The Thing ★★★★½

Across a sweeping panorama of the Antarctic ice floor, a lone Alaskan Malamute dashes assuredly across the glacial landscape, pursued by a chopper that whirs and loops overhead. The gunman inside fires repeatedly but the dog is too dexterous, too much at home in this uninhabitable terrain, whereas the gunman is a Norwegian scientist - an incongruous invader - and a lousy shot. The dog continues its frantic escape, dodging bullets, darting to and fro, until finally it comes to a solitary research station manned by a dozen bearded men who, incidentally, are as alien to their habitat as the 'thing' that's racing ever so naturally towards them.

This exhilarating, brilliant opening sequence to Carpenter's science fiction classic is very telling. Immediately we know, for instance, that we are in for a tense and atmospheric experience. We know the director understands the hostile beauty of this terrain and his cinematographer knows how to photograph it. About twenty minutes in we know something else too: that appearances are deceiving - and we definitely shouldn't be rooting for the dog.

The film is an adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. 1938 novella 'Who Goes there?', which inspired an earlier movie adaptation, 'The Thing From Another World' in 1951. Let me state for the record that the 1982 adaptation is superior, not only in terms of its visual scope but also in terms of narrative complexity. Unlike the earlier film, where the alien is a Frankenstein-like monster that feeds on blood, the methods of the alien in this version are far more insidious. It survives by replicating the cells of its victims until it looks and sounds just like them. After the isolated men trapped in the station discover this, they realise that this 'thing' could be hiding behind any face on a cellular level, completely hidden to the naked eye. It will not give itself away, because it understands that concealment is its best weapon against the others. Slowly it infects the men, one after the other, until suddenly we are not sure who is who versus who is pretending. As the corridors darken and the wind howls more rapturously against the station walls, two horrifying realities emerge: First, that there is no one to trust, and second, there is no way out.

The deftly self-assured thriller was largely ignored upon its release, both commercially and critically, having come out the same year as 'E.T.' (and opening the same weekend as 'Blade Runner'). It has since earned its rightful place in cinematic history as a truly groundbreaking entry into the science fiction genre. This film imbibes the dark mood and stylistic flourishes of 'Alien', but balances it by telling a humanist story full of complex ideas about isolation, survival, duplicity and the horror of disease. Full of grotesque special effects that are both horrific and (sometimes) intentionally comic, this is unnerving entertainment set on a beautiful continent as cold and malevolent as the anonymous enemy in pursuit of mankind.

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