The Thing

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE THING

9/10

USA 1982 : John Carpenter : 108mins

Some brief notes on The Thing.

  • The DVD of The Thing features a director’s commentary features a boozy get-together between Carpenter (who sounds very close to the microphone) and star Kurt Russell (who sounds very far away) that’s almost as entertaining as the film itself. But The Thing demands to be seen on as large a screen as possible: the icy cinemascope vistas of Antarctica demand nothing less, and Carpenter has always been without parallel in terms of using every single inch of the frame. This is a claustrophobic epic.
  • It is also a western like all Carpenter movies. He signals as much very early on, when a character hiding inside the base must shoot someone in the open air. He uses his gun to break the glass, Randolph Scott style.
  • The first hour is a masterful exercise in the build-up and release of suspense: an inexorable progression of taut, economic episodes as a remote US scientific base is infiltrated by a savage, shape-shifting alien creature that picks off the men one by one.
  • And they are all men (all very well cast), their cloistered celibacy mocked by the grinning females looking down from the forties ad-posters on their walls, by the female voice of the chess-playing computer, by the female faces on the TV programmes they watch on video. Anne Billson, in her BFI Modern Classic book on the film, argues that The Thing itself is female.
  • The second half is less effective than the first. Scriptwriter Bill Lancaster can’t quite stitch things together and whenever there’s an action sequence he seems to have difficulty regaining his train of thought. Characterisation and story development suffer. Economy goes out of the window. There are more loose ends than in the tattered garments which keep being found around the base – supposedly because being ‘taken over’ by The Thing results in clothes being ripped, though this is never made especially clear.
  • Despite the flaws, many scenes remain cast-iron classics: anything featuring the monster, especially the ‘defibrillation’ sequence and the ‘blood test’- horrific and hilarious in equal measure.
  • Ennio Morricone’s music. The Thing is a rare instance of John Carpenter handing over the score to another composer. Morricone delivers a pitch-perfect simulacrum of Carpenter’s established, doomy-synth stylings – entirely appropriate for a film about pitch-perfect simulacra.

30th November, 2002
(seen 5th November, UCI Silverlink, North Shields)

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by Neil Young