John Carpenter's 1982 Science Fiction movie classic The Thing is rightly acclaimed as a genre masterpiece. In the first stop on our occasional journey past some SciFi milestones, Re:Entry, we take another look towards the dark ice ...
If you haven’t seen it, The Thing is an unmissable alien horror triumph.
Although it had the misfortune to go up against E.T. and Blade Runner at the box office, and suffered financially and thematically as a result, the film now has a cult following. It completely deserves to be discussed on the same level as the movies about the friendly little guy from space and the robots who want to live – brilliant as both these 1982 Thing rivals are.
Based on the novella Who Goes There by John W Campbell and inspired by 1951 film incarnation The Thing from Another World – itself a classic – the movie tells the tale of an Antarctic research station over-run by a parasitic extraterrestrial that can can take over the bodies of any host – human, animal, whatever it fancies. Bitter and cynical helicopter pilot MacReady is our main point of view – played with cool Eastwood-esque brilliance by Kurt Russell. The movie shifts from gear to gear as the alien creature raises hell in this doomed outpost as MacReady fights back against it, and his steadily infected fellow workers.
What truly amazed at the time were the physical special effects. Incredible gloupy, elastic horrifying spider-like creations. Hideous. In fact, even though they can appear dated in these days of CGI the effects are still successful and grotesque – precisely because they are real and visceral and slimy and horrendous. People actually made all these tentacles and stalks and tendrils and coated them in slime and steam. Often you can pick out what seems like real revulsion on the actors’ faces. At the time, back in 1982, there was not much like it. Even if you’d been prepared slightly for the madness by Alan Dean Foster’s superb novelization – a collector’s item now – nothing really set you up for the full writhing outrageousness of it all on your VCR.
And the other aspect that is brilliant about The Thing is the acting. Every single member of the company knocks it clean off the glacier. Russell, as mentioned before, is all brooding fantasticness and aggro – carrying on the aloof dangerousness he perfected for his Snake Plissken identity in Escape from New York from the year before. But the rest of the cast are also outstanding – particularly Richard Dysart as the deeply unfortunate base medic, Dr Copper. In their panic – as they strive to find out who is infected and who is not – the ensemble cast create a kind of claustrophobic clamour and nervous group panic that is unforgettable. No fan can forget the petri dish scene …
E.T. was a friendly alien, but Carpenter’s Thing decidedly wasn’t. Magnificent creature though it is in scientific terms, like the Xenomorph of Ridley Scott’s Alien, this lifeform just wants to get you in order to get past you. In a pitched battle of ferocious survival instinct, the only obstacle is Kurt Russell’s MacReady, his flamethrower, dynamite and J&B whisky. It is an action movie in places, The Thing, a horror movie, certainly, but always the explosions and scuttling evil slippery things are an overlay for a paranoid, atmospheric exploration of otherness. The fear of “things” that are “not like us”.
Perhaps at the time people just wanted the hope of Spielberg’s friendly variation and not this slippery abomination in a snow-struck lonely blizzard base. Not the shapeshifting, blood-drench ghastliness and the screaming and the night fire. Cute it definitely was not. The Thing was an X rated movie and then some. Over the years though, this monster of the icy wastes has become an undisputed classic, spreading its shapeshifting tentacles of influence far and wide throughout the genre. The Ultimate in Alien Terror intoned the move poster. Even after all these years, this still seems fair.
The Thing is annually viewed by members of the winter crew at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station during the first evening of winter … It is also viewed by scientific personnel at the Summit Camp on the apex of the Greenland Ice Sheet.
The 2011 prequel, also called The Thing, is nowhere near as good, but well worth a look. It tells the story of the nearby Norwegian research base that starts off the chaos in Carpenters’ original. It’s fun to spot the little nods to Carpenter’s version as the story unfolds.