I’m a big fan of director/writer John Carpenter. One of my all time favorite films is the original Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and feel Escape From New York (1981) is one of the most fascinating, original story concepts to make it to the screen.
The Thing, released in 1982, is considered by many John Carpenter fans to be his all time best film. Sadly, like too many of Mr. Carpenter’s films, it didn’t do well at the box office. In fact, it flopped, pretty hard, and audiences and critics weren’t all that impressed by it… at the time.
1982 was a wonderful year for movie releases (don’t believe me? Check it out here).
There are a wealth of great features released that year, but the biggest smash hit was Steve Spielberg’s E. T. The Extraterrestrial. There was also the release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, perhaps the best of all the Star Trek films.
These two sci-fi classics were generally feel good films (even with the sad events at the end of STII). They were audience pleasers, through and through, and they did extremely well with audiences.
Which may explain why two other prominent science fiction films, Blade Runner and The Thing, didn’t do quite so well.
Both Blade Runner and The Thing presented more morose, not so crowd pleasant stories. In the case of Blade Runner, there was little action and plenty of self-introspection along with sticky questions regarding humanity. Sure, it presented a visually spectacular futuristic L.A., but one where people were down and out and audiences had little to actually cheer about.
With The Thing, we had a out-and-out horror story with some very gruesome effects and an ending which (MILD SPOILERS) is far from upbeat.
Yet if you’ve clicked on the list I presented of 1982 films, you’ll find both The Thing and Blade Runner at the top of the list, critically, and some of the bigger box-office successes lower.
Time has been kind to both movies.
Anyway, I have The Thing in multiple formats and recently upped the digital copy quality to UHD and decided to give the movie another look. It had been years since I’d seen it start to end, and I was curious how I’d feel about it.
Because unlike many, I feel the film has some pretty serious flaws.
Don’t get me wrong: I think its overall a pretty damn good film and the special effects, even for today, are jaw dropping. But I felt the film wasn’t as suspenseful as Assault on Precinct 13 or as clever as Escape From New York.
Seeing the film again, I wondered: Would my opinion change?
Alas, it didn’t.
Again: I think the film is quite good and deserves all the lavish praise its gotten.
However, by leaning so heavily into the at times superb grotesque effects and presenting characters who, IMHO, were pretty one note, the film to me failed to create a more suspenseful mood.
For example, the very first time we see the Thing in action, he’s with the other dogs in the kennel. The scene is a wonder of practical effects, but I wonder if it might have been more effective, a la Jaws, to hint at what grotesque things are happening through the dogs barking and moving about and us hearing these strange ripping sounds. We could have had everything there with a more shadowy presentation, leaving the first “big” showcase of the Thing being the “heart attack” scene.
But that’s just me and I know there are those who love all the effects work.
As for the characters, the “hero” of the piece, Kurt Russell’s MacReady, is the hero by virtue of the fact that he’s Kurt freaking Russell and I didn’t feel there was a sense that he was necessarily more competent than the others. True he’s in the middle of all the major set-pieces (as he should be!), but that just further showed how the others were mostly window dressing and/or victims to be. Keith David’s Childs, for example, the secondary protagonist of the piece, in the end does very little in the film but because he’s one of the “survivors” (maybe!) at the end, he’s raised in importance in retrospect.
I know it sounds like I’m sour on the film, but I’m truly trying to present the reasons why I feel that the film is quite good, it doesn’t -for me- rise to the level of some of Carpenter’s greater works (all IMHO!)
In the end, my opinion of The Thing remained roughly the same upon watching it again after several years. If I were to put the film on a star system, it would easily merit 3 stars out of 4.
At least for me, The Thing doesn’t quite hit the suspenseful highs of some other Carpenter films.
And that, of course, is just me.