The Thing

February 16, 2011

A couple of years ago, John Carpenter looked like the most exciting young director in Hollywood. His successes included the sleek suspense film, Assault on Precinct 13; the excellent TV movies, Somebody is Watching Me and Elvis; and the masterly horror films, Halloween and The Fog. Carpenter appeared to be a natural stylist who had a rare understanding of how moving pictures should move.

But it’s been a bad year for Carpenter. Last summer’s Escape from New York was one of those frustrating movies that sets up a great idea in the first few minutes and then lets the story dribble away. Halloween II (which Carpenter co-wrote and co-produced but definitely did not direct), released a few months later, managed to be more offensive than the usual Halloween rip-offs.

Then came word that Carpenter was working on a semi-remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 science-fiction classic, The Thing. This was promising news: Not only does the original Thing seem to be one of Carpenter’s favorite movies (Jamie Lee Curtis watches it on television on that fateful Halloween night), but reportedly Carpenter was planning to stick more closely to the spooky short story (“Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell) that served loosely as the basis for the first version of The Thing.

Unfortunately, this Thing is one of the big disappointments of the year. Somewhere on the way from an Antarctic glacier (where The Thing is set) to the massive special-effects facilities of Hollywood, Carpenter seems to have contracted a case of snow blindness.

He has returned to the short story’s frightening premise: An alien visitor, trapped and frozen in snow for many thousands of years, is thawed out and let loose among a group of research scientists. This extraterrestrial displays the terrifying ability to reproduce itself as any earthly life form—including man. Thus, despite the fact that all the men at the isolated station look, act and sound the same way they did before the creature got loose, there is no way to tell the men from the monsters.

Carpenter seems impressed by this metaphor for our paranoid and suspicious times, but that’s about all; he doesn’t deepen the idea. And he bypasses character development (though some of the men do go through pretty violent changes) even though he has selected a fine troupe of character answers.

Kurt Russell, playing the group’s eventual leader, has a smoldering quality that is interesting and watchable, but he’s such an inner-directed performer that he never illuminates anything around him. This worked perfectly when he played Elvis Presley for Carpenter, but it almost shuts off audience involvement in The Thing. He seems just as closed-off in the beginning of the movie as he does later, when he has good reason to be suspicious.

Instead of developing the characters, Carpenter has concentrated on producing some spectacular (and gory) special effects. For the most part the effects are astonishingly good, but it’s hard to care when we don’t have much interest in the person the Thing is devouring…or becoming. Carpenter also shoots two autopsies—one human, one alien—in revolting close-up.

The Thing is not without some superb touches. The first scene poses a tantalizing mystery: A lone husky dog lopes across the Antarctic wasteland followed by a helicopter that suddenly begins to shoot at the dog for no apparent reason. This sequence is tightly, crisply realized on the bleak terrain (the locations actually were shot in Alaska and British Columbia). And there’s a blackly funny scene later that involves a bunch of men tied to a bench who writhe in helpless horror when one of them begins to transform into the Thing.

Carpenter’s overall conception of how to treat the story is the problem, and flashes of brilliance cannot redeem this fundamental miscalculation. (It should be noted that the press kit for The Thing reports a “tentative” running time of 127 minutes as of two months ago; the film is at least 10 minutes shorter than that. This may have some significance, but we’ll probably never know.) In choosing to emphasize technical wizardry over human conflict, Carpenter sidesteps the most intriguing challenges of the story. He seems to have forgotten—may we hope temporarily?—that man himself can be as fascinating as any thing.

First published in the Seattle Times, June 25, 1982

I understand. This movie has a large and devoted following now. I saw it again sometime after it opened and yes, it was better than my first impression. But this is a completely accurate impression of seeing it at a midnight preview screening a week before it opened, and actually the impression mostly holds up (although I should give Russell more credit for doing exactly what the character requires). I remember being puzzled by a contradiction: Carpenter’s previous films had been impeccably Hawksian , and then when he actually goes and remakes a Howard Hawks picture, it comes out like this. I’ll watch it again, and probably like it more, but I have a feeling I’m going to stick with my general sense of let-down.


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