With winter pretty close to setting in across the country, I know a lot of you out there, much like myself, are busy huddling next to your heaters and trying to spend as little time outside as possible. So what better time to curl up with a good movie? Anyway, trying to stay on the topic of cold, winter, snow, indoor activity, and what have you, I thought now might be a perfect time to talk about one of my favorite sci-fi movies of all time: horror master John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing.
I’m not ashamed to admit it: The Thing is one of those films that, regardless of the fact that I don’t jump at the surprises, scares, and plot twists anymore, I could watch it over and over again, anytime, anywhere. I’m also not ashamed to admit that I’m a bit biased in this review because I’ve always loved this movie since the first time I saw it, but I just feel it’s my duty to share this science fiction masterpiece with the rest of the world.
The Thing takes place ostensibly in contemporary times (well, for 1982) at Outpost 31, an isolated research post in Antarctica with a skeleton crew of scientists, mechanics, engineers, and military personnel. After a crazed man from another camp runs in with a gun chasing a dog (and eventually blows himself up), a horror is unleashed on the unsuspecting staff when they realize something else is now among them–an alien creature, buried in the ice for millions of years, that has the ability to become a perfect replica of any living thing, including a human being. Concluding that catastrophe would be unleashed should the “Thing” make it to a more populated area, the crew decides to smoke out the creature, hunt it down, and exterminate it no matter what the cost. But when you don’t know who to trust, working together with people you barely know can become a tricky proposition. It’s the classic horror scenario: are we, the human race, more monstrous even than the body-snatching alien with what we’re willing to do to each other?
Let me just get my one, massive criticism of The Thing out there in the open immediately. While I do love this film, I also recognize that you can’t truly love something until you call out and acknowledge that thing’s flaws, and there’s something very obviously missing from the story: women. There isn’t a single female character in the entire movie, something that I realize could potentially rub a lot of viewers the wrong way and definitely speaks to the male-dominated Hollywood culture that still seems to persist today. But would a female character have added anything to the story other than diversity? I don’t know. I don’t think a romance aspect would be at home here at all, but maybe it would add a little more dynamic relationship tension between some characters. Plus, we’ve all seen from the Alien franchise how kick-a** feminine heroes like Ellen Ripley can be. If there’s ever to be a remake of The Thing, it might be cool to fit in some women, or maybe even with all the men present some kind of same-sex relationship, just to up the stakes a bit and make you care more about the characters.
John Carpenter’s take on this story has been done two other times: the first with a seriously old-school 1951 film which was just too campy to be considered good, and a 2011 prequel/remake that was straight-up terrible. While he may not have been the original, Carpenter knows how to make good movies, and he definitely scored here. To go back to the characters a bit, it’s true that in The Thing, you don’t get to know the members of the Outpost 31 team all that well other than their occupation, and their relationships with each other are never very much elaborated on, except for some minor resentment and tensions. The only one whose head you sort of get inside is McReady, the stoic, rational helicopter pilot played by Kurt Russel. “Mac” is very often the voice of reason among the team, who start to panic and turn on each other when they realize the Thing could be among them, and you do sort of feel for him having to deal with all these people trying to stab each other in the back and hold them all together. Also, did I mention Wilford Brimley is in this movie? Wilford freaking Brimley. I’m sorry, I just can’t get over that.
That said, character development isn’t really the point of The Thing: it’s a film that’s all about cultivating an atmosphere both on the screen and with the audience, and that’s where it absolutely excels. A lot of this has to do with Carpenter’s choices of shots, music, and dialogue in various scenes. The cold, stark, and lonely Antarctic landscape is a perfect backdrop for the bleak tone of the film, which basically features a bunch of men at the end of the world just doing their jobs and getting by as best they can. The empty, silent halls of the base and the howling winter weather, along with minimal conversation and the awkward attempts of the crew to entertain themselves and lighten the gloom creates such an intense aura of isolation that it’s hard to shake. The audience doesn’t know anymore about the characters than they seem to know about each other either, and are deliberately kept on the outside looking in, which makes the suspicion and paranoia that befalls them all the more effective. You’re constantly on edge, wondering who will turn next, if someone will get jumped by the creature. The choppy, thumping dream beat and haunting synth musical score just makes it all so much more menacing. These are the last men on Earth, and you know from the start that they’re all doomed; dead men walking.
A lot of things are kept ambiguous in the film, most of all the ending, where only McReady and fellow survivor Childs are left, neither sure if the other is the Thing and resolving to just “wait a while” in the freezing darkness and see what happens. It’s also quite difficult to try and establish a definitive timeline of who gets infected when, and certain shots, lines, and incidents seem to contradict any possible theories you might have (although the internet has tried its best to get it all straight–look it up). But again, it’s not about the destination with The Thing: it’s about the journey. While in any other movie I’d probably be all over the writing staff for not being clear about the progression of the Thing through the crew, in this movie it just doesn’t matter. Being kept guessing puts you in the characters’ shoes and really makes you feel the terror that they feel knowing that every moment could be their last.
And when the Thing does make its appearances, boy, does it steal the show. It’s not your typical mustache-twirling, villainous alien with a complicated, sinister plot to take over the world: in fact, it’s never really stated how intelligent a creature it is (other than its obvious skill in mimicking people). It’s just an animal, trying to survive and do what it does best–which apparently is absorbing and converting other life-forms. Yikes. A great tale that fans like to tell is that the practical effects for the Thing were done with nothing more than bubble gum and melted plastic, which shows that you really can do more with less. The Thing is at once terrifyingly grotesque and gruesome, as are the ways in which it unmasks itself from the bodies of former humans (the giant jaws in the chest cavity is my personal favorite), but at the same time it’s impossible to take your eyes off and the possibilities of such a creature just boggle the mind, as does its its persistence and insidiousness. As McReady accurately and eloquently states: “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
My Rating: 9/10
John Carpenter’s The Thing isn’t a perfect movie, but in my book, it’s pretty damn close. It may not be for everyone (especially people who don’t like sci-fi gore and being scared out of their skin, maybe literally, every fifteen minutes or so), but the sense of atmosphere it creates for the audience is second to none in my experience. It’s an enduring monument to good film-making that I’ll continue to enjoy for many years to come.