The thing about The Thing
Jamie Mckittrick looks at John Carpenters classic 1980's 'creature feature', The Thing
13 May 2014
The landscape of cinema is a slouching beast, shifting its shape to reflect the trends of the times. It is the art and entertainment form du jour. Consequently it must provide something of a reflection of our society. Right now our beast takes the form of an endless array of sequels, remakes and franchise reboots. It's hardly breaking news to point this out but consider this selection of upcoming summer blockbusters: a Godzilla reboot, a sequel to the reboot of Planet of the Apes, Sin City 2, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Expendables 3, Transformers 4, Jump Street 22, X-Menn. There's even room for a spin-off about the witch in Disney's Sleeping Beauty.
But if the art and entertainment of an age is a reflection of its collective psyche, what does this say about us? Are we bored by originality? Do we want the same thing over and over again just slightly different each time please? Is Hollywood so cynical that they'll make a film out of anything the general public remembers from their childhood? The answer is yes, of course. But if there is a case to be put forward to justify this mess it is John Carpenter's 1982 film The Thing. A more faithful adaptation to the original source material than 1951's The Thing from Another World, Carpenter's remake (or reboot, revisit, reinterpretation, however you want to define it) stands as a masterclass in crafting tension out of celluloid.
The premise is routine: stick a bunch of people in an isolated location with a threat and see who comes out the other end alive. But the thing about The Thing is that you're never quite sure where the threat is coming from. There is an alien life-form that infects, consumes and ultimately replaces its victims. It mimics their appearance, their mannerisms and their memories to blend in. In the whirling paranoia that descends accusations fly as the men try to work out which one of them is the imposter. The alien in The Thing is not a single organism, each part of it is a separate... thing. It's this neat little quirk that gives the film much of its juicier material: a defibrillation gone wrong, a spidery head scuttling under a desk, the hot wire test scene, all thrilling pieces of cinema. It's tense, it's fun, it has fantastic special effects, it has Kurt Russell.
But wait a second – a collection of cells that work together to infect a community, posing as something they recognise but turning out to be something ultimately more sinister. Could it be that the slouching beast of cinema has in fact become Carpenter's alien? These days Hollywood is undeniably primarily comprised of matter that we at once recognise but under closer scrutiny reveals itself to be a product that is only out to fend for itself (on the opening weekend).
There is a small shelf reserved in the annals of film history for remakes that are worthwhile. Carpenter's The Thing stands up there alongside the equally brilliant 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (you know, the one with Leonard Nemoy). With three new Star Wars films about to commence production it seems there's no end in sight to this cinematic fools gold as we firmly enter our very own Pyrite Age of Cinema. But I can at least take some solace in reminding myself that there are diamonds in every rough and I keep going back to The Thing as proof of that.