The Thing

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 actors.

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.

2020 re-watch: It certainly is a better film than I gave it credit for in this piece, and I understand why it is considered a classic. I criticized the lack of character development, but Carpenter believes that action is character, and the cast is so great they fill in the gaps. I’m convinced the film looks better on DVD than it did in the theater, but in any case it’s a gorgeous movie to gaze at. There might be just a little too much Alien-influenced monster-movie gore for what I think the film ought to have, but the humor and the rhythm are spot-on. Plus, the ending: just right.

3 Responses to The Thing

  1. THE THING de Carpenter is indeed a puzzling case. Your contemporaneous review, with which I agreed completely at the time, remains acutely accurate. Yet the movie definitely gets better, or is seen to be better, on repeat viewings. I guess it’s a variation on the adaptation syndrome whereby one who knows the original (or predecessors – e.g., TRUE GRIT book and movie) may need an initial viewing just to get the distractions of comparativeness out of the way. But even allowing for that, the progression from disappointing and seriously miscalculated THING 1982 to pretty engrossing THING 1982 to maybe even spellbinding THING 1982 with an integrity all its own is pretty well unique in my experience.

  2. roberthorton says:

    That is a fascinating process. I think my re-see of the film was 2-3 years after it opened. Since that was a lifetime ago, I am well overdue for seeing the movie with fresh eyes and having the coin finally drop. I must have a problem with re-visiting Carpenter, because a bunch of his films that I very much like and always intended to have the pleasure of seeing again I’ve never gone back to: THEY LIVE, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA,STARMAN. I even thought VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED had an interesting Polanski-like rhythm to it.

  3. Robert K says:

    I saw The Thing when it was new-ish, not first run, but shortly after and had the exquisite pleasure of doing so at a science-fiction convention screening at the golden age of about twelve. I was awestruck and dumbfounded. Obviously by the still jaw-dropping spectacle of it, but completely drawn in by it’s claustrophobic paranoia anc the intimate immediacy of the world it unfolds in. The bleak despairing tone of it really held me as well. Things just keep getting worse, more terrifying and with less hope. That was and is unusual in a film, and I think maybe part of what left such a sour taste in people’s mouths.

    The truth though, is I loved it then, a seminal film experience for me, and that love has grown with countless, countless re viewings, so I won’t ever have any way of getting a glimpse of what film all the disappointed and turned off were seeing. It’s beyond my imagination or ability to empathize with. I have bad movies that I love and I can plainly see the bad that everyone is seeing even if I am completely charmed, but The Thing has always struck me as a perfect film. I am completely mesmerized and at its mercy any time I put it on. It isn’t a comfortable old friend that I would play in the background while catching up on email.

    It’s funny to hear the observation that it is poorly charactered and that this is a glaring weakness in the film. For me, the characters are constructed–and performed with such subtlety, that they don’t seem characters at all–for me, it feels like I was dropped into an environment and these are the real people that populate it, completely unaware they are being filmed–it is that visceral for me. This effect happens in Ridley Scott’s Alien too, but I think gets more recognition.

    I can’t imagine what John Carpenter’s career has been like for him to have made so many singular films with so much in them, only to more often than not have them dismissed and panned. I see interviews with him and I think it ate his soul because, that I can see, he takes no comfort at the legendary status posterity has granted him, but when prompted to reflect, seems bitter and still wounded–and worse–jaded.

    Incidentally, on the concept of repeated viewings, they do, literally have a neurochemical effect on perception. We’re familiar with the idea that as we come to know and like a person, they often appear more attractive than at first glance. The brain categorizes and stores memory in different ways. Important things get stored differently in different places with, for lack of a better term, enhancing chemicals to reinforce meaning and importance. This helps us remember we love important things like food and sex, and it helps us pair bond. The thing is it is a cumulative effect–every time you look at your lover, your brain gives one of its extra zingers to the place you store her and your image of her grows more acute–the smallest detail becoming meaningful and effective for you. I believe with something like films that we love a similar process goes on. The chemicals fly in the brain, the ones that assign meaning and priority, and every time you see a beloved film again they further affect your perception. This isn’t you see the same thing and like it more, it is in a literal sense, you see something as better; your perceptions have been altered

    So, I have started to realize that if I show a film to someone for the first time–especially if they are middle-aged and have a brain bogged down with warehouses of meaningful information, as opposed to a twelve year old whose empty head was in nuclear dynamo mode as the brain is during that period–that person is literally watching a different film than I am. They aren’t experiencing the same thing I am in any way because they aren’t hopelessly drugged with attachment.

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