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The Thing (1982)

Parka Brothers

Against my better judgment--and the advice of my dear friend, Bill--I decided to revisit John Carpenter's The Thing before watching the recently released prequel. But I couldn't help it. My fascination with Hollywood's brand-recognition obsession drove me to refresh my memory of the 1982 classic, precisely so that I can better grasp what the new movie gets right and where it may or may not fudge in bridging the two halves of this "franchise".

In fairness, I was only distracted for the first twenty minutes or so. Anyone who's followed the prequel's development knows that it centers on a Norwegian outpost in Antarctica, where a group of scientists discovers a shape-shifting alien, buried in the ice. Carpenter's film opens with the last surviving members of that crew hunting a dog from a helicopter. They fly into a U.S. research facility and are killed trying to keep the animal away from the men they encounter there.

Three of the Americans set out to find the Norwegian base, only to discover a ransacked, burned-out wreck strewn with blood and featuring a corpse that looks to be about half human. They transport the body back to their own medical facility, where chief scientist Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) prods and scans it. He concludes that the living version of this new organism replicated its prey on a cellular level, making it nearly impossible to detect visually. It doesn't take long for the men to figure out that they shouldn't have rescued the dog, who enjoyed free reign of their compound for several hours before morphing into a slimy, tentacled beast.

Led by hard-drinking, no-nonsense badass MacReady (Kurt Russell), the group goes on the offensive against the creature, keeping a close eye on anyone who either had prolonged contact with the dog or disappeared for any considerable length of time. Incredulity becomes outrage as they turn on each other at the first sign of an accusatory glance, and it's this delicious paranoia that makes The Thing such a kick to watch.

In fact, if you dwell on anything but Rob Bottin's phenomenal creature effects or the characters' numerous "Is he or isn't he?" mini-dramas, you might just realize how much of an Alien rip-off Bill Lancaster's screenplay is. Keep in mind, I'm saying this as someone who hasn't seen every sci-fi movie ever made, so using Alien might only be one of a dozen available touchstones. But nearly every story beat--from the small crew bringing a dormant alien into the main quarters from a mysterious wreck, to the creature picking off survivors during the climax as they set charges to blow the entire facility to hell--could have been lifted directly from Ridley Scott's 1976 masterpiece.

Fortunately, the film's selling point is its wonderful cast of colorful, misfit men--a hodgepodge brotherhood of smart adults stranded at the bottom of the world whose loyalty to each other had, from most indications, never been in question before. Indeed, the alien's greatest weapon is not its ability to grow razor-toothed jaws and taloned limbs from any orifice, but the men's own humanity, which leaves them vulnerable; they can't believe one of their own would turn on the group, and even when faced with the cold, bloody reality of their situation, they hesitate to act--out of either panic or sympathy--which further endangers not only the team but the entire planet.

Yes, the men decide that the monsters' best hope for survival is to lay low inside one of them and wait for a rescue team to bring it back to civilization (after which point, Blair's computer model estimates, it will only need 27,000 hours to absorb all the people of Earth). MacReady's plan to blow up the alien before it can return to dormancy almost works. After the smoke clears, he runs into the only other survivor, Childs (Keith David), who had separated from the group ahead of their expedition into the monster's makeshift lair. Aching, freezing and tired, they eye each other suspiciously, wondering if the other is, in fact, not who he appears to be.

Sorry for the spoiler. But, honestly, knowing how The Thing ends doesn't detract from the power of its final moments. This is a solid, perfectly paced thriller, the kind of intelligent fun house attraction Carpenter built his career on. In an early-80s landscape of horror movies in which an unstoppable force disposed of unwitting victims one-by-one--often in spectacularly violent fashion--The Thing stood out as a disturbing look at the thin walls that keep polite society from crumbling. One can read all sorts of allegories into the trials of MacReady and his men, which is a good indication that there's a lot more going on here than just jump scares.

Speaking of scares, let's get back to Rob Bottin. Like Alien, The Thing is as notable for its creature design as for its performances and nail-biting suspense. It's difficult to say if we ever actually see the monster in its purest form; every appearance reveals a new characteristic taken from the beings it has encountered over hundreds of thousands of years and untold numbers of planets. We see hairy dog legs blend into glistening human muscle tissue, and bizarre mouths that look like fleshy plant buds. And all of it looks real--or at least plausible. Sure, the late-picture stop-motion animation comes off as a bit hokey, but I can imagine being floored by this beast during the film's initial theatrical run.

Bottin and his effects crew's inventive designs play perfectly into the theme at the heart of The Thing: unlike mankind, this organism's sole purpose is to perpetuate itself with no regard to other species or even its own. Unless it is thoroughly burned, it will continue to push on, to replicate, assimilate, and decimate until there is literally nothing left to do but build a new spaceship out of found parts and hop to the next world.

It's tempting to say that the creature is the antithesis of the human being. But watching the film today, I can't help but think of it as a physical manifestation of certain aspects of our collective personality--specifically, whatever it is that created the idea of the corporation. Not to get too heavy into armchair anthropology, but the whole purpose of big business is to perpetuate itself, to adapt to new and changing markets (i.e. people) and to co-opt or destroy anything that might prevent it from complete dominance. Businesses are singular entities comprised of countless lives that think and move as one. Ironically, humans have embraced these slippery, amorphous things, applauding their increasingly frightening efforts to consume space and natural resources in the name of progress and prosperity.

It's an otherworldly predicament, to be sure.