In 1982 seven men are assigned to the United States Antarctic research station. The isolation and risk of going stir crazy on the lonely continent are soon the least of their problems as they come to grips with the fact that a shape-shifting alien capable of absorbing any one of them is in their midst. The men struggle to fight their own paranoia as the terrifying Thing lurks within the flesh of those around them. The Thing is a remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks-Christian Nyby film The Thing from Another World and is a truer version of the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr. which served as the inspiration to the 1951 film.
I have mentioned this film in a few other of my reviews and specifically in the review I did of Whiteout, because this is what that film was trying to be. It was trying to be a murder mystery set in the frozen wasteland in which anyone could have been the killer, but in The Thing, this concept has been done better and to absolute perfection.
Join me then as we take a look at one of the best sci-fi horrors ever made.
The Thing opens with a dog running through the snow, the camera pans back to show that the dog is being chased by a helicopter. Two armed Norwegian men are attempting to kill it. The animal runs to a U.S. research station as the men in the helicopter land and shout something to the American researchers (that of course the Americans don’t understand) before the Norwegians abruptly open fire trying to shoot the dog again, they miss it and end up wounding Bennings (Peter Maloney). Garry (Donald Moffat) returns fire and kills one of the armed men, whilst the other is trapped in their helicopter as he attempts to light a grenade and accidently destroys the helicopter and kills himself.
The Americans are left stunned and they take the dog inside. MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Dr Copper (Richard Dysart) head to the base the Norwegian men came from to investigate what they were doing shooting at a dog. They find a burnt base and something inhuman smouldering in the snow. Taking the remains back to their base for examination they are unaware that the stray dog is in fact an alien life form that can absorb and imitate anything it wants to, and it has already assimilated one of their number taking on his form...
Later the dog attempts to assimilate the other dogs and is discovered to be something other than a simple dog. Childs (Keith David) promptly uses a flame-thrower to incinerate the creature. Blair (Wilford Brimley), the team’s biologist, realises that the animal is as impossible as it seems actually an alien capable of absorbing and perfectly imitating other life forms, and comes to the conclusion that one or more of the people on the base has already been taken by the alien. Blair destroys their vehicles and communications to prevent anyone else from joining the researchers and to prevent any of them from escaping.
The researchers struggle with growing paranoia as they face the prospect that one of them is not who they appear to be, and the alien works to assimilate them all.
Imagine the concept, looking around a room knowing that an alien life form is staring back at you from behind the eyes of someone who looks human, and you have absolutely no idea who is who. As an alien that spends time in a human skin sack it is immensely satisfying to be in plain sight and know that not one of them, knows who and what you really are on the inside. Unfortunately for the alien in The Thing the humans know that it is amongst them, however, when it wants to hide, it hides, and spends its time using the group’s paranoia against them whilst working to consume them all.
John Carpenter directs the story of alien infestation and the growing paranoia brilliantly. The tension comes from never knowing if anyone is who they seem to be. The alien also works to take the focus away from itself by leaving evidence which points to someone else. It takes only moments for the alien to absorb one of them, so each time a character disappears, the audience doesn’t know if they are still human when they return. The men in the research facility are cut off from the outside world, there is no one that can come to their rescue, and they begin to realise that no matter what they cannot let the alien make it to civilisation.
Trust is so important and when someone doesn’t know if they can trust those around them, then the tension is set at breaking point. Carpenter shows the growing suspicions on each one of the men as the full extent of the alien’s shape-shifting abilities are realised. Being trapped in the middle of Antarctica is probably the most isolated place in the world, and being there with people that may or may not be human is a living nightmare.
Whenever the alien is revealed it looks like anything other than a person. It distorts itself with tentacles and approximations of human features. What makes the creature so chilling is because as an alien it looks so inhuman that it makes it even more terrifying to think that it can perfectly imitate a person when it absorbs them.
Admittedly by today’s standards the special effects are a little dated, but they do not rely on bad CGI and do not take anything away from this sci-fi horror. CGI wasn’t used when this film was made so it relies on props, puppets and other techniques to make the alien look as inhuman as possible. We even see the alien-dog going into a room with a human’s shadow cast on the wall before the scene fades to black, I read in the trivia that this shadow was cast by someone who wasn’t one of the cast in order to keep the audience guessing. That is a stroke of genius, it is not a cop out, it is not a cheap tactic, it is brilliant and such a clever way of keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.
This film has inspired countless others, and so many horror monsters can trace their origins back here. The necromorphs in Dead Space, especially the Divider, could have been lifted directly from the artwork used when designing the Thing. That fact that it doesn’t even have a name, it is just called the “Thing” because none of them can truly comprehend what it actually is, adds to the fear factor. Antarctica is like space, it is isolating, and like the crew of the Nostromo, there is no where these men can go to escape this creature.
This a sci-fi chiller in the truest sense, it is set on a frozen continent, the alien could be anyone and I have watched this film numerous times so whilst I know who is the alien in the scene where the alien is revealed I still have no idea at what point in the film the characters are consumed and replaced.
The cast are all superb and feature spectacular performances from Kurt Russell and Keith Childs but the truth is whilst I think those two are the highlights as they bounce off one another really well, there is no one here that is out of place or drops the ball.
Admittedly I have to say that if it had been me, I’d have consumed this lot easily, so I don’t think the alien in this film was the sharpest knife in the drawer…because if he was he wouldn’t have crashed in the Antarctic in the first place without sending out a distress call…that aside this is still a truly epic sci-fi horror and is up there with Alien for the razor sharp tension, and managing to keep the audience on the edge of their seat even when they have seen it a million times.
A film like Whiteout that has a killer in a cold climate wishes that it was like The Thing, but Whiteout is not worthy to lick the shit off The Thing’s boots.
The truth is that The Thing is as good now as it was when it was first released. I haven’t bothered with the prequel made in 2011 (also called The Thing…yeah, really creative guys) which deals with the Norwegians finding the craft, and thawing out the alien because it seemed to just be a rehashing of the story here, plus we know they all die. In my opinion the fact that we are only seeing the aftermath of the Norwegian’s discovery of the alien is so much more frightening because like the stunned Americans the audience are also trying to figure out what is happening and what could have caused such destruction and the Norwegians to turn on one another.
Do I even need to say which direction my Thumb is pointing??
Well for the slower members of my audience, The Thing gets a well deserved Thumbs Up
9/10 - The Thing is a great sci-fi chillier and cult classic. Yes the effects have dated but this film has inspired countless other horror films and games over the years. It is still a truly magnificent example of how the confirmation of an enemy within an isolated group that wants to kill them will cause intense paranoia and indescribable tension. Any self-respecting sci-fi and/or horror fan needs to track down a copy of this film because until you do you are not a true fan of sci-fi horror.