Saturday, July 13, 2013

Stubs – John Carpenter’s The Thing

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) Starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Donald Moffat, Charles Hallahan. Directed by John Carpenter. Screenplay by Bill Lancaster, Based on the book Who Goes There? By John W. Campbell.  Produced by David Foster, Lawrence Turman. Run Time: 109 minutes. Color. U.S. Science Fiction, Action, Horror

To celebrate the summer of remakes and sequels and in anticipation of Comic-Con next weekend in San Diego, we decided to review John Carpenter’s The Thing, a sort of remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks produced The Thing From Another World. While this movie shares a general premise with the Christian Nyby directed film, creature from another planet crash lands on Earth and sets about killing everyone (sounds sort of like Pacific Rim, too, doesn’t it?), John Carpenter’s is supposedly more faithful to the source material, a novella by John W. Campbell called Who Goes There?, published in August 1938 in the magazine Astounding Stories, now called Analog Science Fiction and Fact (it is the longest published sci-fi magazine).

The original appearance of  Who Goes There? was in this magazine.
Perhaps best known for the horror film, Halloween (1978), Carpenter was coming off the relative success, at least box office-wise, of Escape From New York (1981), a film also starring Kurt Russell. The Thing was a bit of a financial disappointment, costing $15 million and grossing only $19.6 million domestically. Opening the same weekend as Blade Runner and two weeks after a little film called E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Thing opened with an R-rating at number 8 on the charts and never really took off. (Timing is everything.)

This version of The Thing opens with a flying saucer coming at Earth and towards Antarctica before the credits. We’ll learn later that this was at least 100,000 years ago. Post credits, a Norwegian helicopter pursues an Alaskan malamute across the ice to the American Antarctic research station, referred to as Outpost 31. (Though the sign outside refers to it as United States National Science Institute Station 4). When the Norwegian with the rifle (Larry J. Franco) tries to throw a thermite charge at the dog, he accidentally drops it, blowing up the helicopter and killing the pilot (Norbert Weisser). The Norwegian who survives the crash continues to fire at the dog, again missing the dog, but hitting one of the Americans, is killed by Lt. Garry (Donald Moffat), the American station commander.

Norwegian with rifle hitting a lot of snow.
Helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) fly to the Norwegian camp to get some answers, but find the camp a burned out ruin. MacReady and Copper find the body of a man who committed suicide, a large block of ice with a cavity inside it and a humanoid corpse with two faces. They bring the humanoid corpse back to the Outpost. The Malamute is shown observing this through a window (can you say foreshadowing?). Blair (Wilford Brimley), a biologist at the Outpost, performs an autopsy and finds human organs.

The malamute seems to be observing the puny humans.
After giving the malamute run of the station for the day, Clark (Richard Masur) puts the dog in the kennel with the sled dogs. There it metamorphosizes into an eating machine that starts to devour the dogs. When MacReady hears the commotion, he sets off the fire alarm. He calls for a flamethrower (why wouldn't you?) and they shoot and finally Childs (Keith David) incinerates the Thing, leading everyone to believe they've killed it. Blair does an autopsy of this dog/creature/thing and believes, based on what exactly, that this creature is capable of perfectly imitating other life forms, leading him to withdraw from the others.

Going through the Norwegian records that Copper brought back from their base, they discover a large crater containing a flying saucer that they speculate had been in the ice for 100,000 years. Nearby is a hole in the ice where they speculate the Thing had been, either thrown from the saucer or crawling away from it. Fuchs (Joel Polis) tells MacReady that according to Blair’s journal, the creature’s dead remains are still active on a cellular level. Blair had previously calculated that if the alien escapes, all life on Earth would be assimilated in 27,000 hours (or three years). Well, he’s a biologist so it must be true.

The flying saucer the Norwegians discovered.
Bennings (Peter Maloney) is killed by the creature, but Windows (Thomas G. Waites) witnesses and MacReady burns him before the metamorphosis is complete. Garry notices that Blair is absent. He is seen running inside by MacReady, but only after Blair has wrecked the helicopter. Childs confirms that the other transports have been destroyed and the surviving sled dogs have been killed. Blair has been a busy guy, but he’s not done. They catch him destroying the radio and manage to lock him up in the tool shed. Copper has recommended that they do some quasi-science sounding blood serum test to determine who is infected, but they find the blood stores have been sabotaged. Garry is the one with the key and Copper is the one who accesses the storage. Not sure who to trust, the men turn on each other. Garry relinquishes command and MacReady takes over. He orders Fuchs to continue with Blair’s work. But Fuchs disappears after the power goes out. He follows a shadowy figure outside. As the storm gets worse, MacReady, Nauls (T.K. Carter), and Windows find Fuchs’ dead body burned.

Windows goes in to tell everyone, while Nauls and MacReady go to check out his shack, where the light is mysteriously on. After finding a torn shirt with MacReady’s name on it, Nauls cuts him loose from the tow line, leaving him to fend for himself in the story. Nauls tells the others what he’s found. This is based on their theory that the Thing assimilates from the inside out, tearing the clothes off the person it’s taking over. The crew, or what’s left of them, wonders what to do about MacReady, when he bursts in and threatens the others with a bundle of dynamite (again this is a Scientific Research unit) that will destroy the station, if they attack him.

Norris (Charles Hallahan) has a heart attack and while Copper tries to revive him through defibrillation, Norris’ chest opens like a big mouth with sharp teeth and bites off Copper’s hands. Not surprisingly, Copper quickly dies from the massive loss of blood and the shock. MacReady incinerates the creature, but Norris’ head has a mind of its own. Sliding off the body, the head pulls itself under a desk, where it morphs into a spider-like creature, which MacReady also incinerates.

You don't see too much detail in this image (you're welcome).
MacReady has Windows tie everyone up for one more test. When Clark resists, MacReady shoots him dead. MacReady, the helicopter pilot, has his own scientific theory about the organism, that every piece of the alien is its own organism with its own survival instinct. He chooses to test blood from each member of the crew with a piece of heated copper wire. Everyone is human but Palmer (David Clennon), who metamorphoses into the creature and tries to consume Windows, forcing MacReady to incinerate them both.

When in doubt set it on fire.
Leaving Childs to guard the station, the others go looking for Blair. He has escaped the tool shed, managing to dig out an elaborate tunnel underneath and has been building an escape craft with parts he’s scavenged from the helicopter and other vehicles he wrecked. MacReady has a new theory, that the creature is looking to freeze again and wait for the rescue team that will arrive in Spring. (This makes it sound like every Spring the base has to be rescued, as opposed to resupplied.)

They decide to dynamite the complex, in hopes of killing the Thing. But Blair reappears and kills Garry. Nauls hears some strange noises and goes to investigate. No surprise he disappears. Now a much larger creature, it attacks through the ground and swallows up the dynamite plunger. But MacReady still manages to destroy the Thing with dynamite. The rest of the base explodes while MacReady escapes.

Childs reappears and joins MacReady at the end of the movie. Childs claims to have gotten lost in the storm chasing Blair, but at this point in the story, who can we believe? Either both of these men are still human or one or both are Things. Without any hopes for survival the two share a bottle of scotch and watch the camp burn.

Carpenter’s The Thing is a harder movie than the Hawks-Nyby version. While in 1951, still operating under a production code, a happy ending of sorts was virtually a requirement. Man is able to triumph over the Thing and save the world from communism (well, you know what I mean). Thirty years later, that code and necessity are gone. Carpenter’s film ends with a more ambiguous ending, though definitely not a happy one. Even if MacReady and Child have killed all the Things, they themselves are doomed to die. And if one of them is a Thing, then mankind is doomed.

That darker vision, especially of alien life, may have hurt the film at the box office. E.T. (a revamped boy and his dog story), was presenting a family-friendly alien that was, as Spielberg films did in his heyday, ruling the box office. Not necessarily a better story, but E.T. presented the overriding image of aliens at the time. The Thing, with its R rating (not family-friendly), was what would now be considered counter programming, but then was an also-ran at the theaters (as so many counter programming films are).

When I review a movie based on a work I haven’t read, (which seems to be often), I’m not sure if the criticism lies with the source material or the film. Either way, the filmmaker’s responsibility is not to be true to the book, but to make a compelling story for the silver screen.

Unlike the original film, John Carpenter’s The Thing suffers from some character issues, as in they’re very thin and not developed. Garry, who starts out as a very decisive leader, is the one who shoots the Norwegian trying to save everyone, but he quickly becomes ineffective and turns over the leadership of the team in crisis to anyone who wants to take it. Why an alcoholic helicopter pilot would be the best choice is a little beyond me, but that’s who rises to fill the leadership gap. We never know anything more about most of the characters other than their name. And while some appear to have assigned duties, others don’t. And there are two characters, Palmer and Windows, that are pretty much interchangeable to me. No wonder when Palmer was becoming the Thing he would try to consume Windows.

Windows and Palmer or Palmer and Windows?
It doesn't really matter.
For a movie about science, I’m not really sure how accurate the science really is. The autopsy finds that the two-headed humanoid has regular organs, so what? And the tests they dream up with blood strikes me as more of a plot device than real science, let alone one of them is based on the thinking of an alcoholic pilot. And for a scientific complex at the South Pole what are they doing there? Are they studying the effects of flame throwers in a sub-zero environment?

Yep, that's something all right.
When you watch the film, you might wonder, like I did, why a Scientific Research facility would have so many flame throwers and stockpiles of dynamite. We’re they expecting trouble all along?  These are weapons, not scientific instruments, so they would not provide the best way to melt ice, if needed. That would be sort of like opening a bottle with a handgun. It’ll get the job done, but there are far better and more controlled ways of doing it.

And speaking of not doing it, that Norwegian with the rifle has to be the worst shot ever. This guy literally can’t hit anything he aims at. And a helicopter can’t outrun a dog slogging through the snow? No wonder why Norway’s not a world power.

What's Norwegian for really bad shot?
The special effects and the practical effects set a creepy tone, but they are really no worse than say Independence Day, though there is a scene where a head stretches off a burning body, oozing green blood-like juice, uses its tongue to pull itself under a desk and then meta-morphs into a spider like creature. Again, not being familiar with the book, I wonder if this is done for story-telling or for the gross factor. Either way, it doesn’t really add much to the story.

One thing that really does work with this film is Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack. There is a minimalist quality that really works with desolate surroundings.

In so many ways, this version seems to suffer when compared to the original The Thing From Another World. While the original relied more on character and story, this one seems to rely more on action, special effects and fire. Visually more interesting doesn’t make it better and some of the visuals will have some audience members looking away from the screen.

While I know that the 1982 The Thing has aged well with most critics, I still prefer the 1951 version of the story. More faithful to the source material does not always make for a better movie.

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