The Thing (1982)
“Man is The Warmest Place to Hide.”
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David
Synopsis: Scientists in the Antarctic are confronted by a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of the people that it kills.
John Carpenter’s The Thing is a remake of Howard Hawks 1951 SF classic The Thing from Another World, but it comes across as Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets Alien in the way that its predatory antagonist can assume the identity of any living thing it gets close enough to assimilate with. Initially, it’s in the form of a dog that we see being chased across the Arctic wasteland by a helicopter manned by the survivors of a Norwegian research base. When the dog runs into an American research base, the Norwegians land their helicopter and, in a state of extreme excitement, manage to get themselves blown up and shot, meaning that the American crew don’t at first realise that they have an alien in their midst.
The crew is the usual mixed bunch, although perhaps slightly less social than many given that they choose to live in the arctic wilderness for long stretches at a time. MacReady (Kurt Russell), the base’s helicopter pilot, is even more withdrawn that the others, choosing to drink alone and play chess with a computer rather than mingle with his co-workers in their spare time. The script makes a desultory attempt to differentiate between the characters; we have, for example, one guy who gets about another who wears sunglasses indoors while listening to music on his headphones as he gets high on pot; another carries a gun in a waist holster like a wild west hero. Perhaps it’s no surprise MacReady chooses to drink alone, then, but this unexpected turn of events forces him to interact a little more. Together with the group’s doctor, Copper (Richard Dysart), MacReady visits the Norwegian base only to find a burnt out wreck. There is evidence, however, that the Norwegians unearthed a UFO. MacReady and Copper also find a fried corpse that looks like a weird fusion of man and beast.
That night, the fugitive dog is housed in the camp’s kennel with the other dogs, but it’s not long before the alien within decides to make an appearance. The men manage to burn the mutating creature alive, but later discover that it had already mutated once before and assumed the role of one of the men. Tensions and suspicions quickly rise as each man — and the audience — is left wondering just who is human and who is the Thing.
More than thirty years after its release, The Thing still looks pretty good,. The alien contortions, considered pretty ground-breaking at the time, may no longer be state-of-the-art, but they look convincing enough to add to the overall charm of the film — if charm is an adjective that can ever be applied to a monster movie. Hawks made The Thing from Another World back in the early 1950s and, intentionally or otherwise, it could be viewed as an allegory for the communist witch-hunts sweeping the country in much the same way as Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The US was no longer so preoccupied with the red menace when Carpenter’s version hit the screens — but there was a new threat to the country, the potential scale of which was just beginning to become apparent when The Thing was released. That threat was AIDs, a disease that had skewered the public consciousness only a year or two before, and the parallels between the danger of not knowing who was safe and who was not are plain to see. MacReady’s testing of his captive workmate’s blood also bears comparison with the testing of the blood of those who feared they had been infected with the new virus. Again, it might be an unintentional allegory, but it’s one that lends a new dimension to a horror movie which, in terms of storyline at least, is pretty standard. Where The Thing scores is in the way it plays on the escalating paranoia of the dwindling number of survivors to ramp up the tension. The alien isn’t the only thing each man has to fear — they also have to cope with the dangerous mistrust of their co-workers, and the plot uses this to good effect — although it perhaps throws in a few too many red herrings in its attempt to keep the audience wrong-footed.
If anything ages The Thing, it’s not the technology used to create the special effects so much as the technology used by the characters on-screen. The diagrammatic computer recreation of the alien’s assimilation into another organism which is viewed by the doctor at one point is pretty comical, as is the computerised chess game played by MacReady early on in the movie. No doubt, this was cutting edge back in ’82, and it’s not mentioned as a criticism as such, but things like that always unintentionally lighten the mood of a movie and distance the viewer from the emotion intended by the filmmaker. Overall, though, The Thing still provides solid entertainment and creates a satisfyingly edgy sense of paranoia.
(Reviewed 4th May 2013)