Friday, March 27, 2015

My take on "The Thing" (1982) directed by John Carpenter

A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

I'll break each review down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS**

A parasitic extraterrestrial lifeform that assimilates other organisms and in turn imitates them. The Thing infiltrates an Antarctic research station, taking the appearance of the researchers that it absorbs, and paranoia develops within the group.” –from Wikipedia
Strength of Character: C+

R.J. MacReady is our hard-ass pilot protagonist as portrayed by Kurt Russel. He doesn’t have any backstory to speak of, none of the characters do. They just are who they are. It works for the most part, but at times I wanted a little more emotional attachment to the people being killed, and the best way to achieve that would be through more attention to character development. It would’ve made for a more devastating film.

Nice hat, MacReady. You're a real trendsetter.
The more you think of the characters in this movie the more frustrated you become. They are at some U.S. outpost in Antarctica, we gather, but for what purpose? Are they soldiers? Because they don’t act like soldiers with their complete lack of discipline and command structure. They certainly are armed like soldiers, with a whole cache of weapons and explosives including two flame throwers.

There are two doctors, doctor Copper and doctor Blair, but their purpose at the facility is never really explored. And why do they have some computer that can play a version of asteroid and somehow determine the threat posed by these alien cells?

But most of these questions didn’t occur to me with my first viewing. These came up recently as I was hyper-aware and critical of the characters. Ultimately this movie isn’t about its characters, it’s about The Thing. We only care about the characters enough to remember who’s who during the epic wire-in-the-blood scene.

Genre Strength: A

Speaking of the wire-in-the-blood scene, the plotline of the infiltrator is as compelling here as I’ve ever seen it.  It added a psychological element to the film, a thought-experiment on trust and distrust.

This movie, much like “Alien,” uses isolation as a vehicle to horror. The characters are as stranded and alone as possible, far from help, far from civilization. That sense of isolation sets the audience on edge well before The Thing starts to have its way.

The Thing itself is a macabre masterpiece. There’s a hypothesis in the field of aesthetics that called the “Uncanny Valley.” Described on Wikipedia as “When features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural beings, it causes a response of revulsion among some observers.” I think you can see this at play with the design of the puppets in this movie. They are just recognizable enough to send a chill down your spine.
And those autopsy scenes were delightfully disgusting. They did a great job with the prop work.

Thematic Poignancy: C+

Who can you trust if someone amongst you is a doppelganger? More of a thought-experiment than a theme, perhaps, but it is a chilling reminder of just how hard it is to know what people are hiding.

Could you sacrifice yourself for the greater good? The survivors at the end choose to do it, but the decision comes a little too easily. I would’ve liked to see some more teeth gnashing, or for one of them to be far less on board with the plan.

Overall this wasn’t a film with a deep well of poignant themes, but that’s ok. It didn’t really need them.

Entertainment Value: B-

The movie is an undeniable horror classic, but it is also imperfect. There’s some cheesy lines delivered by Kurt Russel like the cartoony: “Because it’s different than us, see?” and the line delivered while holding a stick of dynamite that’s about to explode in his hand, “Yeah, fuck you too!” The 80s were more forgiving of this sort of thing, I know, but it only earned an eye roll from me. Did I mention he’s holding lit dynamite that is about to explode at any moment?
But to focus too much on the negatives is to ignore the positives, and there were many. The grotesque props and puppets are the literal stuff of nightmares. The eponymous Thing is consistently equal parts frightening, gruesome, uncanny, and depraved. John Carpenter hit it out of the park with this one.

Random Notes and Final Grade: B

*Windows wipes a scalpel on his pants to sanitize it during the wire in the blood scene. If that’s the sterilization procedure anyone who goes after the infected guy is actually The Thing via that dirty scalpel.
*You would think they’d all stick together once they know they’re all human. As soon as someone is alone all bets are off.
*It was nice way to play with the emotions of the audience at the beginning when we see the helicopter shooting at that dog. I wanted to hate those guys and love the poor dog, we all did, I think.

1 comment:

  1. That's a good point that none of the character's really have backstories. That sounds like how Alien was too! Even so, I found myself enjoying the characters and their various personalities, even if there were several cheesy lines involved (aren't there always in older horror flicks?). But the movie really does do a hell of a job keeping the audience focused, crept out, grossed out, and entertained!