John Carpenter’s The Thing is almost the perfect late-night Halloween viewing experience. It’s one of those movies that is gloriously trashy entertainment, with any number of visceral thrills, but also more deeply unnerving. Updating the 1951 The Thing From Another World, and arguably remaining truer to the original story, Who Goes There?, John Carpenter’s adaptation perfectly captures the unnerving paranoia of a world where there’s no promise that anybody is exactly what they claim to be. In space, nobody can hear you scream, but your odds aren’t too much better in the white Antarctic tundra.
I think one of the greatest accomplishments of Carpenter’s adaptation is just how “alien” his other-worldly creature remains. The special effects still hold up today, and stand as a testament of what practical effects can offer, but there’s something more inherently foreign about the sinister monster stalking a small Arctic research base. We’re introduced to The Thing in what feels like a conscious throwback to the hokey sci-fi movies of old, as a flying saucer hits the atmosphere, spinning out of control, but eponymous creature never seems like your standard alien invader.
It’s clearly clever. Of course, monsters in these sorts of movies frequently are. Still, we get the sense that Carpenter’s creation could run rings around the xenomorph at the heart of Ridley Scott’s Alien. It cuts power to the base, it seems to set the team against one another, and it seems to be more in control of the situation than the staff carrying the guns and running the base. When it looks like it has been foiled, the monster is even smart enough to play the long game, willing to be frozen again – figuring that it’s only a matter of time before another team of explorers happen to stumble across it.
And yet, it’s never fully within our comprehension. It takes human form, and it can speak and think, but it never addresses the explorers at the station. There’s no attempt at negotiation, no threats, no bargains. It never gives us its back story or its motivation – though we can guess what its plans for our world might be. With the assistance of the cutting-edge visual effects, I think it’s these choices that define the monster in the film as definitively “alien.” There’s no point of comparison or relation between us and it – we are just a warm place for it to hide.
Watching it again, after all these years, it’s quite impressive how quickly Carpenter moves the plot. John Carpenter is a director who seems incredibly innovative or disappointing conventional, depending on the film. For all the creativity he demonstrates here or in Assault on Precinct 13 or Escape from New York, he has phoned in an impressive amount work. Here, however, Carpenter is at his prime. The movie is strangely paced, but deliberately so. The audience has been conditioned through years of exposure to expect a lot of characterisation and suspenseful build-up before revealing the monster, so Carpenter knows that the best way to throw us off our game is to just jump right into the chaos. The film jumps to live almost immediately, from the moment that the creature is put into the pen with the other dogs, and the film never really lets up.
I think that’s why it works so well. There’s no excess exposition at the start of the film. The crew don’t stumble across an alien artifact and spend twenty minutes playing with it before anything happens – here they only discover the saucer after things have spiralled well out of control. Horror movies follow such a strict formula that shaking things around a bit is an excellent way to make an audience uneasy. Although we know what to expect from the title of the film, Carpenter destroys any notion that we know when to expect it.
While perhaps not as heavy on paranoia as William F. Nolan’s proposed adaptation, the movie does well to play up the sense that nobody can be trusted, feeling much like the then-recent update of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers. Carpenter manages to produce a horror that is very much a product of its time, and yet also timeless after a fashion. He’s aided by a strong cast (including Keith David and Kurt Russell), and his own score works remarkably well, playing up the isolation of the team stranded at the end of the world.
If I do have a complaint, it’s that the team seems to adapt to the idea of alien life quite quickly. Of course, it’s hard to refute when they witness the incident in the base kennel, but it seems that very few of the staff are quite as shocked by the revelation as one might expect. They all accept the situation quite readily and deal with it in a relatively reasonable manner. In fairness, this allows Carpenter to move the plot along relatively fluidly, and to get straight to the meaty issue of who trusts whom, but it still feels a little strange that everybody processes the situation so well, especially when one crew member notes, “five minutes is enough to put a man over out here.” There’s only member of the team who flips out, and even that arguably isn’t quite what it seems.
Still, these are minor complaints. The Thing is one of the stronger movies in John Carpenter’s filmography, which is quite a compliment considering the esteem I hold for a lot of his earlier work. It’s one of the very best sci-fi horror films I have ever seen, and I’d argue it’s a true classic of both genres.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Alien (film), Carpenter, film, John Carpenter, Kurt Russell, Movie, non-review review, review, ridley scott, the thing, The Thing (1982), Thing, Thing From Another World, William F. Nolan