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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Movie Review: The Thing, by Pete Wood

Or more properly, The Thing about John Carpenter’s Biggest Misfire.

I love John Carpenter movies. The director’s unorthodox characters are smart and resourceful and act logically in extraordinary situations. Convict Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) in Escape from New York, Teenage babysitter Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) in the original Halloween, and Roddy Piper’s homeless drifter in They Live. Who wouldn’t trust these people to get them out of a jam?

Then there’s The Thing, where every single character is a damned moron. While Kurt Russell’s helicopter pilot gets props for being the coolest character (barely beating out himself as Plissken or Piper) in any Carpenter movie, he ain’t no rocket scientist.

I hate The Thing. We all know the premise. A remote Antarctic research facility—well stocked with flamethrowers and all ilk of weapons for no apparent reason—is stalked by a shape-shifting alien that takes out the crew one by one. Anyone could be the alien.

Roger Ebert found the movie “disappointing” due to “the implausible behavior of the scientists.” In an epic rant he points out that “the obvious defense against this problem is a watertight buddy system, but, time and time again, Carpenter allows his characters to wander off alone and come back with silly grins on their faces.” Preach it, Roger.

And that little plot hole only scratches the surface. You know the movie is going to have problems from the first scene where two Norwegians in a helicopter chase a dog across the tundra and with aim worthy of a Star Wars stormtrooper continually miss with a high-powered rifle. When they show up at the American base, the Americans do the logical thing. They shoot the dog and try to reason— Um, excuse me. No, they kill the first Norwegian and place the dog with all of their animals, because, you know, there can’t possibly be anything wrong with the dog and cute little dogs are far more important than people can ever be. Don’t even get me started on how Norway apparently sent the only two Norwegians who could not speak English to their base.

The movie goes downhill from there. Russell does eventually come up with a pretty foolproof way to root out the Thing. This plan, working pretty damned effectively, is quickly abandoned. The plan is lifted from the novella, Who Goes There?, written by John Campbell and published in Astounding Science Fiction in August 1938. The characters in the source material, unlike the dimwits on Carpenter’s base, carry out the plan to its logical conclusion.

Campbell’s novella has been adapted three times: the first in 1951 as The Thing from Another World; the second in 1982 by Carpenter; and most recently as a prequel to the Carpenter version, also titled The Thing, released in 2011. The adaptions just keep getting worse.

My favorite is Howard Hawks 1951 version. It’s shifted to an army base in the Arctic, and somewhat dumbed down, but nobody behaves too stupidly—unless you count the military’s habit of destroying all things alien, from the ship that had some sort of interstellar drive to the alien itself. The scientist who suggests not killing the alien, because, you know, he could teach us stuff, comes across as a raving loon, but he does raise a good point. Last time I checked, we still didn’t have an interstellar drive. Still, it’s a fun little adventure with some great effects for the day, like when they uncover the frozen saucer in the ice.

Don’t even bother with the 2011 prequel to Carpenter’s movie. There was no reason to make that movie. None. You’d be better off watching Butch and Sundance: The Early Days.

I don’t understand what happened with Carpenter’s version. He’s made his share of duds. Ghosts of Mars and Memoirs of an Invisible Man come to mind. The Thing is no mere flop. It succeeds on so many levels. Setting, special effects and the acting blows away the stilted army men of the 1951 film. But it wastes all of this potential with piss-poor writing. Ebert’s description of the movie as “disappointing” is spot on.

Still, people love Carpenter’s adaption. I fully expect people to storm my house with pitchforks and torches any minute now. And the plan of that angry mob will be better than anything concocted by Carpenter’s scientists.

 


 

Peter Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to being a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them.

7 comments:

Slothrop said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pete Wood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul W Celmer said...

Great historical context on the Carpenter movie. What I love about the Carpenter version is the cinematography and the tension. Agree the movie has some non-sensical plot turns, but then again, what science fiction movie does not require some willing suspension of disbelief?

Pete Wood said...

I have no problem suspending disbelief with regards to science and world building in science fiction films. The universe of any movie doesn't have to be plausible. I only ask that the actions of the characters be plausible enough.
The Thing gets an A from me for almost every aspect of the film except for the writing. A real shame. All Carpenter had to do was follow the plot of the original story.

Pete Wood said...

Sorry didn't mean to dismiss your comment so quickly. You make some good points. Like I said, I am in the definite minority with regards to this movie. Thanks for reading the review!

~brb said...

@Pete - I don't disagree with you. I think this movie exemplifies the difference between telling a story in print and on film. Film is primarily a visual medium that engages the viewer on a visceral and emotional level, so the filmmaker can use action, excitement, drama, and well-crafted visuals to leap gracefully over plot crevasses that would, if they were to appear in print, leave the reader saying, "WTF?"

Pete Wood said...

Well said. The Thing is a visually stunning and well shot film. And the special effects still hold up.