The Thing (1982)

The Thing. Universal Pictures 1982.

Before watching the movie:

This is one more legend that’s a bit of a black box. I know there’s a monster besieging a research station in the Arctic or Antarctic, and that’s about it. I think almost the entire movie goes without showing the monster? It might be an alien but it’s left ambiguous? The poster is as much of a masterpiece as the movie, they say, and it is a fantastic poster.

I dimly recall a TV special about practical and visual effects in horror movies in general that may have touched on this movie, but I’m not sure. The images I’m remembering could be almost any horror movie, but they could fit a frozen research station for all I know.

After watching the movie:

In Antarctica, a Norwegian helicopter chases a sled dog across the frozen wilderness and ends up at an American research station. The American team comes outside to see what’s going on, and the pilot accidentally blows up his helicopter with a fumbled grenade, screaming something in Norwegian while shooting at the dog, causing the station’s commander to shoot him in defense. They take the dog inside and try to contact the Norwegian base, or anybody at all, but nobody is responding. An expedition to the Norwegian station finds the place burned and full of corpses, as well as a twisted and burnt corpse outside. While they work through the other station’s records, the team eventually puts the new dog in with the rest of their sled dogs after a long time wandering in the common areas with the crew. They discover that the Norwegians found something buried under the ice for centuries and excavated it, unearthing a massive spaceship and a body that froze crawling out. Meanwhile the dog that was added to the kennel bursts apart unnaturally and attempts to merge with the other dogs, but the team incinerates it before it manages to complete what it was doing. It is pieced together that the body thawed and was still alive, and its alien cells have the ability to infect other living organisms, assume their shape, infiltrate, and move on to the next host after using up the last. The crew come to the realization that any one of them could already be compromised.

The creeping horror and paranoia is so excellent I can’t really think of how to say more about it. The most unfortunate part of the writing is that with such a large cast and tight plot, the characters didn’t really stand out much. Maybe half of them had characterization moments here and there that I could pick out, but mostly they’re fuel for the plot engine and raw material for the alien. Characters didn’t stand out so much as actors (Wilford Brimley, the cowboy from late 90s daytime TV diebeetus testing commercials, what are you doing here? Actually quite a good job, carry on.)

This is an even stranger alien doppelganger mechanism than in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I don’t think I understand it very well, and I’m not sure if that’s because the movie’s explanation didn’t fully work, I didn’t fully catch it, or simply because it’s something alien and it works that way because that’s how it works, and these isolated non-xenobiologists already maybe figured out more about the biology behind it than they should have been able to. However, what I really didn’t expect was to discover just how much Star Trek: Deep Space Nine owes to this story in terms of how they treated the Changeling invasion threat, though that impersonation is also a little simpler to understand because they’re made of magic goo that can look like anyone, don’t worry about it, rather than bringing in pathogenic cells and mutation. However, this movie even has a bloodletting test to prove who’s human and who’s not, and that part is actually less complicated than how it’s used on Star Trek.

I’ve heard a lot of imagery like the warped monster forms of the alien described as “Cronenberg” or “Cronenbergian”, so I expected to find that David Cronenberg, a director of body horror movies, would have been involved in the design here. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, while what was accomplished with practical puppets and sculptures was very impressive, and at least one time I don’t know how they got liquid to act the way it does, the effects kind of fail to look lifelike to me. They look like they’re very finely sculpted rubber, but still rubber. It just about reaches the peak of what the medium can do, I think.

The fact that they’re not just physically isolated from the rest of the world but also cut off by radio made me wonder if the end was going to reveal that their efforts to keep the alien infection from reaching civilization were futile because it already got off the continent before the Norwegians even came to their camp, but they didn’t pull that kind of Twilight Zone twist. I’m sure there are plenty of examples that have done that, even probably a few on The Twilight Zone.

This is both a masterpiece but also a bit too familiar to me. I don’t blame it for influencing so much of what came after, but between that and its small failings, it didn’t capture me as much as I was expecting it to. But almost everything is so well done I feel more like I failed the movie rather than it disappointing me.

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