Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
"The Thing" (1982)
Starring: Kurt Russell
Directed by John Carpenter
In an isolated arctic military base, a team of American marines on station find themselves infiltrated by no ordinary intruder. For thousands of years an alien creature has been in frozen hibernationin the arctic. Now it has become thawed out. With its genetic capabilities of imitating human life, instantly reproducing itself like a cell and inflicting a deadly metamorphing virus on all who come close to it, The Thing is set on consuming and reshaping the human race into its ghastly image. Kurt Russell leads a desperate fight to safeguard the base, and incidentally, the world, from the alien terror.
Many of John Carpenter's movies, particularly his films of the 80's, like "Escape from New York" and "Big Trouble in Little China" have the kind of cartoonish, two-dimensional shoot-em-up/beat-em-up feel of a Sinclair ZX81 computer game- not that those films aren't entertaining. But nontheless "The Thing" probably qualifies as John Carpenter's most professional entry that can be taken very seriously as a piece of cinema.
The setting of the story in an isolated network of ice-caps, and more centrally in the sanctuary of the polar base, allows us to feel a very strong sense of escapism, because we truly have left the world we know behind, but in a realistic way. The film uses brief but effective repartee and bonding between the characters before dumping them into the high drama. Makes it feel like a real bunch of people who are doing their best to keep entertained and enliven spirits, including their own, but are really on the verge of tearing their hairs out with boredom. where games of snooker, hitting some chronic or rewatching a taped episode of a popular gameshow reaches the point of feeling absolutely dry.
The opening of the film establishes its wide landscape with ominous music and it really feels immediately like no-nonsense stuff . There's one or two early scenes where characters lapse into cartoonish stereotypes, where a character does something comical but unrealistic, or foolhardishly dumb, but somehow the film is allowed to be a bit cartoonish for the odd moment, and then carry on into deadly serious territory as though it didn't happen. It's also allowed to feature a scene of a towering bloodthirsty monster roaring and the figure it is up against retorting "Yeah F*** you too", without compromising its serious gravity.
"The Thing" deals with a very intriguing mystery, a recurring threat and a lot of multilayered events going on during its length. The film is one that you can leave for a month, and come back to and find it feeling really fresh as ever with certain things happening in its middle section that you probably forgot and are happy to be reminded of. However the film's long pacing makes it one that couldn't be watched twice in the same week- the second time round, you'd probably get bored and switch off by the first half hour.
What makes the film attractive is its rather closer to real-world elements. Unlike a lot of action/horror movies, and indeed many of John Carpenter's other films, the best laid plans can go wrong, as can the ballistics hardware. Guns have limited supplies of bullets, sometimes the weapon catches, sometimes the shooter misses, sometimes even the main character can shoot innocents by mistake or by blind panic- where even the most intelligent and level headed can lose it. When the hero points his gun on a former colleage who challenges him and says "I mean it!", we believe him, instead of assuming he is only bluffing. The deaths too can be cruel in how someone can bite it in the middle of comitting a noble or heroic act that proves to be futile as they are killed before they can succeed.
The film's core message revolves around paranoia and agoraphobia in a morally declining society where people in general are hard to know and trust, where there's racism, xenophobia and also the global situation of cold war distrust. Whilst societal agoraphobia was a common and accepted feature of films of the 80's, this film actually voices a lot of rage and anger about the maddening paranoia of society, showing people curse others for refusing to recognise them as sincere, the hero holding his former comrades hostage to find out who is who. Not just out of a drive to weed out the threat to them all, but to put an end to the paranoid madness between them in the only ruthless way he knows how. Unfortunately he doesn't quite succeed, since he is dealing with a dividing and multiplying creature so he is not just up against the one of them- its a long and continuous fight, slightly more like a miniseries than a film.
The characters are believably drawn for the most part, most of which have their particular fondness, whether it be a pet dog or a Stevie Wonder song- Kurt Russell just loves his bacardi- it's refreshing to see moments of compassionate traits amidst the ruthless fight for survival. The black characters are a bit ethnically stereotyped with jive-talk, a rather contrived fondness for the M-F word and even rollerskates. Mind you there is a break in tradition by portraying the white characters as the paranoid gun-toting nuts for a change. By the same token there's a situation of detante and there's something of a charm in seeing people go to the edge of violent hysteria, and then later have a calm conversation with their colleagues, letting them know they're okay and safe now.
As expected in this murder mystery of sorts there are plenty of suspects, red-herrings and double bluffs- of course since we're dealing with facsimiles, this is a murder mystery where motives or familiar character traits don't come into play, so no-one is free of suspicion- and the final twist of who did it is a moment where the calculation in the writing is very obvious. Another problem with the characters is that there are a plethora of them and the dialogue doesn't really put names to faces clearly enough, but that's a minor problem.
The gore factor is very high in this film with blood covered cadavers treated to autopsies, flesh torn and bitten off before our eyes -the violence and blood content is higher than most films of its era and there were plenty of video nasties around back then, there's also a fair ammount of strong profanity, and some drug use. The situation of the plot justifies this, and certainly there's enough biological intelligence to the film to justify the autopsy. That said the film is certainly not as subversive as it would like to be- certainly not as subversive as horrors like "The Exorcist" or "Evil Dead". It is well directed, and has a feeling of good completion, intrigue and investigation, a well drawn conflict and threat cushioned by quiet scenes. It has some strong suspense scenes -particularly the moment in the dog kernel- and some moments of edge -some that work despite being admittedly rather calculated, and others that really make the film feel post-modern and ahead of its time. A good body-horror film if not the best of its genre.
The DVD format is the better format for an unshakey and absorbing viewing.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for Groups
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age