Thursday, 19 July 2018

The Thing (1982)

John W. Campbell's classic 1938 science fiction novella Who Goes There? was first brought to the screen by Howard Hawks in 1951, under the title The Thing from Another World. This is a much-revered 50s sci-fi movie although if you’re familiar with Campbell’s novella it’s a bit disappointing. Given the enormous influence that the films of Howard Hawks had on his work it’s not altogether surprising that in 1982 John Carpenter chose to do a remake, to be titled simply The Thing. Carpenter decided to stick rather more closely to Campbell’s story.

The movie opens in spectacular but enigmatic fashion, with a helicopter pursuing a dog over an icy landscape. The helicopter is piloted by a crazed Norwegian and it lands at a U.S. base in Antarctica. The helicopter has come from a nearby Norwegian base and when a group of the Americans checks out the Norwegian base they begin to get an inkling of the horror about to engulf them. Those Norwegians found a wrecked spaceship and they awakened something that had been sleeping in the ice for a hundred thousand years. That something is a shape-shifting monster.

This is essentially a paranoia story, with the paranoia made considerably worse by isolation and claustrophobia. Bad weather conditions mean the U.S. base is out of contact with the outside world. And that monster can take on the appearance of any living thing. Any of the twelve crew members at the case could have been taken over by the monster and there is absolutely no way of telling. It’s an inherently frightening idea and Carpenter extracts every ounce of terror from it.

The problem for these guys at the base is not the usual horror movie problem of how to destroy the monster, although obviously they need to do that as well. Mostly though they need to find a way to tell who’s been infected and who hasn’t, and that’s almost impossible to do.

The monster is certainly terrifying but it’s also fascinatingly ambiguous. It’s not actually evil.  It just wants to survive. It intends to do whatever it takes in order to survive. It’s like any kind of predator. To survive it has to kill. From our point of view it’s evil, but then from the point of a prey species a predator does seem evil. The monster is also absolutely and implacably alien.

The movie is about the monster but mostly it’s about the men who have to face its onslaught. They’re not soldiers and they’re not heroes. They are to some extent misfits, because after all spending very long periods of time cut off from civilisation in the middle of Antarctica is the kind of thing that is inevitably going to attract misfits. They have to function as part of a team but it doesn’t come naturally to them. They are afraid and they are suspicious. Faced with an appalling situation they have to do the best they can. Some of them do poorly and some perform fairly well.

It’s also about leadership, but it doesn’t approach the subject in the familiar Hollywood sort of way. Helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) ends up as leader because he’s the only one who is both willing to take the job on and capable of doing so. He doesn’t suggest putting the matter to a vote. When it becomes necessary he simply takes over. His main qualifications for the job are his ability to assess the situation in a brutally realistic manner and to take whatever steps need to be taken. If that requires shooting someone who gets in his way then he’s quite prepared to do so. He’s a leader, not a contestant in a popularity contest. He doesn’t care if he’s obeyed out of fear rather than love, as long as he’s obeyed. He’s really a quiet inoffensive kind of guy but he knows what has to be done and he accepts the consequences.

There is one weakness which Carpenter alludes to in the audio commentary - there are twelve main characters and they’re not very well defined. There are a number of characters who really serve no purpose other than to distract and confuse the audience. Eliminating two or three of the characters would have enabled the remaining characters to be developed in a bit more depth.

Having said this I have to add that the acting is generally extremely good.

This is a visually stunning movie. It’s not just the special effects. The location photography is gorgeous, the sets are terrific, Dean Cundey’s cinematography is breathtaking. This was Carpenter’s first big-budget major studio movie and every penny of the budget is well spent. There are also some extraordinary action scenes with as many explosions as an action fan could wish for, and some very cool flamethrower sequences.

One of the things that makes this film so visually arresting is the constant juxtaposition of ice and fire. Fire is virtually the only effective weapon against the monster and fire seems particularly menacing in a landscape of snow and ice and bitter cold. And there’s no question that explosions look particularly impressive in an icy landscape.

The Thing proved to be a bit of a box-office disaster. Various reasons have been suggested for this. My feeling is that this movie has an identity crisis. The outrageous totally over-the-top gore tends to mark this down as a trashy drive-in movie for teenagers. But it’s not a trashy drive-in movie for teenagers. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent and rather serious science fiction movie exploring some interesting themes. It’s a movie about men under extreme pressure, it’s about fear and suspicion, it’s about trust and what happens when trust becomes impossible, it’s about doing what has to be done even when it’s very unpleasant. But what audiences tended to notice was the violence and the gore.

This movie is also notable for having not a single female character, not even in a bit part, for which it was (quite absurdly) attacked by some critics.

The Thing looks great on Blu-Ray. There’s more than one Blu-Ray release. There’s a barebones release and there’s a special edition release with lots of special features. That’s the one to go for because, among other extras, it includes an audio commentary by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell and their commentaries are always a joy.

The Thing’s reputation has grown considerably since its release. Despite the excessiveness of the gore it’s an extremely fine exercise in science fiction horror and it’s highly recommended.

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