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The Thing (1982) – Carpenter countdown #2

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In the background of Halloween, the TV is showing one of Carpenter's favourites: The Thing From Another World. It was based on "Who Goes There?", a short story by John W Campbell about a base in Antarctica uncovering an alien which could change shape and imitate others, but 1950s effects were too primitive to attempt that aspect. By the 1980s, effects had moved on…

Concept: 'Which of us is human?'

A flying saucer approaches Earth and enters the atmosphere above Antarctica. Cut to Antarctica 1982. A Norwegian helicopter flies over the bleak snow-covered scenery, chasing (and shooting at) a dog heading towards a US base. There, pilot Kurt Russell is losing badly at computer chess, while others are working or playing table tennis. The noise of the 'copter attracts their attention and the dog rushes up to them, still being shot at. One of the Norwegians accidentally blows himself and the 'copter up, while the other one is shot dead by the US base commander. Russell is asked to fly the base's doctor to the Norwegian base to see what's happened.

When they arrive, they discover the base has been destroyed and everyone's dead. One person committed suicide, but WTF is that there? There's also a giant lump of ice with something scooped out of it. They take the WTF, and some video tapes, back. The WTF is revealed to be a mix of creatures, including two human heads fused together, but pulling apart, some unknown and some dog. Say, what happened to the dog they were chasing? It's put in with the rest of the base's pack and soon demonstrates that it's not really a doggie… Fortunately, it's discovered before the pack is taken over and it's stopped (but not killed) by burning it. The video shows that the Norwegians discovered a 100,000 year old flying saucer in the ice, and dug something out of the ice nearby. So, they found a hard to kill shape-changing alien which can take other creatures over and imitate them perfectly. Ah, we don't want that to get away from the base. It's soon clear to everyone that not everyone else is still human and at least one of them is a Thing. Before long, no-one trusts anyone else, but they need to work together if they – and humanity itself – are to survive. Will they manage it?

What's good: The effects. In particular, the heart-attack scene. One character's line at the end, "You've gotta be fuckin' kiddin'", not only breaks the tension, but reflects exactly what the audience is thinking. They hold up nearly thirty years on and the transformations will never be bettered in terms of old school physical effects. (It'd be CGI morphing now, not something you could kick on the set.) At no point in the crucial shots do you think 'that's someone in a rubber suit' (which is exactly what happens when the creature is revealed in Alien).

The script. In particular…

  • The double isolation. Not only are they physically isolated from the rest of the world, they're isolated from each other.
  • The building paranoia is great. At one point, a character says if someone else is killed and turns out they're human, it's tough. (They later accuse someone else of murder when they kill another human!)
  • The test scene. The reason Carpenter wanted to do the film. Again, the end line is fabulous.
  • The end. I will admit I groaned when I saw it the first time, but it was absolutely the right ending for the film.

The performances. It's an all-male cast and they spend most of the time wrapped up against the cold. Despite that, there are a dozen identifiable and believable individuals. Even the dog is great.

The production design. For interiors, refrigerated sets were used to ensure everyone's breath was visible, and a set was built by the edge of a glacier to get the exterior of the camp. Most of the snow you see in the film is real.

The cinematography. Another wonderful job by Dean Cundey.

What's not so good: The film's release date. Two weeks after E.T. came out – from the same studio!?! – aliens were supposed to be friendly and cute. It was also the same weekend as Blade Runner. Hmm, which is going film is going to have problems? A cute alien all the family can see, SF with a happy ending, or the mean nasty alien in the very bleak one? If The Thing had been released first, it would not have been the smash hit E.T. was, but it's hard to believe that it would not have done better (and, coming as light relief, E.T. wouldn't have been hurt either).

Music: By Ennio Morricone, in a style very like Carpenter. It works superbly well in the film, but unlike Carpenter's – or indeed Morricone's – best scores, doesn't really work when listened to alone.

Miscellany: The opening title graphic was made to look as much like the original's as possible.

The similarly with AIDS can't have helped at the box office either: in 1982 it was fatal, you can't tell who's infected without a blood test, and it could wipe out the entire planet.

The university I went to put the heating on according to the calendar, not the temperature. 'Flix', the film club I helped run there, showed this one on what turned out to be a very cold night just before the heating was turned on, so we had live 'cold' effects and you could see the audience's breath as well as the cast's!

After one mid-80s showing by the UK's Channel 4 cut two out of the three lines with the word 'fuck' in them, including both of the critical tension-defusing ones, I wrote and asked why they didn't have an on-screen warning that this was not for everyone. Some months later, they started the 'red triangle' series of film showings, which had a red triangle in one corner of the screen indicating exactly that. Coincidence? Quite possibly, but who knows?

Overall: This is the highest rated Carpenter film on IMDB, but it's not for everyone – the effects (including the autopsies and cutting people's fingers) will not be to everyone's taste. Given that, it's a tribute to how good it is that it's (currently) one of the top 200 highest rated films on IMDB. The people who like it, including me, love it and recognise it for what it is: a stunning bit of film making. Like Halloween and Assault, there's no negotiating with the enemy, they could come at any time, and they have to be defeated if you are going to survive. As with Halloween, they could be anywhere and nowhere is safe.

It's his best film, but it's my list and it's not my favourite…

TL;DR This is how to do a remake.

Film: 5/5
DVD: 5/5

Very good commentary with Carpenter and Kurt Russell, an 80 minute look back at the making of the film, plus outtakes (for once, I'd have been tempted to keep some of them in), trailer and lots and lots of photos and notes. The picture is not perfect (some vertical resolution is lost in windowing) but we do see all of it.

DVD, Blu-ray (apparently the picture is great, but most of the DVD's extras are not included), and soundtrack album (currently only available for silly money):

Written by Ian

June 29th, 2011 at 11:11 pm

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

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