Director John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell had quite the partnership in the 1980’s. In 1981, the two teamed up for the dark action film “Escape from New York.” In 1986, they hit gold with the action/comedy, “Big Trouble in Little China.” Between those two movies, they created their most serious movie, “The Thing.”
Adapted from 1951’s “The Thing from Another World, “ this gritty, tense thriller focuses on a group of U.S. scientists stationed in near-isolation on the South Pole. Their daily grind is interrupted by a pair of Norwegian researchers firing at a sled dog from a helicopter. The dog runs up to the U.S. scientists, who are fired upon by the Norwegians. Soon, the Norwegians are dead, the dog is taken in by the scientists, and a research team is sent to the Norwegian camp to discover what led to their crazed behavior.
The team’s pilot, R.J. “Mac” MacReady (Russell) is the strength of the team. The group also includes the unusual Palmer, straight-laced Dr. Blair (Brimley), roller-skating chef Nauls (T.K. Carter), steely Childs (Keith David), Jennings, Fuchs, Windows, and others. They discover an inhuman corpse in the Norwegian camp, and begin an autopsy. That night, the dog reveals itself to be something far less than man’s best friend, and the scientists realize that the horrific mystery that destroyed the Scandinavians may now be under their very roof.
Dr. Blair’s autopsy reveals a remarkable discovery. The thing masquerading as a dog can take the shape of a host body it contacts. The team turns back to the Norwegian research and confirms that the Norwegians discovered a buried alien vessel larger than a football field. Upon return to camp, their worst fears come true. The alien is still alive and able to infect and imitate humans.
Knowing that exposing the alien to civilization would mean the end of mankind, Blair destroys the helicopter and the radio equipment. Now the team truly is isolated. The remaining team members are left in isolation, thousands of miles from anyone else…except the murderous alien. Survival becomes the teams only concern, as the group erodes into an untrusting, panicked mess.
“The Thing” features a great combination of personalities. David (Pitch Black, Armaggedon) is the hard-nosed pessimist. Donald Moffet (Clear and Present Danger, The Right Stuff) is a solid military man. Brimley (Coccoon, “Our House”) chooses science over recognition. Each man has his own strengths and weaknesses, and Bill Lancaster’s screenplay positions them against each other well.
The careful establishment of each character sets up relationships and changes. Viewers come to expect certain behavior from each, and when those characters devolve, the question arises: is this from fear, or from possession? What drives them to turn on one another, and who will survive?
Carpenter uses darkness and color gels very effectively to build tension between the outright visuals of the alien. The visceral alien effects (by FX pioneer Rob Bottin) and makeup were incredibly gruesome for 1982, and Carpenter tops it all off with post-production sound effects to make the alien something far beyond human understanding. Russel’s steely, blue-eyed Alpha male pilots the picture through the waters of science, terror, action and the ultimate test of survival. The scene with the Petri dishes is a brilliant recipe for a tension cocktail.
“The Thing,” just as Howard Hawks’ 1951 film, evolved from the short story, “Who Goes There?” by writer John W. Campbell, Jr.
The Universal Studios Collectors DVD features some fantastic extras. The commentary track features Carpenter and Russell. An 80-minute featurette follows with interviews and behind-the-scenes discussions with Carpenter, Russell, Bottin and matte artist Albert Whitlock, among others. Additional footage, outtakes, photographs, storyboards and the original trailer are also included.
For more multimedia on “The Thing,” visit John Carpenter’s official site HERE.