The very first shot of The Thing shows a flying saucer burning into The Earth’s atmosphere, the mighty globe and the odd star illuminating an otherwise perfectly black background. It is by far the weakest moment of the entire film. The spaceship is a poorly-designed piece of not-particularly-special FX. It looks a bit naff, but this is a b-movie from the early ‘80s: there’s no shortage of that.
More than that, it’s that, for one moment, it pretends to be a proper sci-fi film. The Thing is summed up much better in the next scene, as a husky runs, against a pure white backdrop. One innocuous-looking dog manages to be a dozen times more threatening, especially when accompanied by Morricone’s score.
This one shot never fits with the rest of the whole. It’s is a film about isolation, and about (more-or-less) normal guys in a difficult situation. The Thing works best as a film of ambiguity and questions. What is the Thing? More importantly: who is the Thing? Is it him? Or him? Or you? Even the end of the film is a big fat question mark.
It’s all about being unsure until the very moment you pull the trigger. Is he my friend or is he the monster? And that’s what The Thing boils down to. It grinds down to the very bones of narrative tension, sheer trust-vs.-betrayal, making a single irreversible decision. And making it wrong.
And with that in mind, nothing else – the way the film balances instantly-classic iconography with characters just well sketched enough to be believable, the beautiful Arctic cinematography – none of that matters. All there is wondering if your friend will betray you, and making hard decisions based on what you reckon.
Except that they’re not friends. They’re just a bunch of guys who work together, from the moment they wake up to the moment they fall asleep. This is what makes The Thing better to (film-snob blasphemy!) the original Alien, which is almost certainly its model. We’ve all been there, wondering which workmate is going to stab us in the back next. And of course – especially if you’re trapped in the Arctic with a shape-changing alien – the answer is always all of them.