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The Thing (Carpenter, 1982)

This review contains spoilers.

A heartwarming tale of characters listening to science and banding together in a time of crisis. That's right, I'm talking about The Thing, John Carpenter's 1982 sci-fi horror splatter classic. Okay, that's a weird takeway from a movie where even the most optimistic read of the ending has the heroes freezing to death. But the last two years or so have had me reflecting differently, and perhaps more warmly, on movies I've seen many times, and the methodical, common sense approach taken by the characters against a great threat seems refreshing when such behaviour has evidently not been the norm in the real world. One thing I like in movies is seeing smart, capable characters work together and use their wits to tackle a problem bigger than themselves. The heroes in The Thing are in a constant state of reassessing their assumptions, taking in new information and factoring that into their solution to the best of their ability. The famous blood test scene (which sets off one of the tensest final half hours in the movies) is devised after seeing part of the Thing split away from its body and behave as a separate organism, to take one example. Even when characters make the standard horror movie "mistake" of going off on their own, it's out of sheer necessity due to their dwindling numbers.

Another thing I like in movies are truly formidable threats, those that truly put the defense or coping mechanisms of the heroes to the test. While the science fiction angle prevents the movie from having a truly irrational threat, its shape shifting, contagious nature means that it gets pretty close, and seems deliberately designed to resist the heroes' attempts to apply logic to the situation. This is a movie that I thought was only "pretty good" the very first time I saw it and took at least one other viewing to truly click. That viewing was in the middle of the night, when I was a little sleep deprived and having a trouble keeping track of the characters and specifically who the Thing had gotten to. Most movies are not conducive to being seen when one is short of sleep and prone to forgetting plot details; The Thing rewards that state of mind by using it to fuel a sense of paranoia. The most common complaint I've seen about the movie is that the characters are a little forgettable and there are maybe too many of them, but I find that an asset, as it prevents you from getting to know any of them terribly well and therefore from being able to deduce with any confidence who's turned into the Thing at most points of the movie. (The aforementioned blood test scene provides a rare moment of clarity.) And the movie compensates for the possible resulting lack of human interest by casting a murderer's row of male character actors: Kurt Russell (hiding his movie star charisma under his tremendous facial hair and coiffure; it's an all-time great movie mane), Keith David, the walrus-like Wilford Brimley, Richard Masur, President Donald Moffat, Fat Christopher McDonald, the guy who looks like Spalding Gray, the list goes on. Okay, I don't know all their names, but I do remember their presences, and if it weren't for the apocalyptic stakes of the proceedings, they'd be a fun group of guys to hang out with, even if Russell's character seems like a sore loser if you beat him at chess.

The movie also matches the tension on an audiovisual level, with cinematography by Dean Cundey and a score by Ennio Morricone. Cundey and Morricone are both greats in their respective fields, but so distinct is Carpenter's hand that I think of both elements as primarily products of his sensibility. The visuals in particular are full of paranoid compositions heavy with negative space, emphasizing the fallibility of these characters in the face of the threat at hand and hostile environmental conditions. What also stood out to me on this viewing was the ominous early shots of the approaching helicopter from the Norwegian group, marrying a sinister quality to this piece of machinery, presaging similar images in They Live and serving as a rebuke of sorts to the valorizing images of military hardware in action films of the era. (One can imagine Carpenter vomiting at least a little after a viewing of Top Gun.)

This is my first viewing of this in a few years and probably the first since I finally got around to Assault on Precinct 13, and I think the two can be viewed as companion pieces. Not just because they're Howard Hawks homages (Assault is an update of Rio Bravo, The Thing is an outright remake), but because the movies seem to be the inverse of each other. Assault has the heroes find strength by banding together against an external threat. The Thing has a threat that undermines any attempts to band together. Both films have the characters stuck in a single location, but while Assault allows the characters to benefit from the location in defending themselves, The Thing basically turns it into a prison for the characters, and at best for the Thing as well. Both movies also find moments of disarmingly poetic dialogue from characters with no illusions about their dire situations. From Assault:

"Two shots. Should I save them for the two of us?"

"Save 'em for the first two ******** who come through that vent."
And from The Thing:

"Fire's got the temperature up all over the camp. Won't last long though."

"Neither will we."

"How will we make it?"

"Maybe we shouldn't."

"If you're worried about me..."

"If we've got any surprises for each other, I don't think we're in much shape to do anything about it."

"Well, what do we do?"

"Why don't we just... wait here for a little while... see what happens?"
That final exchange will strike few as reassuring, but this time around, I was a little moved. Maybe I'm getting soft. Great movies have a way of sneaking up on you.