Combustible Celluloid
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With: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, Joel Polis, Thomas G. Waites, Norbert Weisser, Larry J. Franco, Nate Irwin, William Zeman
Written by: Bill Lancaster, based on a story by John W. Campbell Jr.
Directed by: John Carpenter
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 109
Date: 06/24/1982

The Thing (1982)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Weird and Pissed Off

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

John Carpenter has long been an admirer of the studio-era directors, mainly Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford, and one can see traces of the influence of these directors all through Carpenter's career. For Carpenter's early feature Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), he loosely updated Hawks' Rio Bravo to an urban setting. He used this plot again, in outer space, for his Ghosts of Mars (2001). In 1982, he released a direct remake of a Hawks film, The Thing from Another World, although there's some dispute over whether Hawks directed that 1951 film (it bears all of his signature touches, but the credited director is Christian Nyby, Hawks' editor).

Regardless, The Thing is all Carpenter. It's a paranoid masterpiece, and that rare remake that improves upon the original. In the early movie, there's very simply a monster on the loose, but in Carpenter's version, the monster can perfectly mimic any of the humans. It could be anywhere, at any time, and no one would know. It borrows from some recent hits: the isolated location of Alien (1979) and some of the unease and mistrust of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), but Carpenter plunks his movie square in the Reagan era, and beyond.

Kurt Russell stars as the prototype of the 1980s action hero, fresh from his Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (1981): wisecracking, world-weary and something of a cipher, but unquestionably tough and effective in an emergency. Here he's the bearded R.J. MacReady, a helicopter pilot stationed in Antarctica along with a team of scientists. He has his own little cabin, apart from the others, and spends his free time drinking and playing computer chess. Other cast members include Wilford Brimley, Keith David, and Donald Moffat.

A husky comes running across the ice, pursued by a Norwegian helicopter, the occupants of which are trying to shoot the dog. It turns out that this is not a dog at all, but really the alien creature that has assumed the guise of a dog. It proceeds to infiltrate the American camp, and the good guys try to figure out which of them may have been compromised. The movie's best scene is the "blood test," in which each man must provide a dish of his own blood; a hot wire is then dipped into the blood to see if it reacts. Creepy. It's impossible not to see this as a commentary on the soulless capitalist, corporate tone that quickly crept into the country with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Carpenter is plenty perturbed.

Carpenter uses the cold, snow, and cramped, temporary buildings to amazing effect, perhaps as good as or better than the dark spaceship in Ridley Scott's Alien. Characters here must use flares to light their way, and entire place has a sinister, dislocated feel. Rob Bottin created the latex creatures, which include some half-formed monstrosities, and -- though they may have dated a bit -- they're still better than most current CGI effects, and twice as imaginative. Perhaps best of all is Bill Lancaster's screenplay, filled with snappy lines and all-too-human characters. He gets the feel of how men might behave if stuck together for too long, too far away from civilization; he also wrote the Bad News Bears films. Some favorite lines include: "I dunno what the hell's in there, but it's weird and pissed off, whatever it is." Weird and pissed off, just like the movie itself.

I went from owning The Thing on laserdisc to a new Blu-Ray, and the jump in quality is enormous. The Blu-Ray also comes with the legendary Carpenter/Russell commentary track. They're just two old buddies shooting the breeze, and they sometimes seem to forget that they're recording something. It's must-have stuff.

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