Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
The Thing (1982) Directed by John Carpenter. Based on the short story, “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr.
R. J. MacReady: “Trust is a tough thing to come by these days.”
Life at the South Pole is stressful. The harsh environment, the barren sameness, the isolation, these things wear on men. So when the men of the American station say the men of the Norwegian Station chasing and shooting at a dog, they understandably wondered if the Norsemen had gone crazy.
This may be one of the strongest cases for mandatory bilingual education ever developing in cinema.
The Americans let the dog come back to their camp. Nothing seems amiss. The dog wanders about, sniffing, as dogs do in new places. Eventually, they put him into the pen with their own huskies.
And that is when the trouble starts. The dog is in point of fact some sort of shape shifting alien life form. Fortunately, they have flame throwers, useful in removing ice, and they burn the weirdly deformed creature before it can kill all the dogs.
But Doctor Blair (Wilford Brimley) looks at the creature under a scope and comes up with some very disturbing conclusions. The creature takes over another creature on a cellular level. Once the process is completed, it is undetectable. Due to its cellular fluidity, only complete incineration can truly kill it. The corpses they have in storage are not dead. When they run to check, it is eating one of the men. When the messenger summons help, the figure is gone. But someone is running through the snow, and when they get there, it is the man reported dead…and not. One hand is hugely distorted. The transformation is not yet complete.
This time they cremate it. But that is not enough. The dog wandered free all day. It could have infected any one. It could be anyone. And it wants out.
The one person we are sure it has not infected is Dr. Blair. He wrecks the chopper and the Snowcat, and then destroys the radio. He cuts off any chance of rescue, but also, any chance the creature has of getting out infecting others. Dr. Blair looses it, driven homicidal by his fear, but in the final analysis, he is the biggest hero in the piece. He saw what was going on, did not stop to debate the matter in committee, but did what needed to be done, knowing he was signing his own death warrant.
The other hero is R. J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) the chopper pilot. MacReady is a calm level headed sort of fellow, and that is exactly what is needed. But at the bottom of the world, cut off, without radio or transportation, and the entire station turning on one another, how is he going to find the alien? Or is it aliens? And how will he destroy them?
One of the key elements of horror is isolation. That was what made the original thing such a success in the 1951 classic The Thing From Another World, upon which this movie is based. It is called a remake, but I feel it is different enough to warrant the “based on” label.
But Carpenter takes the isolation one step further. These eleven men are a community, at the bottom of the world; they are all they have to rely upon. And just by its existence, the alien takes that away. Now every single person is a nation of one; the “I know this person is not infected” and the enemy; everyone else.
That is what shape shifters do, they sew doubt and fear. Like Odo and the Changelings of Deep Space Nine, Mystique of the X-Men Comics, like those geniuses in latex in the old Mission Impossible series, the ability to imitate can destroy any community, and turn its members form best of friends into a pack of rabid witch hunters.
It is truly said, the most terrifying foe wears your face.
If this movie has a failing, it is in three areas. One, gratuitous gore, two, technical faux pass that could have been avoided with a technical advisor, and three, dated special effects. I will handle these in reverse order.
For 1982, these effects were cutting edge. They sure freaked me smooth out. Now, we have the magic of CGI, and the morphing alien looks….hokie. Same thing for King Kong. But for the tools they had to use, this was great movie magic.
There are a few problems with the external sets. If it is 40 below zero, then you have to use a breathing mask. Second, a simple wind machine would have made the environment seem a lot more hostile.
There was too much gratuitous gore. Carpenter had new technology, and it included artificial arteries, and he was by gawd going to use them. He could have taken a lesson from the 1951 classic, or from Alien. A hinted at terror can grow larger than life in the mind. Then, when the moment of revelation comes, a little blood splatter goes a long way to up the ante. Carpenter drowned us in it.
Those problems aside, I have to say this is a great horror movie; it passed my primary test; it scared me.
I like to think of this movie as the bastard love child of two great classics; the original The Thing, and Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. It captured both flavors of fear, and blended them deliciously.
The Thing From Another World
John Carpenter's The Thing
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older