#14: The Thing


1982

Director:  John Carpenter

Cast:  Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, T. K. Carter, Donald Moffat

Introduction
Plot Summary
Impressions
Wrap-up

My rating:  Class F (2/7, hot blue star).  Kurt Russell in a John Carpenter remake of a 1951 film based on the 1937 novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, a science fiction editor with strong ideas about what constitutes science fiction.  This could go so very wrong, but instead it’s Carpenter at one of his high points in a taut, suspenseful film with substantial visual horror.  Not one for the kids, or for that matter adults with weak stomachs or anxiety disorders, it’s still a phenomenal movie which any science fiction fan, as well as any movie fan, should make sure to see.

Introduction

Solaris didn’t arrive in time for the scheduled Friday night screening (which was not Netflix‘s fault, but mine, since I didn’t mail it back until Tuesday and they got me Solaris on Saturday), and since The Thing happened to be in Mark’s DVD library, we watched it.

You will not see screen captures and photographs of the thing itself in this review.  The film’s marketing didn’t show much of the thing, probably because Carpenter wanted viewers to see it in context, as well as to preserve the surprise for the viewer.  If you haven’t seen it before, you can still read this entry without ruining the visual impact of the film—though there probably won’t be many surprises.

Way back in 1937, just before he took over as editor of Astounding Fiction and stopped writing in favor of editing, a writer named John W. Campbell penned a paranoid little story called Who Goes There?  It’s remembered very fondly by the science fiction community, not because it’s a well-written story, but because it’s a good story (and also, if we’re being honest, because of Campbell’s extraordinary influence on the field of science fiction as well).  In it, an alien thing is discovered by researchers in the frozen Antarctic, and it thaws, comes to life, and begins consuming and imitating the men in the camp.  The story emphasizes the thing’s ability to mimic its victims, replacing them one by one.  In 1951, the story was made into a movie, The Thing From Another World, which failed to fully capture the essence of the short story but which is nevertheless a classic in SF films.

In 1982, Universal Studios decided to remake the movie and hired John Carpenter to direct it.  It was Carpenter’s first time working with a major studio, and the high production values show.  It is pure speculation on my part, but Universal probably hired him because of his very successful and highly suspenseful films Halloween (1978) and Someone’s Watching Me! (1978 again) in the hopes that he could create the same feeling of suspense as much as for his track record as a horror director.

The movie was a commercial failure—it came out at more or less the same time as E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, a much more positive view of an alien’s visit, and opened on the same day as Blade Runner, a legendary science fiction film by Ridley Scott.  In addition, initial critical reception was not good, largely on the strength of the special effects.  It wasn’t that the effects weren’t effective—it was that they were, according to many critics, needlessly disgusting.  Time has been kind to the film, however, and the film is routinely included in lists of “the best” films in the science fiction and horror genres.

Plot (Contains Spoilers)
(Jump ahead to impressions and avoid some of the spoilers)
(Jump ahead to the wrap-up and avoid all spoilers)

Short summary:  This is yet another film with no boy-meets-girl formula, and I’m sensing the development of a theme here as regards science fiction and Hollywood…so no formulaic plot summary this time.  Oh, maybe the thing itself is female, but given its nature it probably doesn’t have a gender at all, and other than it, there are no women in this film (the second time that’s happened on the list so far).

In short, a dog escapes a Norwegian research station in the Antarctic and makes its way to a US research station, chased by the Norwegian researchers.  Before the Norwegians can explain why they’re trying to kill the dog (and that’s assuming that they speak English), they’ve accidentally blown up their own helicopter and shot one of the Americans and are killed themselves.  Strange events, but not particularly threatening…except that the dog is no dog:  it’s an alien which consumes its prey and then imitates it.  While the Americans discover the thing in the process of of assimilating the other dogs and destroy it, they realize that by this time the thing could have replaced any one or more of them, and that its goal must be to reach the mainland and reproduce.  Paranoia and madness reign until finally, the survivors realise that they have to destroy the base and kill themselves.  But the thing is running loose and has its own plans:  it blows up the generator, intending to freeze again and start over once it is rescued, so it has no intention of allowing itself to be killed.  The survivors blow up the base, and two men survive the explosions.  As the film ends, neither can be sure the other is what he appears, or that the inevitable death due to sub-zero temperatures will end the threat to all mankind.  In other words, the day is not saved.  Or maybe it is.

(Jump ahead to Impressions)

Long summary:  On a cold blustery day in the Antarctic, a helicopter is chasing a dog, with one of the passengers shooting at it rather unsuccessfully.  The dog makes it to United States National Science Institute Number 4, where the helicopter passengers—who turn out to be Norwegian—are unsuccessful in killing the dog.  The pilot drops a thermite charge, accidentally blowing up the helicopter and dying, while the sniper accidentally shoots one of the Americans, Bennings (Peter Maloney) before the base commander, Garry (Donald Moffat), kills the apparently crazed Norwegian with a pistol shot.  The bemused Americans have Clark (Richard Masur), their dog handler, take the dog.

MacReady (Kurt Russell), the helicopter pilot, and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) fly over to the Norwegian base to try to discover what’s going on, and they find burned ruins with no living people.  There is evidence of violence, and they find some videotapes as well as the burned remains of something that is a horribly mangled human being…or is it?  There’s also a large block of ice which has been opened and the contents removed.  MacReady and Dr. Copper return to the American base with the mangled, charred corpse.

Blair (Wilford Brimley), the base biologist, does an autopsy on the charred remains, and concludes that the internal organs are normal.  In the meantime, the dog has been wandering around the base and the Americans are reviewing the videotapes, which they cannot understand because they do not speak Norwegian.  Bennings orders Clark to put the dog in the kennel with their own sled dogs, but shortly thereafter, a fight breaks out amongst the dogs.  That’s because the stray Norwegian dog isn’t a dog at all:  it’s a shape-changing alien which attacks the other dogs in an attempt to consume them.  The men come running, and their guns are ineffective in killing the thing.  MacReady orders Childs (Keith David) to burn the creature with a flamethrower, which seems to kill it.

Blair does another autopsy, and reveals to the stunned group that the thing was an alien life form which consumes other life forms at the cellular level, and then imitates the creatures it consumes.  Blair speculates that it can imitate any creature it has consumed in the past.  As Blair begins to realize the full implications of the threat posed by the creature, MacReady and Norris (Charles Hallahan) fly out to the site being investigated by the Norwegians and discover a massive alien space ship crashed in the ice.  Based on the ice strata, Norris estimates that the ship has been in the ice for 100,000 years; the pair also discover the pit where the frozen block of ice containing the alien who destroyed the Norwegian base was removed and transported back to the Norwegian base.

Blair becomes increasingly suspicious of his comrades and believes that the burned remains still harbor life at the cellular level—which, given the thing’s abilities to consume living matter, increase its own mass and then imitate other life forms—bodes ill indeed for the men of United States National Science Institute Number 4.  MacReady and Fuchs, Blair’s assistant, (Joel Polis) secretly confer about Blair’s findings and his increasing instability while Bennings and Windows (Thomas G. Waites) put the charred remains of the dog-thing in the storage room.  Windows leaves the storage room, and the charred remains assimilate the hapless and wounded Bennings.  Windows returns before the process is complete, and the assembled men burn this thing as well.

While all this is going on, Blair does some research and some thinking, and he comes to the conclusion that the thing will kill everyone in the camp, reach the mainland, and then assimilate every living creature on Earth.  Blair then disables the helicopters and tractors and kills the remaining dogs, all of which happens off-screen.  The group finds him smashing the radio room, and they subdue the crazed biologist and imprison him in the tool shed.  During the process of sealing up the toolshed so Blair can’t escape, Blair calmly tells the group that he’s much better now and won’t give them any trouble—an argument seriously undercut by the noose that’s hanging by his chair.

They realize that any one of them could be the thing, imitating a slain human until it has the opportunity to strike again…and again, until only things remain.  The crazed Blair has done the world, if not them, a favor, in that they are isolated with the thing but at least it cannot escape…until a rescue party arrives.  Dr. Copper points out that a blood serum test would reveal any things masquerading as humans, but they discover that the blood supply has been smashed and so test is now impossible.  Commander Garry has the keys to the blood supply, and only Dr. Copper had right of access to the blood supply, making them prime suspects.

MacReady, now in charge because no one trusts Commander Garry, isolates Garry, Copper and Clark—because he was with the dog-thing, and because he let it run loose in the base—as the most likely candidates for the thing as a storm closes in and forces everyone inside the base.  During the storm—the men get around using safety lines—Fuchs is found dead and burned outside the base, and station chief Nauls (T. K. Clark) finds MacReady’s torn and bloody clothing in the oil furnace, so he cuts a safety line, maroons MacReady outside in the storm, and the fearful survivors seal off the base.

MacReady isn’t done for yet, though, and he manages to break into the base and to grab some dynamite.  The group comes in when they hear him, and a tense standoff ensues, broken when Norris—who has shown evidence of being ill—suffers an apparent heart attack.  Dr. Cooper uses a defibrillator, and it turns out that Norris has been taken by the thing:  his chest transforms into a maw which bites off Dr. Cooper’s hands.  Cooper bleeds to death, while the group manages to burn Norris’ body even though the head nearly manages to escape.

Now comes one of the more famous scenes of the movie:  MacReady has come up with an improvised blood test—he’ll heat a wire and put it into the blood.  The blood of the thing, being something more than just blood, will unthinkingly attempt to escape, while human blood, being just blood, won’t do anything.  MacReady formulates his theory after observing the Norris-thing’s head attempting to escape on its own.  MacReady decides to tie up everyone but Childs resists, and in the scuffle Clark attempts to kill MacReady.  After MacReady shoots Clark, the men stop resisting.  MacReady proves that Clark had been human, as MacReady himself is.  When he reaches the sample of Palmer (David Clenner), the co-pilot, the blood shrieks and attempts to evade the wire.  Exposed, Palmer transforms into a hideous monster and manages to kill Windows before being killed himself.  Further testing reveals that the survivors—Commander Garry, Childs, Nauls and MacReady himself—are human.

Everything seems safe now, until they realize that Blair has been isolated in the tool shack and they need to test him as well.  Childs remains in the base while Garry, Nauls and MacReady go to the tool shed.  Blair is gone, with no sign of how he might have left.  The group discovers a tunnel in the ice under the floorboards, which leads to a small flying saucer that the Blair-thing was building out of scavenged parts; once Blair had been taken by the thing, it had obviously been moving freely through the camp.  The men blow up the flying saucer.

MacReady points out that none of them will survive, and that they cannot permit the thing to survive and make it to the mainland.  In addition to its formidable biological capabilities, after all, it has the know-how to build a flying saucer.  Nauls, Garry and MacReady return to the base in order to set dynamite charges and blow up the entire base, as well as killing themselves, Childs and the thing.  Before they can put their plan into action, though, someone or something blows up the base’s generator, and Chief Nauls sees Childs leaving the base in the darkness.  MacReady states that the thing has changed its plans, and now it wants to freeze so that it can infiltrate any rescue party which comes to the base when the weather clears.  It is now more crucial than ever that they kill the thing.

In the ice tunnels beneath the base, Nauls, Garry and MacReady set the dynamite charges.  The Blair thing manages to kill both Nauls and Garry before transforming into a monstrous form which tunnels through the base after MacReady.  Before MacReady can use the detonator, the monster eats it, but MacReady sets the charges off by throwing dynamite, also killing the monster.

MacReady wanders the burning ruins of the camp—he’s managed to scavenge a bottle of Jim Beam—and while he’s resting and waiting to die, Childs approaches.  The two men don’t trust one another, and either could be a thing, but they’re wounded and have no weapons.  Childs asks what they will do now, and MacReady answers that they’ll just wait and see what happens.

Impressions

Wow…what a film.  It’s got suspense, horror, fear, and action in a science fiction setting.  What more could you want?  I know, I know:  you want stirring visuals, good acting, good music—in short, all the things that, in addition to a good story, make up a good film.  You’re in luck; The Thing has those elements in copious quantities.

For starters, there’s the cast.  Kurt Russell—something of a rising star at the time of the movie’s release (his childhood Disney movies, as well as his role as Snake Plissken in Carpenter’s Escape From New York were behind him, but films like Silkwood, Tango & Cash, and Big Trouble in Little China were still ahead of him)—heads up a cast of distinguished character actors.  Russell does his usual solid job, this time projecting quiet, almost mean, competence and an utter ruthlessness once the action starts.  Russell’s MacReady isn’t a nice or even kind man, and he may be something of a loner, but he is dangerously capable.  There are a few places where Russell’s performance seems a little weak, but some of that is the character—whether MacReady is merely numb because of the events or a less emotional character to start with, I don’t know.  I almost got the feeling that MacReady was a nascent psychopath or sociopath, in spite of the fact that he’s not particularly amoral; he simply has no interest in other people (he doesn’t want to go to the rescue of the Norwegian base personnel, for example, and he doesn’t conclude that his own death, and that of all the others along with the thing itself, is necessary until he was already sure he wasn’t going to get out alive).

The rest of the cast does a very nice job.  David Keith, as Childs, is a rival for MacReady’s authority and turns in a believably angry performance.  Wilford Brimley is excellent in his role as the biologist Blair.  His understated performance of a man quietly suffering a psychotic break due to his quick recognition of their plight is first-rate—though arguably Blair is all too sane, but understandably desperate.  Charles Hallahan gives a nuanced performance, in that you can tell he’s sick long before the characters notice it.  Donald Moffat (who looks a lot like Lloyd Bridges) is another stand-out; he’s competent and controlled, especially in the opening scene of the film, until events spin out of control, and his rage at being tied up and the last to be tested in the blood test scene is wonderful.  Richard Masur gives a necessarily creepy performance (he’s the red herring, after all) as the man who relates to dogs better than he does people, and T. K. Carter does a fine job of portraying the eccentric chief Nauls.  In short, the entire cast turns in believable and solid acting.

The scenery is also first-rate.  You get a real sense of the isolation of the camp, as well as the horrible cold, even when the weather is good; Carpenter filmed part of the movie on top of a glacier, and it was a good decision.  They built the camp in the summer and allowed it to weather for a few months until the snow started falling and they could film the location shots, and that adds to the realism.  Incidentally, the burned Norwegian camp was simply the American camp after they’d burned it down for the sequence near the end of the film.

The most impressive part of the film in terms of visuals is the thing itself, though it’s also the part of the film that garnered the most criticism.  Put simply, the thing is incredibly revolting, combining aspects of spider, earthworm, octopus, and God only knows what else.  It’s usually bloody or slimy when it’s not imitating something or in the process of transforming, which only adds to the horror.  Robin R. Bottin, a special effects artist, is the genius who brought the thing to life; after the film was finished he was admitted to the hospital.  They say it’s because he worked on the effects for seven days a week for over a year, but I suspect that his vision drove him temporarily insane, as the effects are that horrible.  Or maybe he really just did work himself into the hospital, and the thing was a calculated amalgam of repugnant aspects.  By the way, Bottin worked on the creatures in the cantina scene in Star Wars and had a small on-screen role as one of them.

The first scene showing the thing is incredibly effective.  It’s partially dark, and the dogs are trapped in their kennel with an incredibly ugly, glistening mass of mis-matched living limbs which are attached to a slimy, bloody, misshapen mass of tissue which is never still and always changing.  The transforming thing has ropy tendrils which emerge from its body and writhe around seeking the dogs, accompanied by a sort of sizzling sound as the tendrils whip through the air.  It’s hard to tell what’s going on in the scene, which reflects the confusion of the humans observing and reacting to it, and at one point it looks like a part of the thing detaches and jumps to the ceiling—neither I nor the other members of the Wretched Excess Crew could decide if it had gone through the ceiling or not (a review of fan sites makes it clear that it did not escape, and the later events of the film bear that out, as no one is worried about “the one that got away”).

There are a few places where the effects fall a little flat, usually places where the thing is too well-lighted or something is just a little too silly.  The least convincing scene is the one in which the torso of thing-Norris transforms into a giant mouth with giant teeth and the subsequent fatal injury to Dr. Cooper (which may just be so bloody that it looses verisimilitude).  The sequence with Norris’ head is also a little weak, since the head doesn’t really look all that realistic, and it may have been more effective if the head had been obscured with viscera or something equally nasty.  Then, too, there’s a little bit of viewer numbness that sets in by that point.  Or it might be that humans, as social animals, have a long history of carefully identifying and responding to facial cues.

The music is good, and it’s not Carpenter’s, which is unusual for a Carpenter film.  Though the credits don’t say it, the film score was composed by Ennio Morricone, an incredibly prolific Italian composer noted for his film scores.  The music definitely works with the on-screen images, and though it lacks the haunting simplicity of Carpenter’s Halloween score, it’s quite effective in enhancing the sense of suspense and fear.

The narrative is also well-constructed, with some subtle touches that ratchet up the suspense and fear substantially.  Part of this is achieved with careful attention to viewpoint, working with the implications of the story itself:  what happens offscreen can be incredibly important even if no one sees it.  And Carpenter is very careful never to show the viewer the thing successfully catching and imitating a person.  Just like the characters, we don’t know who the thing is impersonating until it’s been discovered and forced out of hiding.

Norris’ illness is a particularly nice touch.  During the course of the film, he obviously suffers some kind of attack of pain, and at one point he develops a sudden limp which goes away just as suddenly.  Is he just sick, or have a few thing cells gotten into him and are they slowly consuming him and taking over his body?  It’s never made clear—though arguably if Norris had been the thing when offered the position of leader in Commander Garry’s place, he would have accepted rather than declined.

The blood test scene—which is parodied in a South Park episode about lice—is justifiably famous.  It is a very well-filmed and acted scene, and it showcases the characters’ strengths and limitations.  MacReady, in particular, is shown to be both very intelligent—he realizes one of the thing’s weaknesses and acts on it—but also either uncaring or a little too focused on identifying the thing:  his tied-up testees are vulnerable and unable to move while the shape-changing thing suffers no such limitations, and even a moment’s thought would make it clear that you can’t successfully tie up a shape-shifter.  In other words, MacReady probably doesn’t care what happens to the others as long as he identifies the thing or things.  The testees’ helplessness as Palmer is revealed to be one of the things only adds to the horror and fear, and their attempts to escape and avoid being taken are terrifying in and of themselves.

Another high point of the film is the moment when it becomes clear that while the four survivors are human, there’s one person they haven’t tested yet:  Blair, who’s stuck out in the tool shed and has been alone for some time, vulnerable and isolated because of the characters’ own actions.  In a way, the scene in which the survivors discover that Blair has been taken, and that he’s building a miniature flying saucer in a hidden chamber under the ice, is the most terrifying scene of the film: the thing is very, very intelligent, and it has all of its memories as a member of a technological species capable of building space ships.

The thing’s intelligence marks much of its behavior.  For example, the thing-Palmer points out that the thing-Norris’ head is trying to escape.  It might be selfish, the survival imperative at work, but even so, the thing-Palmer knows that the others will trust it more.  The thing-dog was alone with Clark the dog-handler, and yet it never attacked him:  Clark would have been, and in fact was, the obvious target of suspicion by the others.  The rampant paranoia may have been deliberately engineered by the thing.  And by taking Blair, the imprisoned biologist, the thing gained a great deal of freedom to do as it wished, out of sight and out of mind.  The thing attempted to frame MacReady, who was the greatest threat to its plans, and nearly succeeded in having the other humans kill him.

Since so much of the action happens off-screen, a lot of fans have spent a lot of time working out the exact sequence of events; not surprisingly, they do not always agree.  Carpenter himself has been very cagey about which characters were things and when they were taken, which is understandable:  he went to a lot of trouble to film a movie where the viewer has only as much information as the characters.  It’s unusual to find a film like this one:  even after watching it and researching it, I still can’t be sure about the exact sequence of the thing’s killings, or when it did some of the things it clearly did.

The ending of the film is ambiguous at best.  The viewer can be pretty sure that MacReady is not a thing, but what about Childs?  Maybe, and maybe not.  Childs could have been trying to chase down and kill the Blair-thing when Nauls saw him leave the base.  Or Nauls could have been mistaken about Childs’ identity.  One thing is sure:  at the end of the film, if Childs is a thing, it has already won this round and the human race may be doomed.  If Childs is human, he and MacReady are going to freeze to death, each beside a man he doesn’t particularly like.  The ambiguous or threatening ending is a staple of horror films, and Carpenter has used it to great effect in the past, but the ending of The Thing is tremendously unsettling; it may have contributed to the film’s poor commercial performance, as well as its subsequent achievement of near-cult status.

Finally, it’s probably worth taking a minute or two to think about the science of the film.  The “what if?” of the story is the creature which consumes and takes on the characteristics of other life forms at a cellular level.  In a way this isn’t all that out the ordinary, since in a sense viruses do it all the time (a virus’ genetic material, DNA or RNA depending on the species, enters cell nuclei and hijacks individual cells).  Campbell just put that idea on steroids and extrapolated it out to a macroscopic scale, though personally I don’t see how such an ability could come about naturally.

On the other hand, it’s probably not a good idea to think about the idea for too long, since it’s going to take you to an ugly, ugly place.  Well, okay, I’ll ask the next question:  if this is a natural ability, how hellish would the things’ planet be?  How long would it have taken before the things were the only living organisms on the planet, and able to assimilate only each other?  Would the concept of individuality even have meaning if the things are constantly assimilating each other?  How long before things like reproduction fall by the wayside in favor of eating your intelligent neighbor?  How could a species like that ever cooperate and form cohesive societies?  Of course, it’s just as likely that the ability wasn’t naturally evolved, but instead engineered.  In that case, you’re dealing with an adventurous species indeed, but they would presumably see the pitfalls and engineer in some protections against one another…

Wrap-up

Any way you cut it, The Thing is a film which works and which achieved its director’s goals.  Many of Carpenter’s “signature moves”—insanity, suspense and intrigue, realistic violence—are present in the film, and I again must say that The Thing is Carpenter at one of his high points.  If you don’t like the horror genre, you will not like the film, because the horror elements are unusually successful in evoking horror (in the sense of disgust as opposed to fear).  But the film is also considerably more than a horror film, in the same way that Carpenter’s Halloween is considerably more than a slasher film.  Carpenter creates real fear as well as horror, fully exploiting his source material.

In a way, I wish I had never seen this film.  Bottin’s effects, Carpenter’s use of those effects, and Campbell’s imagining of the thing in the first place are all horrible concepts which seem to come from a dark, unpleasant place in the human psyche.  But the film is a very fun ride which provokes strong responses from its viewers, and therefore I can only say, “you have to see this movie.”

Before I finish up, I’ll add that there’s a prequel coming out this year (2011) starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton, which deals with the events at the Norwegian camp.  Produced by Marc Abraham and Eric Newman (they’re responsible for the Dawn of the Dead remake), the two reportedly looked through the list of Universal properties and decided on a prequel rather than a remake because a remake would be like “a mustache on the Mona Lisa.”  Director Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr. became involved when one of his projects was canceled and he asked his agent to look for a The Thing project since it and Alien are his favorite films (and that may explain why rumor has it that Winstead’s character is something of an Ellen Ripley, the character portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in Alien).

So…go rent the movie or stream it online or catch it on TV, but be sure that you watch it alone.

The full text of the novella Who Goes There?

Outpost #31 (a The Thing fansite)

Legion’s Construct review of The Thing (from 2008)

The Tombs of Kobol review of The Thing (a site devoted to science fiction)

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One Response to “#14: The Thing”

  1. Effectively put from a great blogger

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