Friday, June 14, 2013

The Thing (1982)

Director: John Carpenter                               Writer: Bill Lancaster
Film Score: Ennio Morricone                         Cinematography: Dean Cundey
Starring: Kurt Russell, Keith David, David Clennon and Richard Masur

Forget about genre distinctions, John Carpenter’s reimagining of The Thing is one of the greatest movies of all time . . . period. This was the peak of the fruitful relationship between Kurt Russell and John Carpenter that began with the TV biopic of Elvis, and Escape from New York. The film also boasts the most sophisticated pre-CGI special effects in film history and they really have yet to be equaled--even with CGI--because of their realism. It has a fantastic script that goes back to the source material, also boasts a strong ensemble cast and, finally, one of the best and most integral soundtracks ever, one that wouldn’t be equaled until There Will be Blood.

The story begins in at the South Pole with a dog running from a helicopter, two men aboard attempting to kill it. When the dog reaches an American scientific outpost, the Norwegians aboard the helicopter hop out and begin shooting, and accidentally blow themselves up. Curious about what happened, a couple of men fly over to the Norwegian outpost only to find everyone there dead. It’s not until the dog is put in the kennel with the rest of the dogs that the thing begins shape-shifting and assimilating the other dogs. They manage to kill it with fire, and then some of the crew flies out to see what the Norwegians found: a spaceship. That’s when it becomes clear that the thing is from another world and has definite plans to take over this one.

Screenwriter Bill Lancaster, whose only other credits were the Bad News Bears films, went back to the original story, the novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell from 1938. The story was originally produced as a feature film by Howard Hawks in 1951 as The Thing from Another World, and starred Kenneth Tobey and Douglas Spencer. But Charles Lederer’s script (with help from Hawks and Ben Hecht) reimagined the whole thing as something of a Communist scare piece, similar to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Lancaster used the original names from the story, though he did modernize the piece, but kept the original intent and the invisible nature of the invasion. And through it all thrums the music of Ennio Morricone, like the heartbeat of the monster, breathing life into the unseen alien the same way John Williams brought the shark to life in Jaws.

Russell is perfect for the role of MacReady, a helicopter pilot who is a lone wolf but has the intelligence to put together the facts and make decisions when the others are still mystified. The other standout is the wonderful Keith David, who is commanding and, at times, menacing. Wilfred Brimley, Richard Dysart, the great David Clennon and Richard Masur round out a solid cast, but the special effects are the real star of the show. Without computer assistance, the actual, real, effects are magnificent and unequalled, even in the remake from 2011 that did rely on computers to simulate them. Production design was also tremendous, seamlessly blending the snowy exteriors with the L.A. studio sets. It’s a masterful piece of filmmaking that stands on its own as a classic of science-fiction, suspense and horror. John Carpenter's The Thing is one of the all time greats.

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