a critiQal film review The Thing (1982)

Plot: An American scientific expedition in the frozen wastes of the Antarctic is interrupted by a group of seemingly mad Norwegians pursuing and shooting at a dog. The Norwegians' helicopter crashes, leaving the expedition with no clue as to the reason behind the chase. The team soon realizes, however, that the dog is actually an alien life-form with the ability to take over the identity of anyone it attacks - and they don't know how many of them have already been assimilated.

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  • ...under John Carpenter's direction, the film, despite its faults, still manages to provide a few solid chills and thrills - even more than 30 years later.

With a new trailer for the 2011 remake now online, we decided now was a good time to go back and watch the original: John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Is the John Carpenter version a hidden gem we had missed back in the 80’s – and therefore remake-worthy? Or is Hollywood once again grasping for ideas?

Kurt Russell teams up with John Carpenter once again for The Thing. He doesn’t seem as easy a fit as he did for the role of Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (1981). He does a decent enough job here, but he just doesn’t have the charisma this time around to hold the audience’s attention. Instead, he’s apparently preferring to blend in with the rest of the ensemble cast.

A few other faces among the cast are recognizable as well, including Wilford Brimley (the Quaker Oats spokesman) and David Keith (“The Cape” (TV)). While Brimley is largely forgettable, Keith shows a spark of what would keep him employed in showbiz even nearly 30 years later. Despite not getting the spotlight as much as Russell, Keith manages to snag the audience’s interest by his performance, nearly outdoing Kurt along the way.

The storyline starts off well, with the audience’s attention caught by the seemingly wanton cruelty of a helicopter rider taking pot shots at a lone dog running along the Antartic tundra. Soon, of course, it’s revealed the dog isn’t quite what it seems. This effectively takes the feelings of pity the audience had developed for the dog and turns them right back on themselves as the dog’s real persona starts taking out humans left and right.

Unfortunately, while this rather smart turn of events is preparing to unfold, the viewer is stuck with watching Russell and various forgettable sidekicks. They trounce their way through a decimated outpost and nearly trip over an alien spacecraft. While that part is flawed (they trundle down to the ship, only to never actually venture inside or even touch the thing – where’s the scientific curiosity in these supposed scientists?), it’s apparently just filler for the real story.

Once these intrepid explorers return – having correctly sussed out the whole story behind the mad Norwegians in what seems like merely a day or two – then the real fun begins. Sure, the story is full of gaps (how many of these creatures ARE there? It seems like one, but later events apparently prove otherwise). But, watching the characters turn on each other as fear and mistrust overcomes them works well even now. This helps ratchet the tension up to the point where viewers – like the characters – aren’t sure which members have been assimilated or not.

The special effects, despite being a bit low-tech by today’s standards (after all, the film is nearly 30 years old), are still decent, and some of them have even withstood the test of time (thankfully, the acclaimed head-spider will still deliver a good spine-tingling chill today). Solid use of shadow and light helps, as the only really noticeable flaws in the effects come when the creatures face the camera head-on and in clear view. Unfortunately, that’s Carpenter’s favorite camera angle, so there are quite a few of these shots. Still, the fact that any of the effects have been able to stand up at all is pretty impressive for an early 80’s film.

Sure, it has quite a few faults, and the cast aren’t as solid as they could have been. Even so, The Thing, under John Carpenter’s direction, still manages to provide a few solid chills and thrills during it’s running time – a truly impressive feat, considering the film is nearing 30 by this point.

Even with it’s flaws then, it turns out The Thing is a decent, if not great, film. So, with the updated special effects at their disposal today, are the filmmakers of the upcoming remake going to be able to wow us with their update? Or will they make us wish Russell’s team were the last ones to encounter The Thing.

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