Classic Review: The Thing
It might seem a little odd to be writing a review of John Carpenter’s first studio film, The Thing, given that it is now almost 30 years old. Also considering the fact that, upon its initial release, it was largely panned by critics and barely (if at all) made back its budget. Since then however, the film has gained far more respect and become iconic and, in the wake of Avatar and the growing mass-interest in 3D and CGI, I think this exponent of old-school effects wizardry warrants another look.
Like Ridley Scott’s Alien, which preceded it by three years, The Thing blends sci-fi and horror by placing a group of humans in claustrophobic isolation, while they are hunted by an alien antagonist. The film is actually based on a novella by sci-fi writer, John Wood Campbell, which had already been adapted in 1951, though Carpenter’s ‘remake’ is a lot more faithful to the source material. The plot concerns an Antarctic research crew, who are infiltrated by a parasitic alien that begins killing them off then imitating those it has killed, ensuring it remains undetected within the group. A large portion of the film deals with the onset of paranoia, as individual members begin to question each other’s authenticity. This feeling is forced onto the viewer as well, through the straight performances onscreen, through the cinematography – lots of slow, tense pans and tracking shots through the tight corridors of the base – and through the sparse, uneasy score provided by Ennio Morricone. The Thing has drawn some criticism for its complete absence of female characters and the underdevelopment of the main characters, but what is important to this film is the tension which builds up between the characters. The group dynamic of the actors is brilliantly evoked. Their attitudes towards one another are always portrayed convincingly and play an important part in drawing the viewer into the reality of the situation.
Apart from the mood that the film itself evokes, the predominant emphasis seems to be upon the effects. Again, this has attracted mixed opinions. While the effects have been largely commended on a technical level, many initial reviewers felt that they overpowered the rest of the film, taking a sort of form-over-function approach. Likewise, many reviewers found the effects too visceral and gory, a factor which probably contributed to the film’s poor box office performance, especially given its competition with family-friendly E.T. What shocked me about the special effects, however, was how well they have held up. Rob Bottin’s effects are now 28 years old – six years older than he was when he became the film’s makeup effects designer – and yet they look incredible (or, more accurately, credible). The various mutated incarnations of the alien itself and the devastation of crew members, are palpable and realistic, since they are really there, on the set. Likewise, on the rare occasions when something doesn’t quite convince, one still can’t help but admire the artistry and workmanship that has gone into it.
This is perhaps what sets The Thing apart from the CGI-dependent market today. While one can certainly admire the animation and rendering of, say, Davey Jones in Pirates of the Carribean, such digital effects are too often the result of laziness on the part of filmmakers with an oversized budget. That said, Carpenter (who is known for his frugality) ended up allotting $1.5 million of his budget to the makeup effects department, so this is no low-budget affair in the style of Jackson and Raimi’s early zombie films. Nevertheless, the same resourcefulness and ingenuity is apparent in Bottin’s work. In one scene, the station’s doctor attempts to defibrillate a character who has had a heart-attack, only to have the patient’s chest open into a mouth and bite his arms off. The mouth was a combination of prosthetics, hydraulics and stop-motion. For the hands, though, a latex mask was made of the actor’s face, which was then worn by a body double who was a double amputee. Bottin’s team then crafted prosthetic forearms onto his stumps, sculpting bones from wax, then coating them with jelly ‘flesh’, complete with veins made from thin rubber tubing. In the take, this meant the arms could literally be bitten off by the hydraulic, resulting in a shockingly ‘real’ shot of the amputation, as the teeth tore through the soft layers of prosthetic. While the effect wouldn’t fool a surgeon, the attention to detail makes it uncomfortably believable. This is just one example from many, but it gives some insight into the level of creativity and effort that went into the film’s effects. Bottin worked on the film for fifty-seven weeks straight, allegedly working seven-day weeks and sleeping in the studio. By the time the film was completed, Carpenter had to check Bottin into hospital to recover from exhaustion.
The technological advancements that a film like Avatar brings to the industry cannot be denied and, at the time, The Thing was also pushing boundaries with its effects. However, with the ever-increasing presence of CGI and its ability to take the challenge out of the realisation of ideas, it might be worth revisiting a movie like The Thing every so often, if only to remind us of what can be done without a computer or a rendering mainframe. Taken alone, The Thing is a tense, chilling narrative, with an affective apocalyptic theme and an admirably challenging ending; but it is equally worth seeing as an essay in special effects. The end result is a gripping blend of the cerebral and visceral together, and the perfect antidote to James Cameron’s big blue cats.