RogerBW's Blog

The Thing 10 November 2021

1982 science fiction horror, dir. John Carpenter, Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley: IMDb / allmovie. So the antarctic scientists find an alien spaceship in the ice…

This is an adaptation of Who Goes There? that's actually a great deal closer to the story than the 1951 film was: this alien does imitate first the sled-dogs and then the humans in the base.

It was also widely excoriated on release, I think for two main reasons: it's cynical and anti-authoritarian and generally downbeat in a way that had been standard in the 1970s (the production had got started in the mid 1970s, but stumbled in various ways and was only resurrected when Alien turned out to be a success) but which people were trying to get away from in the more optimistic early 1980s. Meanwhile, this film basically does the same thing as Raiders of the Lost Ark, that critics disliked but audiences mostly enjoyed there: character development and humanity is brutally elided beyond the very basics, to make room for more action and effects. But Raiders was family-friendly with a relatable main character, and this wasn't. (MacReady is the least human of the humans, the most broken and isolated, and he's also the most successful of them.)

1982 was also a year full of other populist SF films in the wake of the success of Star Wars: E.T., Star Trek the Wrath of Khan, Tron, Blade Runner, Mad Max 2, and for that matter the sweaty fantasy of Conan the Barbarian. These things happen. And this is the only sf/fantasy film of that lot that has an explicit dose of horror too.

But also people objected to this for not being the 1951 film, and I don't think duplicating that would have made this better. Rather, we shift from straightforward fear of simple violence into the much more interesting fear of disease and loss of self. In the blood-test scene, we see people's faces, and they're afraid that they may have been subverted and not know it…

(Well, a side note here. The most effective way for the alien to cause its bud to act like the person it's imitating is to run a copy of that person's mind, with its own consciousness in the background waiting to take over. But even if it isn't doing that, if there is some other way of making a personality overlay that reacts just like the person you knew, is there any way in which you can say it's meaningfully not the original… until the creature moves in and lays waste everything around it, like an otherwise reasonable person who spots an opportunity to evangelise about this thing he's just getting into called NFTs?)

It's also an entirely male film, and considering comments by people involved we should probably be grateful for that: Russell felt that the men had no-one to posture for without women, which suggests to me that he hasn't ever observed men, while the scriptwriter could only conceive of a female character as a love interest and obstruction. Hey ho, even if you couldn't come up with any other ideas, you could just have ripped off Alien some more…

This film is much better at generating an effective atmosphere than the 1951 version, largely because of the underlighting for all the indoor scenes and its contrast with the bright but hostile outdoors – yes, of course it helps make the already-great effects (by Rob Bottin and Stan Winston) look better too, and sometimes it's a bit hard to see what's actually meant to be going on, but it's a hard choice to make and the result is a solid one.

I do think the ending doesn't quite hold together. If either of them is the Thing and they sit around, then they both freeze, the bodies are eventually recovered, and it reanimates and takes over the world. Surely the only solution to this problem, lacking a non-destructive test, is for them both to jump into the fire at once?

As usual if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 10:20am on 10 November 2021

    I think that resting the case for the alien being able to fake the person it absorbs depends the on speed of assimilation that takes an unknown amount of time to happen.

    It's quick, but not instant.

    Creating a timeline, here's one I found, clarifies the amount of time passing during the course of the movie.

    So the question is at what time in the process does the person stop being themselves and become the thing?

    I don't know, and having an opinion is probably pointless.

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