Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Review: The Thing

The Thing (1982)

A sled dog races into an American science station in Antarctica.  In hot pursuit is a Norwegian helicopter with the crew blasting away at the animal with a rifle.  On landing, the helicopter explodes when a live grenade is mishandled by the pilot and the Norwegian with the rifle is killed by the American base commander.  Too late the Americans learn that the Norwegian science team had discovered an alien spaceship buried in the ice and that the dog is, in fact, a shape-shifting monster from beyond intent on consuming and imitating all life on Earth.

The Thing is a remake of the 1951 classic The Thing From Another World (1951).  However, where the 1951 version was about an Arctic base besieged by a plant monster in need of blood to propagate itself, The Thing takes advantage of thirty years of technological advance to produce a version much closer to the source material, John W Campbell Jr's novella "Who Goes There?"

Though it tries to remain more faithful to Campbell, The Thing is not science fiction.  It is horror first, last and always.  Whereas Campbell went to great pains to sell the premise of his story, the film makes no such attempt.  The creature simply "is" and the explanation of "why?" is summed up by it's being from outer space.  However, director Scott Carpenter must be given credit for the look of the film.  He pushed effects designer Rob Bottin literally beyond the limit to produce monsters that are nothing short of ghastly.  If I ever need someone to choreograph my nightmares, Carpenter is the first person I'll call.  The things that the Thing turns into are pure nightmare fuel that are as disturbing as they are chaotic.

The actors are well used in the film, though they're far more dysfunctional than they need to be.  Regrettably, given the nature of modern Antarctic crews, they're probably quite realistic.  Kurt Russell anchors the cast well and Donald Moffat is under recognised for the weight that he brings to the character of the base commander.  One unfortunate part of the script is that we get very little idea of what the men of the base actually do, so the viewer may do some head scratching over a roller skating urban black character on a science base.

Overall, Carpenter does a good job, though the need to indulge in the grotesque visuals undermines the paranoia of the story, so the tension never gets a chance to build properly.  Also, when Carpenter strays from the source material his grasp of logic becomes more and more feeble until it falls right through the growing plot holes.  In the end, when they run out of novella, the film descends into haunted house mode with the characters doing profoundly stupid things for no discernible reason.

Finally, there is the one question that I've been scratching my head over since 1982:  What the blazes was an Antarctic science station doing with not one, but two flame throwers?

Flame throwers?

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