Beware ill-tempered vegetable creatures and close-knit gatherings of scientists and military in Arctic regions.
Based on a short story by John W. Campbell, Jr., The Thing opens with a distress call placed to Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his merry band of Air Force men. They snag journalist Scotty (Douglas Spencer) and head up to the North Pole, home of Santa Claus and crash site to an unidentified metallic object.
Fortuitously, the crash site is a scant fifty miles from a scientific convention of physicists and botanists, headed by Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) and his witty secretary Nikki (Margaret Sheridan ). No one wants to be the first to scream UFO, but whatever’s under the ice is distorting radio signals and emitting radiation.
Sure enough, a familiar disc shape with a suspicious fin is found buried in the ice. In an effort to dislodge it, the military detonates a thermal bomb and accidentally blows the ship up. God smiles on fools, and a surviving ice creature is found embedded in the ice near the remains of the ship. They hack it out and haul it back to base to await further instructions.
The ice being is stored in a freezing room, while the scientists and military men clash over what to do; the scientists wish to thaw and dissect the creature, while the military wants to reassign responsibility to someone higher up. The debate is soon rendered moot when the Thing is thawed and rejuvenated, due to an ill-placed electric blanket by one of the military guards. The Thing ditches its icy coffin and heads outside to kill a sled dog, losing an arm in the struggle.
Back at the lab, Dr. Carrington notices that the severed appendage has a nasty tendency to ooze green fluid, stores spores under the nails, and regenerates. He wildly extrapolates that this creature is the end result of Darwinian vegetable evolution, and that it’s stronger and smarter than us. Worse still, it thrives on our blood.
From here on out, it appears that the scientists have all lost their minds – no mean feat when we’re talking about a military that accidentally blows up an entire alien spacecraft. They find and suppress the location of the Thing, culminating in several corpses being suspended upside down by their feet in the greenhouse for better blood drainage. Dr. Carrington has taken to hatching the Thing’s spores with suspended blood bags, mimicking his dead colleagues. No one ever said Dr. Carrington was sensitive.
Nor is the military above a bit of insubordination. Captain Hendry receives explicit orders to secure the creature alive, which quickly prompts a debate on the best way to kill the vampiristic vegetable. Sharp cookie Nikki suggests cooking it, and it’s with a wary eye that we watch the bumbling military men set the creature aflame with kerosene. Naturally, they end up torching their own quarters and really annoying the Thing. Interspecies war is declared
Upping the stakes, the military rigs up the electric generator to shock the creature. The Thing retaliates by cutting all heat to the building – apparently frozen blood works as well as fresh.
Meanwhile, Dr. Carrington has gone stark raving bonkers and turned off the generator to plead with the alien (“I want to understand you.”) The Thing, more interested in fresh blood than communicating, backhands Carrington and strides purposefully onto the electrified trap. Several thousand volts of electricity later, the roasted smell of baked potato lingers in the air. Reporter Scottie finally gets his first alien invasion story, and he urging everyone to “Watch the skies everywhere!”
Capitalizing on the UFO craze, The Thing brings the “terrors from the sky” back down to earth. The arctic circle, hostile to almost all life, is an interesting alternative to a distant planet – a place where the Thing ironically turns out to be better equipped for survival than fragile humans.
Nuclear responsibility also rears it’s familiar head with the overly powerful thermite explosives that vaporize the spaceship. Serving as a warning to society is the somewhat heavy handling of the scientific head, Dr. Carrington. Carrington exemplifies some of the worst ideas thought about scientists at the time: they’ll unwittingly destroy the human race in their quest for exploring the unknown. Science fiction can be somewhat moralistic at times, here at the cost of scientific discovery.
It’s natural for the military and scientists to be in conflict in this film: the military wishes to defend what they have (a secure planet with no invaders), while the scientists wish to explore what they don’t have (strange creatures from distant planets). Still, the odds are hardly even when the military side gets Captain Hendry and his witty bunch of flyboys, and the scientific side is stuck with the loopy, dangerous Dr. Carrington and an ill-spirited chunk of vegetation.