In a remote research base in Antarctica, ‘John Carpenter’s The Thing’ walks among us…

December 10, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 10, 2013

It is early winter in Antarctica. A dozen men are stationed at an American research base so remote that they have no means of communicating with the outside world, even by radio.

Three strangers approach unannounced. There are two men, both Norwegian. One accidentally blows himself up with a hand grenade. The other man is shot and killed after he fires his rifle at an American. And the third visitor is…not what it seems to be.

The Americans know immediately that something strange is afoot, but a visit to the Norwegians’ wrecked and abandoned base does nothing to illuminate the mystery. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that the Norwegians encountered some kind of alien life form.

This creature — this thing — can assimilate and perfectly mimic the appearances of its victims. It now seems to have infiltrated the American outpost. And it would like nothing more than to introduce itself to the animals and plants that populate the Earth’s more hospitable realms… 

This is the premise of John Carpenter’s The Thing, a 1982 science fiction/horror classic that subjects its characters and audience to a taut mixture of suspense and visceral shocks. The movie was written by Bill Lancaster based on a classic short story by John W. Campbell Jr. and directed by John Carpenter.

The man at the center of the story is helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady, a pragmatic but thoughtful man of action who skates along the barrier between sanity and paranoia. MacReady is played by a bearded, intense Kurt Russell; as the story progresses, and the prospect of oblivion moves ever closer, his determination to survive — and to destroy the alien — shines through with increasing ferocity.

But for MacReady — and life on Earth — to survive, he and his colleagues first must figure out how to determine which of them is still human. That puzzle is solved about two-thirds of the way through the movie, in a riveting scene that sees MacReady rendered impotent by a malfunctioning weapon even as most of his colleagues literally have their hands tied.

The alien has many faces, even in its unearthly forms; all are terrifying, even the motionless remains (which turn out to be…not entirely dead). The creature effects, spearheaded by Rob Bottin and assisted by Stan Winston, both Hollywood legends, are a bit dated. Nevertheless, they remain capable of shocking and repelling, even 30 years on.

(Warning: Spoilers below.)

The Thing also has one of the most haunting endings of any movie I’ve ever seen. As the camp burns, temporarily warding off the wintry freeze, two characters rest in the ruins.

“What do we do?” one of the exhausted men asks.

“Why don’t we just…wait here for a little while?” MacReady suggests, swigging from a bottle of whisky and offering it to his companion. “See what happens?”

Ennio Morricone’s low-key score quietly throbs beneath these, the final lines of the movie.

We know that MacReady is still human. As for the other character, uncertainty reigns…

But do we really know if MacReady remains intact? He disappears for a key stretch of the film, after Nauls (T.K. Carter) finds a concealed set of long johns that he thinks indicates the pilot has been compromised. Later, we will learn that Blair (Wilford Brimley) has not been shut up in his storage shed, as the men thought he was, and that he is definitely one of the things. Did Blair get our hero then?

Of course, if MacReady was an alien, what would explain his battle against the thing? But there’s a lot we don’t understand about this alien; for instance, it’s Palmer (David Clennon), whom we later see has become a doppelgänger, who points out that Norris’ alien-head has sprouted legs and is attempting to escape.

And except for MacReady, nobody shows more determination to stop the alien’s spread than Blair. One of the movie’s pivotal scenes occurs when the biologist appears to go berserk, taking a hatchet to the base’s radio equipment and ranting about the thing’s interest in taking over humanity. This happens after Blair has disabled the base’s transportation, presumably in an attempt to limit the thing’s spread.

Perhaps this episode take place during a period in which the thing’s victim is able to fight off the alien’s pernicious influence. After all, as he’s being locked away, Blair warns MacReady to watch Clark (Richard Masur), who we know was alone with the dog-thing. And later in the picture, when MacReady revisits Blair’s place of confinement, the scientist is much more self-possessed.

It’s tantalizing to consider the possibilities. When meteorologist Bennings (Peter Maloney) is discovered while the thing is still adapting to his form, he gazes silently at his colleagues. Is he physically unable to speak? Is he torn about what to say? Does he, or it, simply sense that speech would be futile? There’s so much that we simply don’t know…

It’s debatable which Carpenter/Russell collaboration is bleaker: The Thing or the dystopian science fiction/action classic Escape from New York, which was released just one year earlier. The evil in The Thing is external, literally alien; the menace of Escape is internal — the injustices that men visit upon other men. Which antagonist is easier to defeat?

Even though I’d seen John Carpenter’s The Thing many years ago, there were moments during my recent viewing where I almost felt too terrified to continue watching. But I’m glad I held on to the end of this white-knuckler. The Thing is damn scary — and damn good.

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