Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rules of the Unreal (The Thing)

Last week I finally got around to watching John Carpenter’s 1982 horror/sci-fi joint The Thing. I say “finally” in a couple of different senses, one being that I had originally planned on incorporating it into my Spooktoberfest gorge on monster movies and beastly books last fall, but ended up running out of days in the month. In the moment I consoled myself with the thought of putting off The Thing until winter, with the prospect of freezing temperatures and maybe even snow making an even better real-life backdrop for a movie set in Antarctica. Ironic, then, that last week was unseasonably warm for February. Whattayagonnado.

But there’s also the “finally” implicit in the movie being thirty years old and all up in my wheelhouses (and incidentally listed amongst the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) and yet unwatched by me until now. Yes, the film is both horrific and science-fantastic, and yes it stars Kurt Russell, whom I am geek-credo obligated to love for such pillars as Escape From New York and Big Trouble In Little China (but whom I will also stridently defend as the best thing about everything from Sky High to Death Proof) but I also have to make special mention of the special-effects wheelhouse, as well. Theoretically there could have been a Kurt Russell showcase in a tense, speculative film where everything otherworldly was suggested and never shown onscreen, but The Thing is not that movie. It puts all manner of special-effects grotesquerie in front of the camera’s lens, and I officially love it for that.

To directly address the elephant in the viewing room, these three-decade old special effects are best described as “quaint”. Lots of latex and puppetry coated in homebrewed goop to make everything a bit more viscerally nightmarish. But they totally worked for me, despite how glaringly low-tech they were (or possibly because of how low-tech they were, as I believe I’ve made my antipathy towards too much CGI in the likes of Hulk and Avatar abundantly clear in the past). Part of the success is directly attributable to how audacious the effects are. (Spoilers coming, I guess. Going into the movie I already knew about the human-head-with-spider-legs picture above, but I didn’t know about this next part, so I think a warning is only fair.) Whether it’s faithfully realistic or totally cartoonish, there’s plenty of shock value in seeing a dude’s stomach open up like a jack-o-lantern mouth and chomp off the arms of the doctor performing CPR on him, and that’s what I expect to get out of my time investment when I check out a flick like The Thing. So well done there.

The other (admittedly subjective) element which makes the old-fashioned special effects appealing to me is that when I was a kid I was borderline obsessed with that kind of fantastical movie magic. I used to get excited when the local PBS station would have its pledge drives because that meant a high probability of being able to catch a making of Star Wars documentary they dragged out for the occasion every year, which positively fascinated me with the behind-the-scenes glimpses of how the creatures in the cantina were created. I checked books about Lon Chaney out of the library with alarming regularity and seriously considered F/X makeup as a career path. I was the kind of ten-year-old who actively enjoyed painstakingly applying prosthetic ears and nose and fangs and facepaint to be a werewolf on Halloween. The point being that The Thing came out when I was eight, which means it uses some bleeding-edge-at-the-time techniques to portray its titular shapeshifting alien, exactly the kind which were impressive as hell when I was most enthralled by exactly those kinds of tricks of the trade. So watching the movie in the year 2012 was retro, but in the most charming way possible.

(And speaking of retro charm, I have to also say that I never fail to be amused by the way that John Carpenter thinks that computers should work, which seems to be predominantly informed by Batman comics.)

The narrative itself is a little more problematic, which is not so much the fault of the storytelling as the premise itself. The Thing follows in a long and rich tradition of tales in which the protagonists spend much of their time simply trying to figure out what exactly they are up against, while the antagonist leisurely picks them off one by one. This is well-covered territory, encompassing everything from Alien to Nightmare on Elm Street to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (to name a few of my personal faves), and they all primarily hinge on one assumption: that there are rules which can be figured out, and that abiding by the rules can lead to the victory condition. Probably the most famous setpiece in The Thing is the blood test, when Kurt Russell takes samples from everyone else at the base and sticks a hot needle into each petri dish, believing (correctly, as it turns out) that if anyone is really the Thing in disguise the blood will react like an independent living thing to being burned. Of course as soon as that happens, the doppelganger given away by the test proceeds to freak out, morph into a monster, and go on a killing rampage. It’s highly effective in the moment, the high note in the symphony of fear and paranoia the movie plays out, but it’s a little bit hard to make sense of it after the fact. The Thing seems to be operating throughout the movie under a deep fear of being discovered, but the more and more the researchers learn about it, the more invincible the Thing seems to be. It’s incredibly strong, ferocious and violent with unearthly malevolence. It can regenerate and assimilate other creatures using parts of itself as small as a single cell. What on Earth would it be afraid of? There seems to be a moment where the humans learn that the Thing’s weakness is fire, but as events progress it seems that fire only slows the alien down unless every cubic centimeter of the thing is burnt down to ashes; any biological matter inside its charred husk can infect someone with a touch and start the whole cycle over again. The finale of the film involves an attempt to blow up the entire Antarctic research station and sink the Thing beneath the ice, where it will go into suspended animation again and hopefully never be discovered and disturbed again. Which begs the question, if that’s the only way to stop it, why did the Thing give the researchers enough time to come to that desperate conclusion? Why not kill/assimilate them all in one predatory blitz without all the mindgames? It’s tempting to work up some kind of Darwinian (or possibly Dawkinsian) explanation that the Thing wants to propagate itself and the best way to do that is to quietly assimilate all the researchers, then have those dozen or so doppelgangers return to the mainland and spread exponentially, so wholesale slaughter is more of a last resort, but that is clearly WAY overthinking it.

Therefore I would recommend The Thing as more than deserving of its must-watch reputation, but I would add the caveat that it’s best not to expect it to make crystal clear logical sense, nor to even play by its own rules. It’s a grisly meditation on whether or not fear of the unknown is actually worse than death, and therefore it includes a supernatural terror which exists as pure plot device, capable of dealing out equal parts paranoid fear and bloody death not as means to nefarious ends but as ends unto themselves. Get past that, and it’s a disturbing yet crazy kickass ride.

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