In the early summer of 1982, two distinct entities from outer space infiltrated planet earth. One was a prehistoric creature with the ability to kill, then imitate its prey: it could attack its victims while remaining disguised amongst them by, in effect, becoming them. The other was an unusual looking but friendly creature, a voyager from another place with god-like powers of healing, an odd voice, and an affinity for Reese’s Pieces.
Guess which one fared better?
Of course, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was the hit of ’82, and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing had the famously unfortunate timing of opening two weeks later. That many people did not see it is a shame; that many critics dismissed it is typical. To be certain, it didn’t help matters that the assembled brain trust agonized over the relatively brief, but exceptionally gory special effects. Inevitably, they aged quickly — and rather poorly. While one can appreciate the attention paid to these ostensibly “scary” scenes, they are (ironically? inexorably?) the weaker moments in the film. It being a Carpenter production, cohesion and plot are occasionally undermined in ways that seem half-assed or ham-fisted. Still, after repeated viewings it manages to work on multiple levels, and despite any nitpicking it seems impossible to improve upon. The definition of a classic, perhaps, but it is something more, something more complicated than that. It is a unique and enigmatic movie; in hindsight it is easy to understand how it evolved, over time, from a cult classic to its current status as must-own DVD material: it needed time to truly find its audience.
So, aside from bad timing and a final product that feels, at times, oddly forced despite the obvious (and well documented) care and consideration that went into it, what is it that remains so right about this movie? For starters, it is to Carpenter’s credit that he assembled such a spectacular cast: virtually all of the actors make the absolute most of their relatively limited screen time, but Keith David, Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat and Richard Masur are in particularly fine form. As for Kurt Russell, it is amazing to recall that his role as R.J. MacReady came only a year after his testosterone-athon as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (also directed by Carpenter), making this quite the one-two punch for both men. Considerable credit must also be given to Bill Lancaster’s excellent screenplay (to read John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? is both to appreciate where the spirit of this film comes from — more so than the sci-fi classic The Thing from Outer Space that it was ostensibly updating — and appreciate how much Lancaster did with relatively little, in terms of actual plot, character development and drama).
It is, as intended, Kurt Russell’s film, but special mention must be made for the near miraculous performance of Wilford Brimley — a man who was perhaps best known as the wise-cracking senior citizen from Cocoon or as the Quaker Oats guy, or recently (and, thanks to the brilliant monkeys working around the clock on youtube, amusingly), the spokesperson with a tendency to mispronounce the most unamusing word in the English language, diabetes. As Dr. Blair, Brimley’s presence provides an austere integrity and the necessarily brainy moral grounding for events that would otherwise be in constant jeopardy of degenerating into parody. His dead-serious assessment of what is going on — before anyone else has figured things out — invests the growing unease inside the camp with a gravitas that makes it painfully clear, to the viewer, what is at stake. Later, after being secluded in a storage shed, the men visit him in a scene that manages to be sad, disturbing and comical.
One scene in particular offers perhaps the best illustration of why this movie continues to resonate, and why it was not fully successful as either a slam-bam action flick or a serious drama: Blair sits alone, at his desk, running a computer simulation of the diabolically efficient way the alien is infecting his team. In less than thirty seconds, the look on his face turns from world-weary stoicism to resigned acknowledgment of the likely consequences — for the men, and the rest of the world. Interestingly (and again, ironically?) it is probable that the impetus for this particular sequence, in addition to the obvious and necessary advancement of the plot in as succinct and clear a manner as possible, was to show-off the high-tech computer programming, circa 1982. Like the over-the-top transformation scenes, it is more hilarious than harrowing to look at the extraordinarily primitive technology, today. And yet, it worked, then, and works now, because of its stark imagery: in its way, it’s ten times more terrifying to watch the simulated organism at work, one blob on a screen capturing and assimilating its prey, than it is to watch the scattered “money shots” when the creature reveals itself.
Perfection is a word that should never be used lightly, but no other word will suffice for the wonders Ennio Morricone works, scoring this film. The name Morricone is — and should be — associated with brilliance, variety and superhuman productivity, just to pick a few obvious choices. (A lot more on The Master, here.) While the list of only his very best efforts is not short, his work here must be considered amongst the top tier: The Thing would be unimaginable without it. Rather than overwhelming, or distracting the action on the screen — as film scores do with distressing regularity these days — Morricone’s music exists mostly on the periphery, in the corners and inside the shadows. Its effectiveness serves an almost opposite purpose to the handful of over-the-top alien transformations: the real horror of the story lies in the tension of not knowing, the dread of isolation and the fear of being assailed by an inexplicable enemy. Morricone subtly embellishes the otherwise silent scenes, where the only sounds are the Antarctic winds, the silence and the darkness. As the paranoia increases, strings are plucked like raw nerves, while stark, almost soulless keyboard drones mirror the growing desperation: the music exists as a wind chill factor, making everything colder and more forlorn than it already is.
And last but certainly not least: The Thing provides one of the best endings of any movie, ever. To use the word perfect, again, would seem silly, but there is no getting around it: the ending is perfect. Indeed, it’s even better than perfect, considering the pressure Carpenter must have felt to inject the type of horseshit heroic conclusion American audiences usually require. Carpenter’s decision to go with the ambivalent ending (which, actually, is truly heroic as opposed to some manufactured deus ex machina sequel-ready sendoff) very likely killed his chance at commercial viability. Carpenter knew this and did it anyway, saving both the movie’s integrity and his soul in the process. The fact that The Thing has attracted video sales ever since is wonderfully poetic justice, and confirms that you can occasionally scoff at the big studio machine and come out okay. Bottom line: Spielberg’s alien may have won the box office battle, but everyone knows that his maudlin Peter Pan wouldn’t have stood a chance at Outpost 31.