by Mel Valentin
In the summer of 1982, Universal Studios released "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial" and "John Carpenter's The Thing." "E.T." broke box-office records and made year-end Top 10 critics' lists. "The Thing" failed to register with critics or audiences. At the time, film critics called "The Thing's" realistic makeup and creature effects repulsive, gratuitous, and offensive (among many other pejoratives). Moviegoers responded to Carpenter's grim, downbeat science-fiction/horror film with indifference or hostility. Combined with Rob Bottin's groundbreaking makeup and creature effects work, screenwriter Bill Lancaster’s bleak, downbeat finale, and Ennio Morricone’s unsettling, minimalist score, however, "The Thing" would deservedly attain cult classic status with horror fans.Based on John W. Campbell Jr.'s 1938 novella, "Who Goes There?", John Carpenter's The Thing departs significantly from the novella. Norwegians, not Americans, are the first to discover, unearth, and defrost the alien ”Thing” encased in ice. It's the Norwegians and not the Americans who accidentally destroy the alien's spaceship using thermite bombs. It's the Norwegians who first discover the alien's ability to assimilate and imitate any complex organism, including humans. But it's the Americans, acting out of ignorance, who stop the Norwegians from killing a sled dog and, again in ignorance, give the sled dog sanctuary.
"Justifiably deserves the praise and admiration of sci-fi/horror fans."
R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), a cynical, hard-drinking helicopter pilot is marked as the protagonist-hero early on, partly because he's an active character, but also because Kurt Russell, just a year away from his iconic role as Snake Plissken in John Carpenter's Escape From New York, is the most recognizable actor in the cast and thus, the presumptively lead. Once the Thing perceives MacReady as a threat to its survival, it uses the men’s paranoia against them, planting incriminating evidence that indicates MacReady has become a Thing (he’s not).
The research station includes Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley), Nauls (T.K. Carter), the cook, Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), Windows (Thomas Waites), the radio operator, Clark (Richard Masur), the dog handler (he seems to prefer the company of dogs to the members of the research station), and Garry (Donald Moffat), the nominal leader of the research station. Palmer (David Clennon), the outpost's second pilot, is also a stoner (and his services tend to be unnecessary). Carpenter never spells out what Childs (Keith David), Norris (Charles Hallahan), Bennings (Peter Maloney), and Fuchs’ (Joel Polis) do, occupation wise, at the research station.
The Thing's presence creates a breakdown in the fragile social order at the research station. Like the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the copy and the host are practically identical (MacReady ultimately discovers a method for identifying the copies from the originals, but not before several men are assimilated or otherwise eliminated). But there's more at play here than the Thing's mutable nature (graphically realized by Rob Bottin's makeup effects). As a monster that can invade, destroy, and imitate, the Thing taps into primal fears connected to identity (and loss thereof), and our fundamental inability to truly know others (or ourselves).
With the exceptions of MacReady, Carpenter doesn't take the time or make the effort to delve into character backgrounds or personal and professional backstories. It makes it less likely that viewers will feel anything beyond minimal sympathy for the characters. Carpenter gets partially around the lack of character development by having the characters constantly refer to each other by name (it does help). The lack of character development also helps to suggest that, despite working and living together in a confined space, the men really don't know each other (making it easier for the Thing to assimilate them).
Carpenter treats the Thing's assimilation of host organisms inconsistently. The Thing’s size and shape changes over the course of the film, bearing little relation to the host organism’s size and shape. More importantly, the first onscreen assimilation takes, at minimum, minutes. It’s bloody, gory, and loud. Later, assimilation seems to take just a few seconds without, apparently, torn clothing or blood nearby. And why, if the Thing can assimilate its host one cell at a time would it choose the more direct approach of assimilating its host all at once (when it's most vulnerable).Issues aside, "John Carpenter's The Thing" continues to work viscerally and emotionally, connecting themes (identity (loss thereof), unknowability, claustrophobia, isolation, and paranoia) to Carpenter’s taut, unobtrusive direction, credible, convincing performances, Morricone’s score, and Bottin's creature effects work. It may just be Carpenter's single masterpiece (others might claim "Halloween" deserves the “masterpiece,” while a smaller group of fans will point to Carpenter's genre-bending martial arts/action/comedy, "Big Trouble in Little China").
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originally posted: 11/01/05 17:13:25