Survival is Job One

Close encounter of an unpleasant kind

Published: Jan 16 2019, 01:01:am

Friday,  July 9, 1982.

THE THING. Written by Bill Lancaster. Based on John W. Campbell, Jr.’s  1938 novella Who Goes There? Music by Ennio Morricone. Directed by John Carpenter. Running time: 108 minutes. Restricted entertainment with the B.C. Classifier’s warning: frequent gory scenes.
IT’S NOT HARD TO summarize the plot of a film like The Thing. When the black-and-white version turns up on the late show, the folk at TV Times run the standard source-book gloss, a listing that reads:

         The Thing (sci.-fi. 1951) James Arness, Dewey Martin. Strange
         thing from another world terrorizes an Arctic research station. ***

    Based on a story by John W. Campbell, Jr. (writing under the name Don Stuart), it is considered one of the all-time great science fiction films. It is generally accepted that the movie was directed by its producer, Howard Hawks, through a surrogate, the picture’s director-of-record Christian Nyby.
    It's not hard to understand why John Carpenter wanted to remake The Thing. The director of the science fiction cult film Dark Star (1974), Carpenter is on record as being “a great Howard Hawks fan.”
    Having proven his own potency at the box office with such money-making shockers as [1978’s] Halloween and The Fog (1980), the filmmaker is in a position to pick his own projects. Following the 1981 release of Escape from New York, Carpenter went to work on his version of The Thing.
    What’s hard to believe is how one of America's best young genre directors could go so wrong. Despite a succession of superbly engineered shock effects, Carpenter’s remake is, otherwise, as bland as a baby’s breakfast.
    What he seems to have forgotten is that suspense is an attitude, not an unpleasant image. Experience the original Thing and you can feel the tension growing out of a storyline that has a real sense of its own time and place.
    The Hawk/Nyby film was a product of the nervous 1950s. The setting is an American army air base in the high Arctic, the first line of defence against the Russian invasion menace. Its men have a sense of corps camaraderie and common cause.
    Their close encounter with an  alien critter — the lone survivor of a UFO crash — provides them with the ultimate professional challenge. They face the horror with purpose and resolve.
    Times change. Carpenter’s version is set in the Antarctic (as was Campbell’s short story), and in present time [1982]. His characters are civilian scientists and their support staff.
    Where Carpenter errs dramatically is in his updating of his characters' attitudes. The sense of duty and professionalism that makes a Hawksian hero attractive is absent here.
    What Carpenter offers us is a collection of listless, laid-back loners. There's Windows (Thomas Waites), the radio operator and a spaced-out pothead. Nauls (T.K. Carter), the camp cook, is a stereotypical street black complete with oversized radio and roller skates.
    Our nominal hero is civilian helicopter pilot R.J. McReady (Kurt Russell, star of two previous Carpenter features: Escape from New York and Elvis). His drug of preference is Jack Daniels.
    Here is a group of men putting in time — unappealing characters who have taken a hardship assignment for no better reason than the hardship wages. When we learn that the shipwrecked alien is merely attempting to survive in its own way in an inhospitable environment, the creature’s motivation seems every bit as admirable as the men’s.
    It’s the Thing's survival technique that brings them into conflict. It adapts by absorbing living beings, and assuming their shape. When it gets loose in the camp, a man never knows if his buddy is him or it.
    Because his update reduces our empathy for the endangered men, Carpenter distances us from his film. By increasing the explicitness of Rob (The Howling) Bottin’s special effects, he challenges the strength of our stomachs, not our emotions.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1982. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Here’s a surprise. I neglected to mention in the above review that The Thing is a made-in-B.C. movie. Primary location shooting was done near Stewart, a small town at the head of the Portland Canal on the Canada-U.S. border with Alaska. By 1981, the subarctic community was used to accommodating filmmakers. Director John Carpenter was following in the snowshoe-steps of the British-based Don Sharp. Three years earlier, Sharp had used the ice fields near Stewart to double for the Norwegian Arctic, the setting for his all-star action film Bear Island (1979). After Carpenter, Stewart would play host to Australian director Fred Schepisi, who found the neighbourhood just right for his 1984 science-fiction thriller Iceman. More recently, Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. found his way to the Cambria Icefields near Stewart to film his prequel to Carpenter’s feature, a 2010 movie that also is called The Thing.     
    Filming 1982’s The Thing seems to be the only time Carpenter visited B.C. Not so for the picture’s star, Kurt Russell, who made Vancouver his home for three years. Together with his partner Goldie Hawn, he lived in a Tudor mansion in Shaughnessy, a house they bought in 2002 so that their 15-year-old son Wyatt could attend high school and pursue his passion for hockey. The family remained in Vancouver until 2005, during which time Wyatt honed his goal-tending skills with the Junior B Richmond Sockeyes, the Langley Hornets and the Coquitlam Express. His father also strapped on the skates to take the starring role in Miracle (2004), the filmed-in-Vancouver Disney feature that celebrated the U.S. national hockey team's victory over the Russians at the 1980 Olympic Games.

See also: Other John Carpenter features included in the Reeling Back archive are Dark Star (1974), and The Fog (1980).