Thursday, 17 September 2015

"The Thing," John Carpenter, Film Review

"The Thing," John Carpenter, Film Review

People often talk about the paranoia displayed in "The Thing" and I recently reviewed Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation," another film often presented as displaying paranoia.  Yet paranoia is most clearly recognized when it is based on unfounded fears and in both of these films the intense suspicion that arises in the characters is very much based on legitimate fears.


In "The Conversation" Caul knows he is being bugged himself and his insider knowledge of the trade means that he knows only too well how difficult to detect the techniques can be.  And in "The Thing" the group of American scientists working on an Antarctic base know that the alien that has infiltrated their group can exactly resemble a human being and – if they don't stop it – will proceed to take over the entire human race.  Hardly the cause of misplaced anxiety.

From a dramatic point of view, paranoia or intense suspicion is more effective if it exists in response to a genuine threat.  The audience cares more and the tension is greater because more is at stake.  "The Thing" is all the stronger for having an all-male cast, so the temptation of introducing love stories or jealousy plots is removed from the director.  The suspicion is seen in its purest form.

Review continues below...

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In the barren freezing ice of the Antarctic, the oily slick of organics is the only thing keeping the outpost going, whether it’s the diesel driving the generator, the cans of kerosene often used to start fires, or the alcohol and marijuana consumed by the staff.

There is another early scene where non-human opponent beats a human – the chess machine.  But in this case the opponent is easily defeated by pouring alcohol into its electronics.  It’s a tiny echo of what's to come.

The film is nicely structured and neatly contained to just over ninety minutes.  At the end of the first half hour the alien reveals itself in the horrific dog pen scene.  After the first hour the wider human takeover plot is out in the open, to be solved or not.

Some of the editing seems to be at the expense of the story making sense.  Blair maps the possible spread of the alien and has a completely human response of fear and anxiety, yet he later turns out to be infected.  Blair also implausibly builds a UFO from spare helicopter parts in a rushed scene.  Fuch's death outside is weirdly underdeveloped.

There are other logical inconsistencies as well but the overall impact on the viewer is the intense suspicion between the men confined in the camp.  Ennio Morricone's music also superbly compliments the tension.

Why don't we just... wait here for a little while... see what happens?" says MacReady at the end as he prepares to freeze to death with another character who may or may not be taken over by the alien.

Personal Score: 7/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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