood test scene when Donald Moffat’s Garry yells at the survivors. David Clennon (Palmer) throws lines left, right and centre that continue to bring laughs, his subtle lines about not getting to fly the helicopter are great when you watch the film back.
The writing is again to be commended for being able to make the audience second guess every character’s motivations. Who has been taken over by The Thing? Even by the film’s end, we are still none the wiser and that’s the point especially for the time in which it was made in the 1980s. Are we to just wilfully believe what someone says or do we need more from them. The Thing is as much a psychological thriller as it is a science fiction and that is one of the beautiful things about the genre, it can be a straight-up sci-fi. But when it works best is when it becomes more than that, it evolves and encompasses other genres, much like the thing itself.
What I enjoyed most in The Thing is that it is plainly evident that relationships amongst the crew were already strained. At least in say Alien, there is a general comrade among the crew. Here MacReady is stationed away on his own, the crew mostly get along but it seems that maybe they have all been pitted with each other for just a tad too long at this point. One the Norwegian attack occurs, that just seems to be the match to the light. Almost immediately the entire ecosystem of the US base falls to bits. Trust is a hard commodity to come by these days MacReady says to Blair after he wreaks havoc in the comms room and is locked away on his own. Everyone knows that no one can escape this, so they DO have to trust each other, but what happens when only a few people are trustworthy from the start?
Rob Bottin was rightfully trusted with the special effects in the film and if we have learned anything from the prequel of The Thing… titled The Thing (which I wrote about here) you will know that CGI is incomparable to real effects. The sheer amount of work that had to be put into each effect is insane. A lot will always be said about the effects, but they really do make the film. I mean yes, the dog scene (which Stan Winston’s team helped create) stopped me in my tracks each time as a youngster I would get past that scene and almost be stopped by another one. It is so gruesome and horrifying that you wonder how they even came up with the ideas for it.
There were a number of poor box office mistakes for The Thing. For some unknown reason The Thing and Blade Runner were released on the exact same day, thus utterly cannibalising each others box office. An utter mistake that would hurt both films for years. A lot has been made of the fact that The Thing followed E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial two weeks prior. The utter lack of ability to separate The Thing from these two films is devastating. Not a chance that this same mistake would happen in the current box office climate.
The Thing was seen as a thoroughly depressing film and when you get to the ending you can agree, but it was also quite refreshing. Too often, we as audiences are expecting or subconsciously want the happy ending. We want to leave happy and with The Thing, we don’t get that. It isn’t E.T. it is a different monster and one that I will always have that memory of when I was a child. The Thing is a science fiction classic and always will be.