Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Thing

I have a theory. Chucky Finster from Rugrats must have seen John Carpenter's The Thing (1982). Why else would he have such a pathological fear of the guy on the oatmeal box? Wilford Brimley, a long-time spokesman for Quaker Oatmeal, transforms into a hideous, slimy monster in this movie (which could also be what happens when he doesn't get his insulin), and Chucky is scarred for life; it makes too much sense.

I hope you enjoyed my attempt at humor because you're not going to get many laughs from this movie. The Thing, a remake of The Thing from Another World and another adaptation of the novella "Who Goes There" by John W. Campbell, is one of the bleakest, darkest, and most intense entries in the science fiction or horror genres. It might also be Carpenter's finest effort, one of the best monster movies of all times.

Antarctica. Winter 1982. A helicopter pursues a lone dog across the frozen tundra. The passengers, a pair of seemingly crazed Norwegians, try to kill it with a rifle and grenades but only succeed in chasing it to an American outpost, where their behavior gets them killed. The crew of the American outpost - including helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), mechanic Childs (Keith David), scientist Blair (Brimley), and leader Gary (Donald Moffat) - are isolated for the winter, with no way to contact the outside world as they try to figure out what's going on. Before long, the men learn that the dog is not a dog; it's an alien organism the Norwegians dug out of the ice, and it has the ability to imitate any life form, animal or human, it absorbs. The men realize that some of their number aren't who they appear to be, and should this thing reach the mainland, there's no stopping it.

The Thing from Another World, produced by Howard Hawks, exalted the camaraderie of the men who banded together in the Arctic to defeat the alien intruder. The creature, not an imitator, posed a threat to the world because it could reproduce rapidly. At its basic, this original is a sci-fi slasher, and since this came out in 1951, it could be read as a Cold War commentary: that whatever the threat was - whether it be aliens or communism - Americans would have to team up stop it from spreading.

This version of The Thing is not so optimistic. The men (there are no women in this movie, unlike the Hawks take) aren't noble soldiers, airman, or scientists who unite in the face of danger. They're cranky, on-edge, and distrustful of each other even before the alien imitations appear. Killing the creature(s) is relatively easy (these guys have a lot of firearms, TNT, and flamethrowers for going to Antarctica; what we're they doing there?), but identifying it is the challenge. The imitations are perfect replicas of their victims, and before the men figure out a test to see who's human, it's really a crap shoot. The only time they catch the alien is when it attack someone, usually in a dark, lonely place.

Until a test is found, the men turn on each other; they scheme, bicker, threaten each other, and even kill each other on occasion. Some of them crack up, some of them try to seize control or assert their authority, and others just try to keep their head. MacReady, the nominal protagonist, eventually takes charge, giving orders, and fighting this ugly creature, but even his loyalties get called into question. Can you really blame these guys for being paranoid? When the threat looks, sounds, and acts just like someone you know, there's no way to be certain.

The Thing has been criticized by some (like Roger Ebert) who said it doesn't give the characters much definition, and while I agree the characters, apart from MacReady, are only given few traits each to distinguish them, I don't think it's a flaw or oversight. It's an alienating effect that creates discomfort and tension in the audience; because we don't know a whole lot about them, we're inherently suspicious of all of them and don't trust any of them either. We're just as paranoid and on-edge as the characters. As MacReady says, "Trust is a tough thing to come by these days."

If The Thing from Another World was about the emerging threat of Communism in the early 1950s, then the The Thing is also about an emerging threat in the 1980s: AIDS. Consider the monster; while capable of many forms, it is also a threat on the cellular level, taking over a man's cells and replacing them with its own. Like AIDS, the alien can infect its victims and remain hidden for some time, keeping its true nature hidden because the outward signs of illness associated with other diseases aren't there. Someone who looks perfectly healthy can be hiding a terrible monster. Ultimately, like with AIDS, a blood test reveals who's human and who's the thing.

When the creature is revealed, it is not a pretty sight. Jaws open up in a chest, a decapitated head sprouts spider-like legs and scuttles across the floor, a dog's face peels back to reveal an unearthly form, flesh melts, tentacles and claws shoot out, and blood flows readily. The special makeup effects by Rob Bottin are nothing short of amazing and convincing; it's tempting to say they overwhelm the picture, but they go a long way to establishing the power and unpredictably of this alien: just what is it going to do next?

Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey create a desolate, isolated setting in the Antarctic base. It's feels cramped, cold, cut off, and practically on another world. The outside is a frozen desert in which man and machine look minuscule while the inside feels dirty, claustrophobic, and dark. Ennio Morricone also contributes a creepy, pulsing soundtrack.

There is no happy ending in The Thing. When the men learn how to identify the creature and the alien has knocked out the base's generator, MacReady rallies the survivors to kill it before it can freeze itself and wait patiently for a rescue team in the spring to thaw it out. Eventually, the men seemingly defeat the thing, just before they resign themselves to their own deaths in the destroyed base, but it's an ambiguous, perhaps short-lived victory. The world is saved for now because of self-sacrifice on the part of these guys, but how can we be sure these last two are still human?

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