Thursday, August 23, 2012

Alien vs. John Carpenter's The Thing: A Comparison of the Great Shocks

I love Alien. While not Ridley Scott's feature debut (that would have been his 1977 film The Duelists -- credited for its stunning visuals and unenthusiastic returns at the box office), the 1979 epic is regarded as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time.

Three years later, in 1982, Universal Studios released John Carpenter's remake of The Thing.  Opening a mere two weeks after the theatrical debut of E.T., the film was ignored at the box office, and roundly destroyed by critics and a public swooning in the embrace of Steven Spielberg's Christ-like risen-from-the-dead messiah.  That summer, The Thing was quite literally the anti-Christ; as bleak, paranoid, and pessimistic (Carpenter would later call the film the first of his 'End of the World' trilogy) as E.T. was hopeful and uplifting.

While The Thing was ignored in theaters, scathing enthusiasm was directed at Carpenter in abundance, as one critic called the director a "pornographer of violence".

Alien was an immediate hit.

With The Thing, only after years removed from E.T.'s ticker-tape parade was the film rightfully recognized as one of the greatest science films of all time as well; securing top spots in the favorite lists of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, and on critics' lists of the scariest films of all-time.

Sadly, the delayed accolades had little restorative effect on Carpenter, who in the years since, for all his brilliance, has remained an outspokenly bitter outsider of the Hollywood system.  Although, in an odd bit of coincidence, two years after The Thing, Carpenter found some commercial and critical success with the 1984 release of Starman, a visitor from another planet movie that owes more than a passing nod to E.T. (although, in truth, I will always prefer Starman to E.T.  While Spielberg's brilliant film connects to the wishful child in all of us, Starman is a version for adults, exploring the depths of love and loss that only an adult could truly understand).

For Ridley Scott, the immense success of Alien gave him carte blanche in Hollywood -- and he forged ahead...with Blade Runner.

Like Carpenter's The Thing, Blade Runner was death at the box office in its initial release, and found deserved acclaim many years later.  But, also like Carpenter, Scott found his studio value noticeably diminished, especially after Blade Runner's follow-up, the even more disastrous Legend.

But back to Alien and The Thing...

Both films share a moment of 'The Great Shock'.  Each are equally brilliant and notable, which is why I would like to discuss them.

I'm going to proceed with the idea that you have seen both films.  If not, this isn't going to be of much interest or comprehension to you.

However, if you in fact have not seen Alien or The Thing, one quick comment -- Shame on you.

Honestly, I'm not condemning you -- I'm just saying that you are truly doing yourself a disservice by not seeing them.

But let me continue...

In Alien -- we know the early story: ship receives beacon, ship wakes up crew, crew lands ship on planet, crew investigates, and one of them ends up with something attached to his face.

They try to remove it, only to discover it has blood for acid, which nearly eats through the hull of the ship.

Already, it's like something we've never seen.  But wait, it gets better.

Shortly thereafter, they find that the creepy face-hugging-acid-for-blood creature has untethered itself from the crew member's face, and died.

And as an added bonus, said crew member has woken up, in general good spirits.  Feels quite well-rested, in fact.  Now how about a bite to eat?

Now comes The Scene.

It's an innocuous, but somewhat celebratory moment.  The crew is sitting around, just having a meal, confident that the threat has been dealt with.  And we're going along with that (except for that gnawing suspicion in the back of our minds that if it is true, then this is the shortest movie ever.  I mean, we paid good money on the movie ticket/dvd/blu-ray, and one would think that handing out our well-earned cash would get a bit more than a half hour or so of entertainment), until...

Kane, the recipient of the face-hugger's grossly extreme French Kiss, starts to choke.

Okay, he's choking -- no biggie.  Mommy didn't teach him how to chew his food properly, and if you're going to wolf down space spaghetti with abandon, you're bound to overload your throat's capacity.

The other crew members starting patting him on the back, not overly concerned, still grinning.  But then Kane starts to have a seizure, body locking up and falling back onto the table.

Now they are concerned -- jamming a spoon into his mouth so he won't bite his tongue off, everyone, and I mean everyone, holding him down so he won't buck right off the table.

And then...

His chest explodes, his white shirt erupting with blood, splattering the faces of the crew.

And then...

A spearheaded thing peers out from the hole in Kane's chest, glistening with gore, unspiraling from an immeasuarble length of tail.

It surveys the crew, shrieks at them from a chrome-toothed mouth, and bolts from the table and out of sight.

The crew just stands there -- stunned.  And just as they are, we too sit there, not quite knowing what the hell just happened.

It works because it is so completely unexpected.  We were lulled into a false sense that the danger had passed.  But even more than that -- Alien had a life form that was constantly changing.  First we see egg, and then we see face-hugger.

So when the thing bursts from Kane's chest -- it is an entirely new version, a form that we have not been able to become accustomed to; a familiar size or shape or method of movement.

And even then, the movie wasn't done with its antagonist's evolution.  After the crew recovers from the shock of Kane's death, they equip themselves to go and catch this little alien; completely unaware that what fit neatly into a man's chest cavity mere hours ago is now fucking huge.

In a way, Ridley Scott repeats the dinner scene...

But it's not really the same, because now our guard is up.  And as surprising as the appearance of the full-grown alien is (in the extended cut of the film, as Brett is letting the rain wash over his face as he stares up into the shaft -- Ridley Scott does like his unexplained sources of water inside a place -- the alien is actually right there, dangling amid the chains and machinery.  But Brett simply doesn't see it, because it is not what he is looking for), it does not have the same impact as that dinner scene.

Scott even does it again, when Ripley believes she is safely aboard the escape pod -- so safe in fact, that she has stripped down to her underwear -- only to discover that the alien has snuck onboard.  But by that point, I don't think anyone is at all surprised.  I for one (and I know that I'm not alone), seeing it for the first time years ago, saw the alien tucked in amid the pipes and coils waaaay before Ripley did.  The shape of the creature was burned, scarred,  into memory -- and my eye was examining every corner of the frame until the end credits.

In fact, the only time that Scott is able to truly surprise us once again is when Ash is revealed to be an android.  The reveal is way out of left field, and we have been so traumatized/obsessed with the alien at this point, that we are not ready for a complete left turn that catches us unaware.

But still...noting compares to the dinner scene.

John Carpenter's The Thing has its own shock moment of equal brilliance.  And one that I prefer to the Alien version.

Again -- a recap: Norwegian helicopter chasing and shooting at dog, dog runs to American research base, helicopter lands with Norwegian still shooting at dog and accidentally shoots research member, Norwegian killed, Americans investigate burned out Norwegian base, Americans discover that the Norwegians found something in the ice, dog is not really a dog -- turns into a things that attacks the other dogs, Americans try to burn it, they fail to kill it...

Now that the crew knows that the Thing can be anyone, everyone is super paranoid.

And that is what Carpenter's film excels at -- this overwhelming sense of paranoia and claustrophobia.  If that's what the critics in 1982 took issue with, then fine -- but know this: optimism is not for everyone.

At one point, MacReady is suspected of being a Thing -- and is left out in the cold to die.  But MacReady being MacReady, he's not the die in the cold kind of guy (at least, not yet -- although the ending of the film is up for debate), and fights his way back into the base.

In the struggle, the character Norris has a heart attack.  It may not be the biggest surprise, since we've seen him experiencing what can only be described as chest pains earlier in the film.  Everyone is focused on MacReady -- Is he a Thing?  There has certainly been some circumstantial evidence (torn remains of some of MacReady's clothing found in an oil stove) to make us think that just maybe...

Meanwhile, Copper, the base doctor, is working furiously on Norris.  He hits him with the defibrillator. Checks Norris' pulse.  Nothing.

He goes to hit him again...

As Copper thrusts the defibrillator paddles onto Norris' chest -- the chest breaks open into a gaping mouth full of jagged teeth, and bites Copper's arms off.

Holy.  Shit.

But that's just the beginning.  The open chest spews out a mess of slime and tentacles, including some nightmarish human-spider hybrid that attaches itself to the ceiling.

MacReady (our chief suspect, remember?)  leaps into action and unloads his flamethrower on it.

On the operating table, Norris' head separates itself from the burning body (the neck stretching like taffy), and slides down to the floor.  Once there, it uses a long, insect tongue to pull itself away from the fire -- where it promptly grows eye-stalks and spider legs, and skitters away.  But not before the character of Palmer, seeing it crawl away, gives the greatest line in the movie --

"You've gotta be fucking kidding..."

And MacReady burns the thing to death.

The beauty of the creature in The Thing, much like the creature in Alien, is that it constantly changing.  Early in the film, it does not give us the chance to "identify" it -- we have no idea what to look for.

In Alien, we eventually do know, as the crew is terrorized by a seven-foot tall, dual-mandibled, talon-tailed creature.

But in The Thing, we never know what the creature at the heart of it looks like.  It has been traveling through space, presumably for millennia, absorbing the likeness of any other life-form it comes in contact with.  It is the very definition of shapeshifter.

Much like Alien, we have been exposed to strange creatures before the big moment.  In Alien, there is the egg, and then the face-hugger, before the creature makes its gloriously gory appearance in the dinner scene.

Likewise, in The Thing, we have already seen the dog transformation.  Likewise, we have seen the partial-transformation of Bennings.  He is caught by the others out in the cold, human-looking except for a pair of crab-like claws for hands.  And before it can do anything else, it is burned to death.

As a result, when Norris' chest rips open (In Alien and The Thing, the big shocks involve something coming out of or going into a chest cavity), what we see is completely unexpected, and only ups the ante and audience expectation of what the thing can become -- just as the alien bursting from Kane's chest is something horrifyingly different and worse.

In a bit of a side-note: both films owe a tremendous debt to their creators -- and in this context I don't mean either Carpenter or Scott.

Alien could have been laughable.  For a moment, take away the brilliant direction, performances, editing, and pacing.  If the title creature had just been a guy in a suit with a zipper up the back (and yes, I admit, at the end of the film it is  a guy in a suit -- but Scott masterfully shoots it so the less we see of it, the better), it would have been laughed off the screen.

Dan O'Bannon created Alien.  While it was his script, his idea (the idea of an alien gestating in an egg in the human body and bursting forth clearly inspired by his own painful experiences with Crohn's Disease), ultimately he was cruelly thrown from the project -- but not before he gave Ridley Scott a copy of a book profiling the art of Swiss artist H.R. Giger.

If you ever see any of Giger's work, it's a no-brainer that Scott basically said "I want that!"

Giger designed and executed the creature -- and it is his unique artistic vision that made the creature, in all of its transitions, one of the most memorable villains ever on screen.

When John Carpenter was developing The Thing he was introduced to Rob Bottin, a twenty-year old kid who said he wanted to work on the movie.

Bottin designed and created the visual effects in the movie (except for a brief moment by a young Stan Winston), notably coming up with the transformations themselves, that were NOT scripted.

The effects in both films are extraordinary -- but I think that Bottin's stand out.

Today, it's easy to imagine that, if the film were made today, with all that CGI can create, it would not be too difficult an undertaking.

But in 1982...

I personally feel that The Thing is the greatest special effects movie ever made.  The effects are still amazing -- and the use and execution of them is so intrinsic to the overall story that the movie would be a mere shadow of itself without them.

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