As John Carpenter’s The Thing turns 40 this summer, we look at why the film still resonates with audiences today. 

Spoilers for The Thing lie ahead.

John Carpenter’s sci-fi shocker The Thing turns 40 this year. Appropriate that it hits a landmark anniversary in 2022, because Carpenter’s film taps into primal fears about our own extinction. Justified fears, because as a species we cannot stop flirting with real life Armageddon. But unlike The Thing, Vladimir Putin’s recent Cold War reboot (and the resultant nuclear anxiety) is an ‘80s artifact carrying little nostalgia.

OUR BEST EVER SUBSCRIPTION OFFER!

Try three issues of Film Stories magazine – for just £1: right here!

In the US the film was released on 25th June 1982, and 26th August here in the UK. In the former Soviet Union, audiences were able to check out Нечто (Nechto or “Something”), to give its Russian language title, on 26th June. In Ukraine it was Щось (Shchos), which also translates as “Something”. Hopefully on those dates this year fans will be able to enjoy a Thing-along with family and friends, wherever they may be.

Although a flop critically and commercially at time of release, like its titular meanie the movie bided its time and the fanbase grew. By 1993 Quentin Tarantino was citing it as a key influence on Reservoir Dogs. Now, John Carpenter’s The Thing (to give the onscreen title) is recognised as a horror masterpiece. With the expensive NECA toys to prove it.

For the unacquainted, The Thing was a big budget updating of the Howard Hawks “hands on” produced 1951 chiller The Thing from Another World. Both versions were adapted from John W. Campbell Jr.’s short story Who Goes There?, Carpenter’s being more faithful to its body snatcher premise.

In the 1982 adaptation, a US scientific research team in Antarctica have their boredom interrupted when a shapeshifting alien infiltrates their base in the form of an innocent looking husky dog. Said hound spectacularly shows its hand (or paw) by exploding into a betentacled alien… thing, which can absorb and imitate any living being. Question is, has the dog already turned one of the American team? The unsurprising answer is yes. But who?

Kurt Russell leads the cast, supported by such great faces as Keith David, Wilford Brimley, Donald Moffat and T.K. Carter. The real stars however are Rob Bottin’s fantastic and fantastically gory make-up FX. Come the closing credits, you will believe a man’s head can bifurcate into a fanged maw.

The Thing’s genius is in being a one-stop shop for depicting our darkest fears of annihilation. Originally, this piece was going to focus solely on it being a great horror movie to watch during, and emerging from, a pandemic. Hollywood has always loved a good virus yarn, (The Andromeda Strain, Outbreak, Contagion), and The Thing is a stealth example of the “did that cough mean anything?” subgenre.

The movie’s characters discover the alien invader is a sentient virus, working at molecular level to absorb the host. Only briefly during the transition stage is it apparent something iffy is occurring. After that, characters carry the threat but are asymptomatic (unless threatened). Wisely, everyone begins social distancing and fixing their own meals. With a storm closing in, lockdown is a given. Moreover, the alien is so effective, it makes Omicron look sluggish by comparison. Total global subsummation of humankind by the alien invader is estimated to be 27,000 hours, or around three years. That would need quite the vaccine.

Watching The Thing in the time of Covid provides the film an added relevancy. Particularly as cases and related fatalities in the UK are both on the rise once more. Someone you know and trust is carrying an agent that attacks you on a molecular level and, in a very messy fashion, could stop you being you. Those of us who experienced COVID migraines smile sympathetically during the scene in which a head detaches itself from the body, sprouts spider-like legs, and scuttles off (before being set ablaze).

Kurt Russell in The Thing

Plus, with no cure in sight comes the ambiguous ending, and the suggestion that characters may have to learn to live with the situation, whatever it brings.

But Carpenter’s film is as versatile as its antagonist, and 40 years on continues to reflect man-made apocalypse anxieties. Not that this was new even in the ‘80s; Hollywood had embraced atomic dread and Cold War worries since the 1950s. When Russia successfully detonated an atomic device in 1949, the Bomb became the iPhone 13 Pro Max of its day, triggering an arms race.

Films such as Them! (probably the best giant ant movie), the original The Thing from Another World, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and The War of the Worlds addressed fears and provided escapism, with happy endings more or less guaranteed. In Japan, which had experienced atomic fury firsthand, Godzilla was doing the same thing.

In 1982, audiences were still looking to sci-fi and horror for diversion, but the certainties had gone. The self-assured moral authority and black and white worldview of 1950s sci-fi had succumbed to the radiation poisoning of Vietnam, Watergate, The Manson Family, energy crises, and multiple assassinations. Rather than “Us vs. Them,” it was “Perhaps we are Them.Meaning we were as likely to bring about our own destruction: in 1982, Russia had the most nukes, but the West was not skimping on stockpiling.

The Thing’s nihilism recognised this shifting mood, even if US audiences at the time were not keen to see it on screen. The remake’s Antarctica location (actually Alaska and British Columbia) makes the battle between man and alien a literal cold war. A war that turns hot for the climax when the American team apply a strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction. The remake doesn’t share the 1951 version’s belief that US scientific know-how and military gumption will preserve the American way of life.

The extinction nihilism is there in a cast of miserable male characters who seem to be waiting for the end, even before things turn extra-terrestrially malevolent. The film’s sole woman is a speaking chess computer voiced by legendary cult actress Adrienne Barbeau, short circuited early on when Kurt Russell’s hero” pours whisky onto her circuit board. The 2011 remake/prequel, also titled The Thing, was fronted by a female character. But Mary Elizabeth Winstead was wasted in the lead role, and the film is best left frozen in the ice.

Nuclear annihilation received serious cinematic treatment during the 1980s with such films as On the Beach, Testament, and the terrifying Threads. But as in the 1950s, fantasy cinema proved more popular. The Terminator and War Games entertained while speaking to nuclear angst. As did those slasher movies in which teens brimming with hormones and potential meet sudden, messy ends. Watch the blood gushing out of a bed Johnny Depp has just been pulled into in A Nightmare on Elm Street and tell us it doesn’t resemble a mushroom cloud.

Back to 2022. Vladimir Putin has introduced that sweaty-palmed, dry mouthed dread of world-ending conflict for a whole new generation. Russia may currently be in retreat, but the stories coming out of Ukraine are grim. Anyone thinking Mad Vlad will not regroup for another go-round may find themselves disappointed. Also, recent debate around the likelihood of Russia using tactical nukes has been a bit too nonchalant for our liking.

The Thing is still acknowledging anxieties and providing escapism from a world suddenly even more dangerous. The nihilism that turned off 1982’s cinemagoers now captures the imagination of audiences who understand no matter how much progress we make, we’re always in danger of triggering the ultimate reset. Hopefully come this summer, fans around the globe will be watching John Carpenter’s masterpiece in a slightly calmer world.

Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:

Follow Film Stories on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.

Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.

Become a Patron here.

Related Posts