The Thing

Year 1982

Kurt Russell   as  R.J. MacReady
Wilford Brimley   as Dr. Blair
T.K. Carter as Nauls  
Keith David   as Childs
Donald Moffat as Garry
Director   - John Carpenter  
Screenwriter - Bill Lancaster   
Special Effects - Rob Bottin   
Musical Score - Ennio Morricone   

This commentary deals with the 1982 movie The Thing, also known as John Carpenter's The Thing to distinguish it from the original 1951 The Thing which is also known as The Thing from Another World. It's odd to me that the original is not known as Howard Hawks' The Thing. Maybe it's because they didn't know where to put the apostrophe or maybe it's because he was uncredited for his direction.

Either way, the movie(s) is(are) based on a novella wtitten by John W. Campbell, Jr. (writing as Don A. Stuart) called Who Goes There? also known as Who Goes There?

The novella is one of the cornerstones of science fiction. Notice how I didn't say "sci-fi"? The term "sci-fi" was considered as a name for derivative schlock decades before giant shark/octopi tangled with has-been actors and actresses. Who Goes There? is science fiction from science fiction's Golden Age. (Or maybe it was the Pulp Age.) If you haven't read it and you don't mind descriptive passages written in English using complete sentences, then pick up a copy and read it. It's now in the public domain so you can find a pdf copy on-line. Maybe even at (Hint. Hint.)

If you don't know the plot, a group of scientists in the Antartic come upon the wreckage of a space ship, which they promptly destroy through ineptitude. But, they find one of the crew members, frozen for millenia but intact, and take it back to base. There it thaws and displays some really intriguing survival traits. Let's just say that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a weaker take on a similar subject.

In this movie, about a dozen guys are isolated in one of the loneliest places on Earth. They're already sniping at each other and distrustful before strange things start happening. Once the cells of the creature start mimicking human cells, the paranoia is justified. Things just ratchet up from there.

This movie could have been spine tingling scary with suspense built up to the cracking point. The paranoia could have been played as descent into lunacy by not knowing who to trust. The special effects could have... More on that later.

Instead of all the possible good things, what is presented is sort of a half-baked cake. It's got all of the ingredients and it looks good, but it wasn't given enough time to cook all the way through. Do the people at the station not like each other? Yes, but their dislike only shows up after the danger is known. A little more us-versus-them vibe before the creature comes alive would have given the viewer more squirming fuel. It could have been a Lord of the Flies for adults, but it isn't.

I'm not sure I entirely buy the whole base point of existence anyway. I mean, what're these guy doing there? Some sort of research, I assume but what kind? And who are these bozos anyway? Who put them there? They're not military. Are they volunteers? Since there're not one, but two, black guys at the base it makes me wonder if they were all conscripted. If so, then their disdain for everything around them might make sense.

I had to mention the black guys because I rarely see black guys in cold climates. I've been to Sweden and seen a small percentage. I've watched lots of hockey games and seen three. I've seen pictures of Eskimo and Inuit and Lapp villages and seen none. But in this movie, twenty percent of the people at the South Pole, which is the coldest freakin' place on Earth, are black. Makes you wonder what the heck kind of "research station" this really was and what the criteria for being picked were.

To be fair, I've been a fan of Keith David ever since The Job. I understand what his screen presence and intensity bring to the movie. I just had to ask myself if these were the people I'd expect to see at one-hundred degrees below zero.

I've looked into working in Antarctica. Basically, if you're not a Green Peacer who wants to pay their own way, you need a special skill to compliment the team you're being sent to be part of. These guys in the movie look and act like a bunch of hikers who decided to just hang around together out of boredom.

Oh, there are some exceptions. There's MacReady (Russell) who seems to be in charge by mutual consent. He, Childs (David), and Dr. Blair (Brimley) are the only competent ones there. And Blair turns into whackjob...maybe.

The plot makes sense until almost the halfway point in the movie. Then, it starts unravelling. According to the premise, each cell of the alien is it's own alien and only hanging out and coordinating with the other cells because it wants to. Any time it wants, it can pack up its little alien belongings and jump away like it had legs, taking enough of its brethren with it so's that you'd notice. The result is a "Boo! Made ya jump!" scene, but really weak logically.

Now there may be those of you out there saying, "But that was in the novella, too!" To you erudite fans of the story, I'd like to say that it's similar, but not identical. In the novella, the author explains that a group of cells that are separated from the main body will attempt to form a new individual. In the movie, the explanation is that each cell is an individual, which doesn't make sense when the "blood" takes on multi-faceted behaviors at the individual cell level.

A few more words about Who Goes There? before I get back to the movie. In the novella, the men trust each other at the beginning and slowly distrust each other. In the movie, there's already animosity before the creature even shows up.

This movie, John Carpenter's The Thing is a lot closer to the novella than the earlier movie. A character named MacReady as the guy put in charge? Check. The scene with the blood exposed to heat? Check. The character of Dr. Blair? Check. Autopsy? Check. The fact that I'm comparing the two means that the story, published in 1938, still holds up. It's a classic that can be treated as respectfully as people treat Frankenstein for its originality and longevity.

One of the best aspects of the movie is its special effects. They're good. They're very good. Using a combination of make-up, stop motion, and animatronics Bottin creates creepy, believable special effects. At the creature's autopsy, it all looked real. When the creature started taking over the dogs, the encounter moved my butt closer to the edge of my seat. When the three men went to explore the alien spacecraft, it felt open and cold and isolated. The special effects carried this movie. No CGI can compare with this film.

You've heard of Ennio Morricone? He's the guy who wrote the score for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. I'm sure you've hummed one of his ditties at some point. He wrote the score for this movie. Sent a singing telegram in is more like it. At best, it's weak. At worst, it was nominated for a Razzie. Really.

As long as I'm pointing out weaknesses, Dr. Blair has this Atari-like computer that not only doubles as an electron microscope, it predicts the future by grasping at data that are probably free electron threads in the air. Quite the gadget. Wish I had one. Wish one were feasible.

Everything can be forgiven until just before the end. Just before end, in refuting any law regarding the creation of mass, the creature grows to collosal size without any source of food and in such a short period of time that it defies the old double in size theory.

But then there's the end. MacReady and Childs sit face to face in the burned out camp. Is one of the men the creature? Both? Neither? Because the bottom line is, if even one of them is the creature, mankind is doomed. But the impression is that the rampant vandalism of the previous scene, the one where they either blew up or torched each of the base buildings, might have accomplished something other than giving disposable cast members more interesting ways to die. The final scene between MacReady and Childs is supposed to be a deep thought provoking scene, but it's trivial. It's supposed to be memorable, and it is. It just doesn't make sense.

The movie's not too grizzly and makes for a nice Halloween show. It can be gory and there are some scary scenes, but that's what Halloween movies are all about.

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