Monday, January 11, 2010

The Thing: Fear the familiar face!

When Hollywood endeavored to remake
The Thing From Another World (1951), the late screenwriter Bill Lancaster wisely opted for a radical re-imagining, going back to the source material for inspiration, a novella by John W. Campbell Jr. entitled Who Goes There? Chief among the distinctions between The Thing From Another World and what would simply be called The Thing (82) was the decision, very much in keeping the Campbell’s narrative, to render the titular alien not as an angry salad bar in human form but rather an interplanetary chameleon, a parasite able to rapidly assume the form of whatever host organism it came into contact with after being thawed out by a Norwegian research team in Antarctica. They say mimicry is the highest compliment.

However, Lancaster’s script also differs from the earlier movie in that it features not a single woman. While the presence of women in the earlier movie could be written off as pandering to a broader audience with the arbitrary injection of a love interest, an argument of equal merit could be made that a great opportunity was lost in the resolve to make this an exclusively masculine story. A feminine perspective could have pleasingly complicated the deeply uneasy, paranoid group dynamics of
The Thing, and you have to wonder if the absence of women didn’t emerge above all from squeamishness on the part of the filmmakers, all of them men, who may have felt uncomfortable with desecrating female bodies with the same infamously ferocious and nauseating zeal applied to those of men and canines throughout.

The Thing begins with a pretty corny looking flying saucer crashing into Earth, leaving no ambiguity as to what we’re dealing with from the get-go. There’s only a short, divertingly portentous half-hour or so between this cosmic establishing shot and the first manifestation of the alien presence in the encampment’s Husky cage, with flesh flying off of this poor pooch’s skull like a self-peeling banana, and blood-smeared spaghetti whipping around the room to ensnare the other dogs. The alien’s use of familiar flesh as a sort of Trojan Horse reveals a similar tactic to that of the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (56), which was also imaginatively updated and remade in a version directed by Philip Kaufman in ’78. But in The Thing, directed by John Carpenter, the process of transfiguration is itself the central concern of the movie. It veers away from the concerns of science fiction and into that of horror, emphasizing repeatedly the body as a site of grotesque violence and chilling anonymity.

The Thing, when not making you want to vomit, is pretty fun, another Carpenter siege drama where evil is evil and the good guys do what it takes. But I can’t help but imagine a David Cronenberg version, a movie far more curious, speculative and precise in its biological exegesis and bearing greater pathos. Undoubtedly Cronenberg, like the scientist in The Thing From Another World, would be more sympathetic to the alien than Kurt Russell, who rarely puts on a hat in the –40 tempests and eagerly torches everything in sight. But maybe we should be imagining a Werner Herzog version. Early in The Thing a characters named Windows tries to get in touch with his colleagues at McMurdo Station, the setting of Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World (07). Would those endearing misfits at McMurdo, spanning many countries of origin and encompassing both genders, have been able to fight off the alien? Or might they have embraced it as just another fellow outsider, far from home and in search of communion?

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