Thursday, February 28, 2013
Movie Review: The Thing
A flying saucer heading toward the Earth. An American science research post in Antarctica. A Swedish (Norwegian!) helicopter chasing a dog across the ice. Winter rolling in. Thus begins one of the best horror movie, and a darned fine science fiction movie, ever filmed. Like Alien, the movie takes its time, introducing the cast and giving them each a little moment or two to establish personality. A sizable cast of character actors, with a few especially strong stand-outs lend the film a credibility that grounds the cosmic madness laying in wait.
Though originally conceived as a remake of the 50s film, The Thing From Another World, John Carpenter helmed what became a ground-up, serious adaptation of the inspirational short story ‘Who Goes There?’ by John W. Campbell Jr. It gets much more into the concept of the original story, keeps several characters, and captures its atmosphere in ways the 50s film (awesome, though it is) never did. And man, the movie drips in atmosphere. The sequence where Mac and Copper explore the Norwegian camp is beautiful and disturbing. The quiet shots of the American camp dial the paranoia right up. The oppressive snow storm and ever-present cold lend natural danger to moments tinged with unnatural evils.
The script is crackerjack, with the actors all in top form. Interplays between various men produce moments both funny and disquieting. Touching and terrifying. As they begin to realize the true danger of the Thing, friendships and loyalties are tested and the breakdown of civility and trust is as frightening as any monster. Even the people who have been turned might not know they’ve been turned. Copies so perfect they don’t even know (at least not consciously) they’re copies until their alien nature asserts itself. Nasty. There are so many classic moments. Of course, the dog creature, the head falling from the table only to sprout legs and walk away, Wilford Brimley’s axe wielding Down Home Freak-Out, Mac with the dynamite, and Garry tied to that f*&%ing couch. And man, every moment Wilford Brimley is on screen is amazing. He goes for it. Everyone goes for it, but Brimley goes the distance like nobody’s business. He lives that part, and it’s awesome. His disgusted autopsy, his complete meltdown, his noose shadowed apology. All great. I guess Kurt Russell is the star of the film, though it feels more like an ensemble. Always a solid, workman actor, Russell and director Carpenter had by this point established an excellent working relationship. He manages to play a practical, grounded guy who can still keep cool during unprecedented situations. In some ways, the character feels the closest to Russell himself. He’s not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but he shows up, he does his job, and does it well. He doesn’t have the academic skills, but practical experience out the wahoo.
The effects hold up for a reason. The practical effects were bold and ground breaking, and still look better 30 years later than most CGI done today. It has a realness, a physicality that fools even your reptile brain like CG still rarely can. The use of multiple styles of effects goes a long way. Puppets, stop motion, matte paintings, etc. Great stuff. I do wish there had been a bit more of the previous forms the Thing might have taken. The dialog, and the original story point to some possibilities that could have been pretty cool to see.
Excellent cast, effects, cinematography, and script are made that much better by the haunting, pulsing score by Ennio Morricone, which matches Carpenter’s own musical style so well. It’s not flashy, but like the Thing itself, it gets inside you. Morricone helps set the inevitable, apocalyptic tone. It might just be the final beats of the human heart, before Mankind is brought low by a corrupting alien menace.
This review ended up being hard to write. Not at all because I didn’t have enough to say, but because I have a hard time not talking about it. I think the film is probably both John Carpenter’s and Kurt Russell’s best, though not my favorite (Big Trouble in Little China likely takes that award). And The Thing may well be one of those very rare perfect films. It’s certainly close. A simple essay doesn’t seem like nearly enough to sing the film’s well deserved praises.