Who Goes There?: 'The Thing' Retrospective
The Thing is Out of This World
The first time I saw this film it came on SyFy, back when it was still Sci-Fi. It was around the early/mid 2000s. The reason it was on was to help promote the videogame of the same name, which came out on Playstation 2 and Xbox. I heard about it before but never sat down and watched it. So I sat down that evening and checked it out. It was apparently a critically-acclaimed film, but I didn’t notice that as it was just an average horror movie to me (at that time). Later I saw it again and dissected the various scenes. Now it is one of the best science fiction films I’ve seen.
The film is called The Thing, which came out in 1982. It’s a science fiction horror film directed by none other than John Carpenter himself. It’s based off the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. This film is actually a remake of the film The Thing From Another World, which came out in 1951. That film was also based off the novella Who Goes there?
The plot revolves around an American research facility in Antarctica. The crew encounters an alien that can assimilate other lifeforms and imitate them perfectly. They must use their wits and intuition to figure out who’s still a human and who has been taken over by the thing.
The film begins with an amazing-looking spaceship crashing into Antarctica before switching to the artic landscape. A cold-weather helicopter carrying two Norwegians chases after a dog. While one pilots the chopper, the other leans outside to shoot at it. All three soon arrive at the American research facility. The dog quickly befriends the American members, while the helicopter lands. The pilot dies after a freak accident with a grenade while the other chases the dog with his rifle. After shooting a member of the American base, they fight back and kill the shooter.
It is around this time that we are introduced to the members of the American base. Since there are so many I won’t list all of them at once, just the important ones. Gary, played by Donald Moffat, is the leader and gives everyone orders. He’s also the one who shot the Norwegian. Windows, the radio operator, is played by Thomas Waites, and has a bit of an attitude. He has trouble with the radios as none of them work. There are two doctors on the team. The biologist Blair, played by A. Wilford Brimley, and medical doctor Cooper, played by Richard Dysart. Childs, played by Keith David, is one of the mechanics.
Of course I couldn't talk about the characters without talking about the protagonist, R.J. MacReady, who’s played by Kurt Russell. MacReady, or Mac, is the team’s helicopter pilot. He’s headstrong, cautious, and determined. He makes decisions on what to do, how to tell who’s been assimilated, and takes care of the exposed aliens. Overall, he’s the big good of the film.
The team’s dog handler, Clark, played by Richard Masur, takes in the new dog and allows it to roam around the base. Mac and Copper take their helicopter to the Norwegian base to learn more of why they were chasing the dog. Once they get there, they find the base in ruins. A few mutilated bodies are scattered about, most of the base is charred, and they discover a large broken block of ice which looks as if something came out of it. Outside, they discover burnt remains of a corpse with two faces. Not knowing what to make of it, they decide to bring it back to their base to perform an autopsy on it.
At the base, Blair performs the autopsy and finds that despite its appearance it has human organs. That night Clark puts the new dog in the kennel with the rest of the dogs, who all immediately take an extreme dislike to the newbie. The reason why is quickly revealed. The new dog’s face splits open like a flower and tentacles come from all over its body, along with insectoid legs. The dog-thing sprays the other dogs with goo and wraps its tentacles around them to absorb them. The team are alerted by the commotion and finds a heavily mutilated…thing growling at them. As Mac and the others shoot at it, Childs comes in with a flamethrower as it grows a set of arms and attempts to escape through the ceiling. Before that happens, Childs incinerates it.
The charred remains are brought to another room where Blair performs another autopsy. They learn that the thing was assimilating the dogs and could mimic them perfectly. It would had continued to do so had they not interfered. As Clark and the others tend to the injured dogs, suspicion starts setting in, especially with Blair who learns that the thing can assimilate any lifeform, including people. His computer reveals that if it were to get out it will take over humanity in a short amount of time.
After looking through the Norwegians’ data, the team head off to an area where they find a large spacecraft buried in the snow, which is the same ship that crashed in the intro. They also find a large square-shaped hole, which was where the Norwegians found the block of ice that was in their base. The square contained the alien which escaped the ice and attacked the Norwegian base.
After Windows and Bennings, played by Peter Maloney, place the two-faced body in storage, it soon reanimates and starts assimilating Bennings. Before it can finish, Windows catches it and informs Mac and the others. Before the Bennings-thing can escape, Mac burns it to pieces. After this, suspicion and paranoia really start running through the group.
Everyone begins suspecting one another as the thing. They want to compare their blood with untainted blood they each kept in storage but find that it’s all sabotaged. Mac takes the lead from Garry and makes decisions to protect against the thing. This is all I’ll say without spoiling the rest of the story.
Besides the eerie tones, there isn’t much music in the film. The film’s quiet nature helps build tension and suspense for when things happen. It keeps you on edge and makes you wonder just what will come up next. The only real music is the main theme, which sounds like a heartbeat. You could view the opening theme as the thing’s heartbeat right after seeing the ship crash into the Earth to show that it’s still alive.
The base’s dark lighting matches perfectly with the isolated nature of the snowy landscape. You couldn’t ask for a better horror setting of being miles away from civilization trapped with a shapeless horror. Since it can take the shape of any living lifeform it adds to the uncertainty that the only people you have around you may very well be the thing, so you can’t rest for a moment.
The terrifying thing about the thing (no pun intended) is that it can shapeshift. As mentioned, it can look like anyone and any animal, making detecting it difficult. It stays docile while undercover, but once its cover is blown, or when it’s alone, it shapeshifts into various abominations that would fit in perfectly in a H.P. Lovecraft story. It can grow tentacles, teeth, and claws to defend itself. The main problem with the thing is to completely kill it every single cell must be destroyed as each piece can think individually. Guns are pretty much useless since it can regenerate so the crew resorts to using flamethrowers and explosives. Sometimes it will tear pieces of itself off its host to escape. Even drops of its blood can scuttle off. It should also be noted that all the effects for the thing were done using practical effects and a few stop motion shots.
I apparently wasn’t the only one who disliked the film when I first saw it. When the film first came out in theaters, it was panned by critics, including Roger Ebert. Many stated that it was one of Carpenter’s worst films and it somewhat hurt his reputation. The film eventually found its audience on home release where people went back and reexamined the film. It obtained a cult following and is hailed as one of the greatest science fiction and horror films ever made.
If there was one suspenseful horror film I could recommend it would be this one. The Thing is such an acclaimed movie and a definite must-see for any science fiction horror lover. It has a deep rich atmosphere and carries the mystery of who’s the thing and when will it attack next. It keeps you on your toes and keeps you guessing. The Thing is also one of those films that you re-watch and find things that you missed on your first viewing. It makes you speculate who was infected when and who did what when, such as who sabotaged the blood samples and when.
The film does have a prequel that came out in 2011, also titled The Thing, which tells the story of the Norwegian base up to the events of the 1982 film. This film also leads to its own novel, a comic book series, and the aforementioned videogame.
Overall, this is a must-see film. It goes to show you that even though a film may be panned upon its theatrical release it can still find its audience afterwards.
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