Warning: Very Minor Spoilers
The other day, my fiancee and I were browsing through our various streaming services looking for something to watch. As if the fates themselves chose to decree what we were to view that night, I accidentally clicked on John Carpenter’s classic, The Thing. Amazingly, neither of us had yet to see the film. Given today’s quarantine climate, we decided, in a bout of apparent serendipity, to give the movie a watch.
Now, John Carpenter is a filmmaker whose films I tend to respect far more than I actually enjoy. That said, any of the criticisms I personally have toward his filmmaking style I will happily concede as inherently subjective. Any issues I have are things that another movie buff might love. Carpenter films, with some notable exceptions, of course, tend to focus more on atmosphere and visual technique than story and characters. To reiterate, that’s not something objectively bad – it’s just not what I typically want from a film. The Thing, it turns out, doesn’t stray too far from Carpenter’s standard cinematic trappings, but I still generally enjoyed it quite a bit.
To put it bluntly, yes, The Thing holds up fairly well. That’s not to say I don’t have issues with it, nor that it could ever pass for a modern film (which doesn’t necessarily serve as a detriment – after all, we’ve seen what modern technology can do with the same material), but as a whole, if you’re looking for an entertaining monster movie encapsulated by an interesting premise, then you need not look further.
What Holds Up?
My favorite aspect of the film is the concept itself. As most people probably know, this film is actually a remake of a 1950’s b-movie, which itself is an adaption of a novella from the 1930’s. The idea that someone in a group is a shape-shifting monster and the rest of the group needs to figure it out is just fascinating to me – and others, apparently, given that we have three (and soon to be four, if Blumhouse gets their way) incarnations of this one simple story. I love stories about a group of characters who need to figure their way out of a dire situation, and this is perhaps one of the best examples of such an idea put to screen.
I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up perhaps the most notable aspect of the film… being that Wilford Brimley is still alive and kicking at 85!
No, no, no, I’m obviously talking about the effects. Done by Rob Bottin at only twenty-freaking-two (who barely survived the filmmaking process – no, seriously), the effects are, for the most part, fantastic. The use of every trick in the book gives the film considerable charm and a lot to appreciate from a filmmaking perspective. Matte paintings, rear screen projection (that actually looks decent at times!), scale models, animatronics, puppetry – it’s all here, giving its reputation as one of the most impressive practical effects films immense credence.
There are some special effects shots or models that don’t hold up, yes, and if you’re a cynic who hates movies, yeah, you’re going to see places where the effects look obviously fake. But if you’re not someone who easily disregards unfathomable amounts of effort, talent, and gumption, this movie is a sight to behold visually, and not just for the great practical effects, either.
Dean Cundey, who has a storied history with Carpenter and for shooting classics such as Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, and Jack and Jill, is at his best here. The lighting, blocking, and framing are all exceptional. The use of camerawork to accentuate the monster is great as well. There are a few minor issues I have with the photography, but they’re issues I have with a lot of Carpenter films. They’re minor enough to where it’s barely worth mentioning… so I won’t. Just know that the film is, for the most part, utterly gorgeous to look at.
In addition to the photography and effects, the performances (special commendations to Kurt Russell and Keith David), production design, set design, costumes, and sound are all top-notch and stand out as well. I also generally liked the performances, which range from standard 80’s cheese to pretty dang good. John Carpenter is as good an actor’s director as they come, and this comes through strongly in the film.
What Doesn’t Hold Up?
If you’re a person who needs a tight narrative and strong characterization, this movie may initially come off a little disappointing. It’s a classic, but not a classic in the way Taxi Driver or There Will Be Blood are remembered. Again, this is fairly subjective – if you don’t mind a movie that focuses heavily on atmosphere and visuals (which, and I need to stress this, is not a bad thing), then this issue will mean nothing to you. For my personal enjoyment of the film, it’s a detriment. I can appreciate the inalienable visuals all day long, but I’m usually someone who needs a solid plot or character to really get invested in a film.
It also feels a lot like a 50’s b-movie. This is something I noticed constantly throughout my viewing of the film. From its tone to the way shots are composed and blocked, the inspirations Carpenter clearly drew from may stand out, either positively or negatively depending on your perspective.
This movie holds up. If you’re experiencing cabin fever due to the quarantine, watch this film, if only to feel a tiny bit better about your own predicament (certainly watch this movie over Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever).
As for whether you’ll enjoy it, that’s a different story. I think it will vary wildly from viewer to viewer. For instance, don’t watch this movie with grandma. She won’t get it and she might have a heart attack. But if you like monster movies, movies where people are trapped in a dire situation, and/or movies with great practical effects, this is a must-watch.