I freely admit I wasn’t especially impressed with John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) when I first saw it—and I still think it’s much less of a movie than the 1951 film. But it’s also a completely different beast than the Howard Hawks-Christian Nyby original. It’s less a remake of that film than it is an adaptation of the John W. Campbell Jr. story, “Who Goes There?” Viewed in that light, it’s a good sci-fi/horror opus—and better than most of Carpenter’s work, perhaps because somebody else wrote the screenplay. I still don’t think it’s the classic a lot of people insist it is, but it works as a splattery thriller that’s grounded in sheer paranoia.
The best—probably only way—to approach the film is to put the earlier movie out of your mind—something that becomes harder to do when The Thing replicates one of that version’s sequences. The Hawks film moves like lightning—an impression aided by the director’s trademark overlapping dialogue. This film proceeds at a much different pace and the dialogue has none of that sense of urgency. Both movies are grounded in paranoia, but it’s a very different kind of paranoia. Hawks’ film is built on a kind of Cold War mind-set—with a huge and not very appealing streak of anti-intellectualism. While there’s not a lot intellectualism going on here, the paranoia is more generalized, working on the basis that it’s impossible to trust anyone. Whether or not that reflects the increase in paranoia in the intervening years is probably a personal call.
On its own merits, Carpenter’s film is atmospheric fun. In 1982, its Rob Bottin creature effects were quite remarkable. If they don’t quite hold up today (they probably hold up better for viewers who saw The Thing at an impressionable age), they’re still pretty impressive in their ambition and their relative sense of realism—even if we’re not exactly in territory that cries out for realism. And they do possess a solidity that’s lacking in so many of today’s CGI effects. What you see is really there and the movie benefits a good deal from that—even if a certain cheese factor creeps in on occasion.