Sunday 11 September 2011

Of ice and men

It appears that a prequel to John Carpenter's The Thing is almost upon us. Somehow, I missed this fact - or, more likely, repressed it to the darkest recesses of my unconscious. I knew something terrible was happening, but I convinced myself that it was only a figment of my imagination, lest I lose the last of my tenuous grip on sanity. That's what I say now, anyway: mayhap when the prequel comes out, it will be True Art.

The original, after all, is by no means the first adaptation of the material: ostensibly a remake of the Howard Hawks film The Thing From Another World (1951), it is in fact rather more closely based on that film's source, the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr. Or so Wikipedia tells me: to my shame, I must admit to having neither read the book nor seen the Hawks film, rendering me a pretty much unqualified to comment on anything at all related to this.

Certainly, the prequel doesn't boast the same sort of star power. Kurt Russell has crossed sixty now, but in 1982 he was awesome incarnate in one man. And he'd worked with Carpenter before, in 1981's science fiction sort-of classic Escape from New York, in which he portrayed growling, cigar-chomping, one-eyed badass Snake Plissken caught in a strange dystopia that periodically switched into comedy. In The Thing, the comedy, the cigars and the eyepatch are gone, but the badassery most emphatically remains.

Our setting is an American Antarctic research station. One day, the men see a helicopter pursuing and frantically attempting to kill a fleeing sled dog; through bad luck, however, the helicopter crashes, killing its crewmembers. Perplexed by the incident, the Americans take in the dog, and pilot R.J. MacReady (Russell) and Dr Copper (Richard Dysart) visit the Norwegian research station the crashed helicopter came from. They find it deserted and destroyed, with few clues as to the crew's fate. Meanwhile, the men at the research station discover that the dog is inhabited - possessed seems the right word - by a parasitic alien life form that moves from body to body, animal or human. Before long, they begin to suspect the crew itself has begun to be infected. With a blizzard closing in, the crew must identify and kill the alien, while beginning to distrust each other.

It's a hell of a premise, and it's no wonder Carpenter felt drawn to it, nor that it's been copied since (including the excellent first-season X-Files episode 'Ice'). It's what we've now come to recognise as a classic Carpenter set-up: the protagonists are cornered in an enclosed space and must fight off an evil trying to come in. The Thing adds the twist, however, that the evil is already among them, going unrecognised and ready to attack at any moment. (At this point The Thing one-ups Ridley Scott's Alien.) The essential tension becomes: what is better, to work as a team in identifying and destroying the body-snatcher? Or to trust no-one? MacReady is plainly inclined towards the latter option.

Given that Carpenter wrote and directed Halloween, the only slasher film almost universally lauded by mainstream critics, it's tempting to see The Thing as an entry in that much-maligned subgenre: like slashers, The Thing is populated by a group of characters who exist so the killer can whittle them down one by one. In every other respect, however, it is quite different: the setting is not small-town America, but a base in the middle of nowhere; the characters are not teenagers but grown men. And, as argued above, the film gets under the skin of the viewer by internalising the evil, making it part of the protagonists themselves rather than keeping it at arm's length.

This internalisation is physical, and here the film's most famous legacy appears: the gore effects. The whiff of indecency around blood and guts in film is entirely undeserved: The Thing demonstrates that there were real craftsmen involved. The thing of the title, a mess of legs and slime, is an astounding creation, if not quite at the Lovecraftian level of H.R. Giger's design for Alien's xenomorph; but it's in the collision between the creature and the human body, and the resulting large buckets of visual wrongness, that the effects crew really propelled their art forwards. In an unnervingly realistic shot, a man's head separates from his body and skitters away on alien legs. The physical effect looks more real than any CGI not because it matches computer animation's level of photorealism (it can't), but because it possesses a weight and physical presence CGI does not, by virtue of actually being there.

 The terrifying visuals are complemented by an efficient script. I'm usually bad with names, especially in large casts, but the men here do each have distinct personalities (although it helps that, as you may have guessed, the number of characters to keep track of decreases rapidly). An all-male cast is a blessing in this case, as it saves the writers from the temptation to substitute sexist horror movie tropes for character development. The growing distrust between the men, which becomes especially pointed between MacReady and Childs (Keith David), is developed efficiently but mostly credibly.

1982 was a great year for both science fiction and special effects. But the last few years haven't been too shabby, with both low (Moon) and high-end budget (Inception) sci-fi films breaking out of the cliché storm the genre had fallen into. So I remain optimistic about the sequel, which will redefine science fiction for years to come. Well, a man can hope.

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