Review: “The Thing” (1982)
Produced by: David Foster, Lawrence Turman, Wilbur Stark, Stuart Cohen
Written by: Bill Lancaster (screenplay)
Cinematography by: Dean Cundey
Music by: Ennio Morricone, John Carpenter (uncredited)
Starring: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Donald Moffat, Charles Hallah, Joel Polis, T.K. Carter, Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat, Thomas G. Waites, Richard Masur, Peter Maloney, David Clennon, Charles Hallahan
Based on the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell
The Thing is one of those movies I dismissed as a kid as yet another stupid monster movie. Looking back, I know exactly where this prejudice came from. Apparently that was the general consensus upon release, too. The film opened up against E.T. and Blade Runner and subsequently lost a good chunk of change from movie going audiences who wanted to see aliens and sci-fi adventures on the big screen. A bunch of scientists in the Antarctic being attacked by an alien creature doesn’t exactly compare to the wonderment of a little boy befriending an alien visitor or a detective seeking out robot fugitives on paper, when you think about it, huh? Critically, it suffered similarly, with the film’s nihilism and grotesque special effects not exactly endearing The Thing to critics of the time. Much like me, perhaps, popular opinions did gradually turn around, and now the film is recognized for its better qualities, chief among them the very same nihilism and special effects that were so controversial for their times.
Though I’m unsure why audiences and critics changed their tune, I do know where my own initial reluctance has its roots. Thanks to my frequent movie review book reading, I knew that The Thing was directed by John Carpenter, a name that I connected with Halloween, therefore, I lumped it in with all the other slasher films. Therefore, by my child’s logic, this movie was doomed to be a stupid film with a stupid and unbelievable monster. (The corny title didn’t help matters.) For a while, I gradually forgot the film actually existed, save for a few fleeting mentions here and there. It wasn’t until about 2010, around the time that the film’s prequel was gearing up, that I finally decided to give the film a chance, having heard about how much of a genuine cult classic the film was. Luckily, though I can’t say that I’m a converted fan of Carpenter’s overall work (I’m not nearly as thrilled with Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China as some people are), The Thing was most certainly a lot better than I expected.
Indeed, the film is very grim, with a sense of paranoia pervading throughout thanks to the remote setting, methodical pacing, and claustrophobic corridors of the Antarctic station where the film takes place. It’s a sense of dread and paranoia that is only rivaled by an earlier contemporary, Alien. (The Thing pales in comparison to Ridley Scott’s film, but that’s hardly a damning remark — Alien just happens to be one of my favorite films is all. That… and it’s just a better film.) The nature of the titular “Thing” is fascinating and terrifying all at once: it isn’t a simple monster or even a parasitic being, but a creature that consumes and assumes an identity on a genetic level, infecting one after another. The film briefly explains all this away just enough to get the paranoia flowing through viewers’ heads just as it does the ill fated men at the research station, but it allows for the disgusting and genuinely horrific creature to speak for itself when it comes to demonstrative power.
One might think that such a loophole would allow for the filmmakers to skimp on the effects and instead just use regular old humans, dogs, and makeup, but that couldn’t be further from the truth here. The film provides just the right amount of realism and spectacle, featuring practical animatronics and other effects that easily put the more recent prequel’s CGI to shame. The first time you really get to see the creature go all out is truly a sight to behold, and so is every other time it finally shows up on screen in some capacity, but John Carpenter uses these big reveals sparingly, relying on the tried and true Jaws method of holding back on the creature appearances until absolutely necessary. When it comes time, there’s always a good amount of subtle buildup to that moment to make it shocking all over again, and you better get ready for Carpenter and the effects team to get the most out of that screen time.
Faring almost as well as the effects is the cast, which is made up entirely of males who largely act out varying degrees of creepy, angry, grouchy, or just flat out nuts — while being angry and/or creepy. However, that isn’t to say that the performances are bad. The film isn’t necessarily concerned with us getting endeared to these men, and that’s probably one of the smartest characterization decisions it could have made. Doing so allows for the audience to participate in the paranoia of not knowing who is truly who they say they are. Kurt Russell leads the cast as the levelest of heads, and does a fair enough job as a tough helicopter pilot who has found himself defaulted into the position of the camp leader, though even he isn’t above suspicion, thanks to the film’s refusal to acquit anyone by following them around at every moment, just so we know that everything is alright.
In fact, it is this very nihilism that lends the film its greatest strength, as the cryptic and inconclusive ending leaves the film with far more lasting power and applications to real world scenarios than had we received some sort of contrived, definitive answers. The Thing is far more effective and well made than any preconceived notions critics and audiences initially gave it credit for, myself included. It just took a few years for the film to win everyone over and make converts out of them. Perhaps it was due to some newfound allegorical context that was suddenly stumbled upon, or perhaps it was a new appreciation for the dramatically dire tone of the film or its gruesome but impressive special effects. Appreciate it as a Cold War allegory if you want, or call it a milestone in special effects history, too. As for me, I just call it a great film.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5