08 May 2008

“Keep watching 1982!”

Let us now return to the glorious movie year of 1982, when all your genre dreams as a child came true. And a few nightmares as well.

The big money-grabber of the Great Year was E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Although beloved in its time, it has never picked up an actual following and seems much less prescient and powerful a film now than many other contenders from that year that have turned into genre favorites. Specific example: another alien invader who got trapped on Earth a mere three weeks after E. T. started looking for change to phone home. The Thing.

The Thing was nominally a re-make of the Howard Hawks-Christian Nyby 1951 movie, The Thing from Another World—a favorite movie of director John Carpenter’s—but it really leap-frogged over the old movie to the source material, the 1938 novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell. Campbell is one of science fiction’s most influential figures in his capacity as editor of Astounding during the 1940s and ‘50s. He brought about the a wave of great science fiction authors with his shrewd story choices and firm editorial hand. He was also an accomplished author himself, as “Who Goes There?” and the short story “Twilight” demonstrate, although he turned toward nonfiction when he became a full-time editor.

The 1951 movie version of “Who Goes There?” abandoned many elements of the novella for purely budgetary reasons. The protean alien creature couldn’t be realized with the effects work of the 1950s, so it was turned into a hulking humanoid supposedly made of vegetable matter—and played by a pre-Gunsmoke James Arness. It’s an enjoyable film and one of the early classics of the atomic age science-fiction flap, and it gave pop-culture one of the most memorable paranoia lines of all time: “Keep watching the skies!” (Other contenders: “You’re next!”, “It’s a cookbook!” and “Soylent Green is made from people!”)

Nobody, however, could have anticipated what a gruesome and imaginative horror show John Carpenter (Halloween, Escape from New York) had in store with the remake. With make-up effects from Rob Bottin, who had done impressive air-bladder transformations for The Howling the year before, The Thing ended up an enthralling fantasmagoria combining claustrophobic paranoia and shivery special effect set-pieces.

What’s so impressive to me about The Thing today isn’t the visual effects, even though they remain incredible feats, but that it manages to be engrossing while putting almost no focus on characterization. The team at Outpost 31 in the deeps of Antarctica receives nothing in the way of back story or baggage. Nobody talks about their kids, ex-wives, how they chose to work in the Antartic, what they’re trying to prove, their motivations, etc. And it works. It works beautifully. The characters come through in the subtlety of the performances without the script have to spell everything out for the audience. The men of Outpost 31 plunge into the nightmare of “Who among us is still human?” and we follow them without question.

It’s a gutsy choice, this character minimalizing, but if the central conflict is strong enough, the cast is superb, and the visuals have visceral shock power, it can work. And in The Thing, it works. You couldn’t very well go wrong with a cast that includes Kurt Russell, Keith David, and Wilford Brimley.

The Thing is also a rare case, for me anyway, of gore that enhances the movie experience because it exists for reasons other than to nauseate the audience. I’m no gore-hound; I like horror with subtlety of fear and the unknown rather than relying on dismemberment and eyeballs hang out of skulls on stalks. In The Thing, however, the twisted sequences of the alien creature assimilating and transforming have such imagination that they turn into dark fantasy art. This alien is truly alien, the next logical step from the bio-mechanical beauty of the beastie from Alien.

E. T. beat The Thing in the short-term box office, but in the science-fiction community, we all know who finally assimilated and propagated.