And You Call Yourself a Scientist!
The Thing (1982)
"This Thing doesnt want to show itself; it wants to hide inside an imitation. Itll fight if it has to, but its vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies. Nobody left to kill it. And then its won."
Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Keith David, Richard Dysart, A. Wilford Brimley, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Joel Polis, Thomas Waites
Screenplay: Bill Lancaster, based upon a story by John W. Campbell
Synopsis: Two members of a Norwegian research team in Antarctica chase a dog through the snow, shooting at it from their helicopter. When the chase takes them near an American base, its team members watch as one of the Norwegians accidentally kills himself and destroys the helicopter by misfiring an explosive device. The second man forces his way into the American camp, still firing at the dog, and when one of his bullets hits one of the men there, he is shot dead by Garry (Donald Moffat), the teams leader.
Deciding that something must have driven the Norwegians mad, helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Dr Copper (Richard Dysart) visit their camp. They find the place in ruins, and the body of a man who cut his own wrists. They also find a huge block of ice from which something has been cut, and confiscate video recordings of the Norwegians actions. Outside in the snow they discover a misshapen body which somebody has tried to destroy by burning it; they take it back to their camp.
The Norwegians' dog reveals itself as an alien, exploding into its natural form and trying to take over the Americans' other dogs. The thing is killed with a flame-thrower. Performing an autopsy on the remains, scientist Blair (A. Wilford Brimley) discovers dog-like creatures within it. The men study the video tapes taken from the Norwegian camp, and see the discovery of something enormous buried in the Antarctic ice. They fly to the same location, and find a huge circular craft, and the place where the aliens frozen body was cut from the ice. MacReady argues that they are dealing with a being capable of taken on the form of any living organism and imitating it. Blair retreats to his room, where his computer calculates the likelihood of one of the American crew having already been taken over. Meanwhile, the body found at the Norwegian camp begins to stir....
Comments: John Carpenters The Thing is so radically different from the Howard Hawks/ Christian Nyby version of the story that there is no point in trying to compare the two.
Whereas the original was attacked in some quarters for ignoring the main point of Campbells story, this version went back to its source and focused upon the shape-shifting alien creature, and in doing so it opened up a whole new can of worms. The Thing became the first of what we now know to be a long, long line of films whose special effects are their raison detre.
Following on from Alien (1979), The Howling (1980) and An American Werewolf In London (1981), all of which show-cased the spectacular new technology while retaining a strong story and characters, The Thing was the first of the new wave of science fiction films in which story and character became totally subservient to the special effects - and was roundly criticised for it. (Was it really such as short time ago that science fiction films were expected to deliver something more than just effects? - that people actually wanted some steak along with the sizzle? It seems like another lifetime.)
Much of the criticism, it must be stated, is valid. Strong characterisations have never been Carpenters forte, and The Thing suffers from this more than most. Its not so much that the characters are unlikeable (which they are) or thinly drawn (which they also are), but that they are thrown at us so quickly that we dont have a chance to absorb whos who, so that when one of them asks, "Wheres so-and-so?" were still wondering, "Whos so-and-so?" Moreover, they start being killed off before we get a fix on them, and when that happens an audiences response can only be visceral, not emotional.
That said, the response is likely to be very visceral indeed, because the effects, courtesy of Rob Bottin, are truly stunning and repulsive. As a parade of nightmares, The Thing is still unsurpassed; the viewer is likely to react as one of the characters does, as the most unforgettable of the creatures, the spider-head (or should that be head-spider?) scuttles off down the corridor, by exclaiming, "You have got to be fucking kidding." In the end, however, the cumulative effect of these images is so overwhelming that they begin to lose their individual impact, and it is some of the more subdued moments of this film that really linger in the mind: the pursuit of the alien-dog through the snow, which in my opinion comprises one of the great opening sequences in modern film; the bloody icicles hanging from the wrists of the dead Norwegian; the unexpected outcome of MacReadys blood test experiment (a sequence taken directly from Campbells original story).
Memorable too is the cinematography by Dean Cundey, which captures a real sense of freezing isolation, and the menacing electronic score by Ennio Morricone. The members of the cast have little chance of making an impression. The only ones who do are those with whom the audience is already familiar: Kurt Russell, who is his usual sullen, unsmiling, Carpenter-film self; Richard Dysart, whose fate in the film is both hideous and funny; and Wilford Brimley, as the scientist who first comes to realise whats at stake. I must also give a special mention to the dog who plays the alien: not only can this animal really act, but unlike most cinematic canines (including some of the others in this film), it doesnt blow its scenes by wagging its tail at inappropriate moments.
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