Wednesday, October 31, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: THE THING (1982)

Directed by John Carpenter
Screenplay by Bill Lancaster, adapted from the short story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell
Cinematography by Dean Cundey
Edited by Todd C. Ramsay
Special Makeup Effects by Rob Bottin (with an assist from Stan Winston)
Special Visual Effects by Albert Whitlock
Music by Ennio Morricone, John Carpenter
Produced by David Foster, Lawrence Turman, Wilbur Stark, Stuart Cohen

Starring

Kurt Russell
A. Wilford Brimley
Keith David
Donald Moffat
Charles Hallahan
Richard Masur
David Clennon
T.K. Carter
Joel Polis
Richard Dysart
Thomas G. Waites
Peter Maloney


"When a man bleeds, it's just tissue. But blood from one of you Things won't obey. It's a newly formed individual with a built-in desire to protect its own life. When attacked, your blood will try and survive--and crawl away from a hot needle, say."
--Macready (played by Kurt Russell) in the movie The Thing.


150,000 years ago an alien craft crash lands somewhere in Antarctica.

Cut to: 1982. An American research station somewhere in Antarctica. A Norwegian man with an assault rifle chases a dog into the middle of the American facility, firing like mad. He seems to want to kill the dog. One of the Americans is wounded. The gunman rants and raves in a language none of the Americans can understand. In self-defense, the captain of the station fires a .357 round through the mad gunman's eye.

It's determined that the Norwegian came from a nearby research station established by the Kingdom of Norway. Did the Norwegian camp go stark raving mad? Were they cooking some bad drugs over there? Did they go stir crazy or what? Why would anyone want to kill a harmless dog?

Maybe that dog isn't so harmless.

In fact, it harbors a predatory life-form from another world. Something that can take on any shape--once it has consumed it and replicated it via its icky, but sophisticated, biology. This . . . thing has come from distant worlds, and has absorbed all sorts of lifeforms in its journeys, or so it would seem. It has now started to absorb human and canine life forms. It has no interest in communication. Only in absorbing forms, knowledge, and getting the hell out of Antarctica. Maybe it'll imitate a bird, and fly right the Christ outta there.

Soon the Americans are wondering: who's human? Who's the thing? How do you tell a perfect imitation apart from its original?

The answer, it would seem, is in the blood.

Unless, of course, the thing has perfectly imitated human blood. Then what?

What if its goal is to absorb and replicate itself across the whole surface of the earth? How do you contain such an enemy? The thing seems to operate like a bacteria or a virus--some kind of infectious agent for sure. The thing is some kind of plague threatening to wipe out humanity.

Or is it? Maybe when it perfectly imitates you it perfectly re-assembles you, and it only manifests aggression if it feels threatened. Maybe we need to cool down, and not start breaking out all the guns and flamethrowers and so forth.

But what if this thing really is looking to assert total control? We can't just let this thing go. We gotta find out who is human, and who's the thing.

Two enemies, human and the thing, wage a war in Antarctica to see who survives and who dies. Who gets to rule the planet, and who gets reduced to ashes. The only language that both sides seem to understand seems to be a pidgin mixture of aggression, cunning, violence, and manipulation--war, in other words. Prisoners are taken. Harsh interrogations conducted. No one can be trusted. Subtle personal resentments float to the surface: Am I dropping the hammer on this guy because I think he's an alien imitation, or because I think he's kind of an asshole? Remember, these guys have been cooped up in this research station for a long time.

Maybe there is no Thing. Maybe the only contagion brought into the American camp was the virus of fear. Fear takes root, and you see whatever you want to see. Weapons are drawn, fingers pointed, sides chosen. Humans have been doing this to each other since our primal beginnings with no end in sight. Do we really need some ooga-booga make believe alien bullshit to set us against each other to the knife? People abuse and kill each other over invisible things all the time--politics, ideology, nationalism, religion, economics, jealousy, racism, homophobia, misogyny--maybe the Thing is just one more flake-o notion that has entered the heads of human beings in their ongoing quest to find novel reasons to oppress and slaughter each other.

And what if The Thing is real? Well, we can't truly say it's evil if we're objective about it. It just wants to survive. It's a being from another world. Or maybe a colonial aggregation of beings from across the cosmos. Who the fuck knows? In any case, if the Thing is real, I find it impossible to judge its actions in moralistic terms. The Thing wants to survive. So do the humans. They cannot communicate in civil fashion, and so it's gotta be total war. Too bad. A tragedy, really, when you get right down to it. What could have been a stirring saga of First Contact becomes Intergalactic War I, with, I'm sure, many sequels to follow.

But it makes for one hell of a show.

John Carpenter's The Thing . . . After this movie, Carpenter was only competing with himself. Artistically, I mean. Which is all that really interests me, here. Sure, it was a box office disappointment at the time of its release, and Carpenter himself has expressed disappointment that this movie didn't go over as well as he had hoped at the time--but that's all in the past. Without question, The Thing found a long, sinister afterlife on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, and now, I assume,  Blu-Ray.

And on broadcast television, too, albeit in a heavily censored bullshit version, but many great filmmakers have had to endure the indignity of having their movies chopped, edited, and violated at every level to conform to the bogus morality of regularly scheduled network programming.

 I watched The Thing in a censored version and I could not take my eyes off the screen. I was riveted. I wasn't scared, exactly, I've only ever really been afraid of being abducted by aliens, to be perfectly blunt with you, but I felt like I was watching, I dunno, 12 Angry Men, or Glengarry Glen Ross, or something. It was clearly a science fiction/horror genre picture, but it wasn't schlock. It wasn't played for camp or splatter moments or breast shots. It was about a group of pissed-off humans, all male, trying to root out an insidious alien invader with the power of masquerading as homo sapiens.

 One of these humans(?) has a flamethrower and  several bundles of dynamite and is not taking any shit from anybody. He's forcing the other men, at flamethrower-point, to submit to an improvised medical test that resembles some kind of cult-like, ritual initiation rite. Each man must slice his thumb, let his blood flow into a Petri dish, and then the man with the flame thrower will hold a length of wire in the ignition fire and then, once the wire has been heated up, it will be pressed against the blood samples. If the blood samples just burn and sizzle, it's all good. But if something else happens . . . and what would that something be, exactly? Part of the interest of this scene lies in its deep uncertainty. Just because the guy with all the weapons has dreamed up some test that he thinks is gonna proves who's human and who's the thing doesn't mean the test will actually fucking work. And what if Mr. Blood Inquisitor sees a positive result that's nothing of the kind? Innocent people are gonna burn, for sure . . .

I'm talking about the blood test scene which anyone who has seen The Thing knows about. This was the very first scene I ever saw from The Thing. Or maybe it wasn't quite the very first thing I saw of The Thing. I think, maybe, I had been flipping channels, and noticed this unusual movie about a research team in Antarctica dealing with some kind of alien invasion situation--intense, bearded dudes in winter-wear speaking in low, strident tones about evil doings, Kurt Russell talking into a tape recorder about how no one can trust anyone anymore, Wilford Brimley losing his shit and going all James Cagney on people with a snubnose .38, but I didn't pay too close attention. I skipped around the TV, and, at some point, I came back to the movie at its most intense moment: the blood test scene.

I don't remember what, exactly, compelled me to stop and watch the movie from that point onward. But I think it was the seriousness of the performances. The actors were behaving as though they were actually frightened and angered by their situation. They seemed to have fear, rage, and paranoia playing across their faces at different moments. They didn't act like the kinds of morons you'd expect to populate a typical body count picture. I think it was the seriousness of the actors' performances that drew me in more than anything, but who knows? Whatever it was, I was hooked. I watched the movie 'til its end. And, at that time, the 1990s, I hated watching movies that had been censored for broadcast television. What was the point? If a movie is unacceptable to the networks, then don't show it, I say. TV stations could come up with their own crappy shows to fill timeslots, and probably get more reliable advertiser participation, too.

Think about it. Non-controversial, braindead situation comedies and cop-worship shows are pretty much a sure thing if you want the average television viewer to achieve brand identification with whatever lame product you're pushing. Well, I guess that was true in the 1990s. Now, it would be the increasingly Orwellian depravity of Reality TV, but let's not go there.

The Thing was compelling cinema even in a heavily compromised form. John Carpenter's film was so well-crafted, that it wasn't totally ruined by censorship. Now that is movie-making power right there. But where does the power emanate from? Craftsmanship. Carpenter's deepest game, in my estimation, is his commitment to the basics of storytelling: script, actors' performances, shot composition, soundtrack including both score and sound effects (the "soundscape" if you will), special effects, editing--the whole engine of cinema is geared towards expressing a dramatic situation with utmost clarity. Even the ambiguities and ironies present in Carpenter's movies are expressed with utmost clarity.

Theme is important, too. I think Carpenter's one of the more interesting thematic filmmakers in how he approaches doing horror and science-fiction scenarios. In Assault on Precinct 13 the theme had to do with decent, competent people from both sides of the law caught in the middle of a violent revolutionary struggle between insurgents and an oppressive police state: how do you survive and protect those who depend on you in an impossible situation? Halloween was about how a blind force of destruction manifests in human form in the midst of an anodyne suburban community, and the terror that grows out of normal people's obliviousness to the presence of such an evil force. The Fog was about the sins of the past manifesting to punish future generations. In the Mouth of Madness follows out the idea of what it would be like if the usual laws of mundane reality were displaced by the operating logic of a horror novelist's imagination gone completely berserk. Ghosts of Mars was an interesting blend of Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog: an amorphous spirit of homicide asserts itself as a ghostly insurgency to punish a future human settlement on the red planet. In all of these movies, the horrific idea at the center is illustrated in specific, concretely realized terms. As the viewer, you don't see quite as much as you think you do in terms of mayhem and gore, but the nature of the threat becomes clear, as do the struggles of the humans trying to survive the onslaught. Carpenter's movies apply logic and rationality to irrational, supernatural forces and the results are pleasingly outrageous, but comprehensible.

The Thing takes on the theme of paranoia. Broadly speaking, it uses two contrasting approaches to illustrate this theme: economy and excess. Which is appropriate if you think about it. Paranoia itself is both economical and excessive. Paranoia focuses your mind like a laser even while it takes aim at the entire world which has turned murderously against you. Keep your guns loaded, the eyes in back of your head peeled, and keep a tight routine, because the hit could come from anyone, anywhere, at anytime. Using simple logic, the paranoiac can cook up whole cosmologies that definitively prove the whole world is aligned against him or herself in a grand conspiracy to ruin your day, your era, your lifetime, and maybe even subsequent lifetimes depending on the nature of the Enemy. The paranoiac pursues simple solutions to complex problems.

Remember Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver? Just get some guns, do some push-ups, and shoot some people and everything will be okay in the end. You might even get a date with Cybil Shepherd in the end. And if that doesn't work, well, you can blast the girl away, too, with your .44 Magnum. Hey, your personality may be defective, but your weapons usually work like physics. No big thing. They all had it coming.

The Thing isn't quite the same as Taxi Driver, but it does explore similar terrain of paranoia-induced violence, and the terror that grows out of the failure of communication, civilization, and hope itself.

In terms of technique, The Thing hinges on using economical shot set-ups within a widescreen frame that are filled with agitated human faces in close-up, suspicious humans pointing fingers and making accusations, and then all of this is overtaken by gooey excess when the wriggling alien horror of The Thing makes its presence known. All pretense to civilization goes out the window, and those that are human desperately maneuver to muster a defense against the alien invader. It's a visceral realization of the sci-fi trope of humanity forging a coalition against an extraterrestrial entity for survival purposes that touches on the longstanding tribal tendencies of human beings.

We don't think of ourselves as tribes in the 21st century. We use other titles for our typical groupings: nations, political parties, sexuality, gender, subculture, religion, race, job title, student, townie--all are categories used by the powers that be to divide us into in-groups and out-groups. If you're in the in-group you're supposed to be opposed to the out-group(s). And, of course, the out-group isn't an out-group to those who are in it--they're another in-group from their perspective.

The same could be said for the alien whatsit in The Thing: from its perspective its just trying to survive. The fact that it kills and absorbs people is just tough shit for the humans. Maybe if there was some way for the alien and the humans to communicate they could arrive at some sort of understanding. Instead of unlimited violence climaxing in total destruction, this could've been a story of First Contact and not Apocalypse. A truce could be called with truth and reconciliation between human and extraterrestrial.

(Now think how differently Taxi Driver would've played out if Bickle had gotten some counseling, if he'd had a single friend to confide in (aside from his doofus colleague masterfully played by Peter Boyle), maybe get some anti-depressant meds, get some therapy for his shellshock, find a way to work through his deeply imprinted combat stress--Travis Bickle could've turned his shit around. Sure, he'd maybe have some conservative tendencies, some social awkwardness, but he could've gotten over things. He could've been empowered to move on with his life. And Taxi Driver would've been a terrible film. There's a reason why Taxi Driver is a classic and no one gives a shit about Awakenings.)

Unfortunately, civilized approaches to healing and reconciliation do not make for compelling cinema. Madness, paranoia, conflict, death, and destruction make for powerful storytelling. Nothing is more compelling than watching a situation go from bad to worse and beyond. It's what Poe was getting at when he defined the spirit of perversity in "The Black Cat." We have a will towards escalation, towards conflict which is driven by our desire for total power, total control over all uncertainty in existence. Whatever it is that frightens us--a thief, a murderer, a political ideology, an ethnic group, an animal, a culture, a nation, a language, a religion, a philosophy, an outlook, a disagreement about fashion or policy or economics--our impulse is to shun the thing which upsets us.

 And if we can't avoid it, we denigrate it, try to find like-minded people to join us in condemning the hated thing, and, if things go far enough, we will try to destroy whatever it is we hate and fear. Right and wrong don't have to enter into it. Just think about all the genocides, ethnic cleansing, and no limits civilian slaughtering bombing campaigns, and random assholes with assault rifles and body armor popping off in schools and movie theaters--the spirit of perversity, the will to lash out with violence at whoever and whatever happens to be handy, never mind whether or not such targets have any actual culpability for the perpetrator's troubles--they're convenient, they will therefore become blood sacrifices to the murderer's fear, hatred, and paranoia--whatever dark gods sit inside the star chamber of his twisted heart. Even if the perpetrator has some sense that what they are doing is a doomed course of action, just as the narrators in "The Black Cat" or "The Tell-Tale Heart" have a premonition of their own destruction, they are compelled to walk the path of annihilation and jump into the fire themselves in the end.

Or maybe they lash out, get a little dinged-up, spend some time in the hospital, and then are up and about again as a ticking time-bomb with a brand new timer . . . kind of a spoiler for a movie I shall not mention by name.

The Thing invokes the self-immolating spirit of perverseness, of paranoia, from Poe, but combines it with the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. John Carpenter has stated that Lovecraft is an important influence on his work. Lovecraft's central idea is that human beings are completely at the mercy of cosmic forces beyond their comprehension, much more ancient, powerful, and deadly than any human civilization, even one with fanatic ideology and nuclear weapons (ex. USA, USSR, China, Russia, etc.).

After all, anyone who has read Lovecraft's 1931 masterpiece At the Mountains of Madness knows that the Great Old Ones(a name Lovecraft uses to refer to those terrible, cosmic powers of darkness) had atomic weapons long before homo sapiens wormed its way out of the muck across billions of years of cosmic evolution, and split the atom. At the Mountains of Madness tells the story of a group of human explorers who journey to Antarctica and discover a vast, cyclopean city gone to ruin, within which they uncover a strange hieroglyphic language which reveals the secret origins of humanity and the Great Old Ones.

The Thing echoes some of the ideas from At the Mountains of Madness, even though it is more directly adapted from John W. Campbell's 1938 short story "Who Goes There?" Lovecraft's novella was published in 1931 and Campbell's short story came along in 1938, so I wonder if Campbell had absorbed any Lovecraftian influences . . . I have no idea. But I feel pretty confident in saying that John Carpenter, consciously or not, crafted his movie  in a way which blends Poe, Lovecraft, and Campbell's literary themes and combines them with some of the techniques of his previous movies such as Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Fog.

Earlier in this review I put forward the possibility that maybe the Thing is just in the minds of the humans. Maybe there is no Thing. I don't think this is what Carpenter intends for his movie to be, but it is an intriguing idea to me. As I watched the movie again this past weekend, I couldn't help but wonder if these guys are all losing their minds due to isolation, stress, sexual frustration, loneliness, and simmering resentments over slights both real and perceived. It's an all male group. Some of them seem to be veterans, ex-military people--could combat stress be a factor here? Are these people just more inclined to go looking for an enemy when feeling threatened? Like I said, I think Carpenter means for his movie to be taken on its own terms, but I tend to want to go overboard in interpreting movies I've seen dozens of times, so maybe I'm the one losing perspective here. This is a movie which skews more towards Lovecraftian cosmic horror than Poe-style psychological horror.

The cast is excellent. Kurt Russel is billed as the star, but it's really an ensemble piece. All of the actors take the job seriously, and none of them play for camp or self-parody. Probably the most disturbing performance comes from Wilford Brimley. Watching this guy, with his unflappable outer shell, finally start to lose his shit is a kind of mini-saga of horror and madness all its own buried within the larger movie.

The cinematography, an element of economy, by Dean Cundey is perfect, each frame composed for both clarity of what's going on within a given scene and also to give a sense of growing unease. Watch this movie with the sound off, and just take note of how the color scheme changes and evolves as it goes on, and how one shot is cut with another one. The editing is subtle and unobtrusive even when the Thing makes its wriggling, consuming, chaotic self known within that precise widescreen framing.

Which brings me to the element of excess: the disgusting and horrifying creature effects by Rob Bottin with an assist from Stan Winston. I don't even want to talk about it. You should just see for yourself with no prior knowledge. The Thing bursts out, like some avatar of Lovecraft's Azathoth, the idiot god of chaos and destruction--or maybe not. Maybe I'm just reaching for shit here . . .

Back to economy: Albert Whitlock's outer space visual effects provide a quietly menacing introduction for the idea of alien horror from another world in the title sequence.

Ennio Morricone and John Carpenter both throw down for a sneaky, suspenseful original score that doesn't overstay its welcome. You would think if a director could get Morricone for the soundtrack he would want to squeeze another one of those lush, Sergio Leone scores out of him--and that would be a mistake. The Thing doesn't need leitmotifs and wall-to-wall bombast. It needs a defter touch. Note the mournful, but suspicious, quality of the piece which underscores the investigation of the Norwegian camp. I find it unexpectedly moving. The movie is cruel and relentless, but that bit of music suggests a kind of sadness inherent in the waste left by violent all-out conflict.

Maybe The Thing isn't a horror movie in the usual sense. More and more, I think of it as a kind of tragedy about two sophisticated life forms forced to meet under dire circumstances, and the war that results from an inability to communicate or understand one another. Definitely not another braindead body count picture.

The Thing trailer:

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