Ostensibly a remake of the 1951 Christian Nyby film The Thing from Another World, Carpenter’s film is a more faithful adaptation of the novella "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr., which inspired the 1951 film.
The film is about a shape-shifting alien that is revived after being frozen in ice. The alien infiltrates a scientific research station in the Antarctic and kills a Norwegian research team. A nearby American research team investigates the incident and is in turn attacked by the alien.
The theatrical performance of the film was poor, opening in 8th place at the box office. Many factors have been attributed to the poor opening, which include the release of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a more optimistic view of alien visitation. However, the film has gone on to gain a following with the release on home video. Carpenter considers the film to be the first part of his Apocalypse Trilogy. The film has been released on DVD in 1998 and 2004. In 2002 a video game was released which followed on from the film's plot.
In 1982, an American Antarctic research station is alerted by gunfire and explosions. Pursued by a Norwegian helicopter, a Siberian Husky makes its way into the camp as the science station's crew looks on in confusion. Through the reckless use of a thermal charge, the helicopter is destroyed and its pilot killed shortly after landing. The surviving passenger fires at the dog with a rifle, grazing Bennings (Peter Maloney), one of the American researchers. The passenger is subsequently shot and killed by Garry (Donald Moffat), the station commander. Not knowing what to make of the incident, the station crew adopts the dog.
Unable to contact the outside world via radio, helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) risk a flight to the Norwegian camp to find it destroyed, its personnel missing or dead. Finding evidence that the Norwegians had dug something out of the ice, the pair return to the station with the partially-burned remains of a hideous creature which bears some human features. An autopsy of the cadaver by Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) is inconclusive, save to find that the creature had what appeared to be a normal set of internal organs.
At Bennings' request, the station veterinarian, Clark (Richard Masur), kennels the stray with the rest of the station's sled dogs. Noises from the kennel cause Clark to return, finding almost the entire sled team in the process of being messily assimilated by the stray dog, which has transformed into a monster. MacReady summons the rest of the crew to the kennel with the fire alarm and orders Childs (Keith David) to incinerate the creature with a flamethrower. A subsequent autopsy by Blair reveals that the stray dog was an alien capable of absorbing and perfectly imitating other life-forms. Realizing the implications of this, Blair quickly becomes withdrawn and suspicious of the rest of the crew. A second helicopter expedition discovers an alien spacecraft unearthed by the Norwegian research team, revealing that the creature had awakened after being buried within the permafrost for thousands of years.
Bennings and Windows (Thomas G. Waites) quarantine the burnt remains of both the dog-creature and the Norwegian cadaver in the storage room, but in the process Bennings is left alone. Moments later, Windows discovers Bennings in the process of being assimilated. The crew burns the Bennings replica before its transformation is complete. Determining that all life on Earth would be assimilated in just over three years if the creature were to reach the mainland, Blair goes berserk, destroying the helicopter and radio equipment and killing the remaining sled dogs. The team overpowers him and confines him in the tool shed. With all contact to the outside world cut off, the crew wonders how to determine who is still human. Paranoia quickly sets in as the first attempt to develop a test is sabotaged by an unknown party.
Fuchs (Joel Polis), attempting to continue Blair's research, goes missing shortly afterwards during a power failure. While searching for Fuchs' body, MacReady comes under suspicion and is locked outside in a severe blizzard. Somehow finding his way back to camp without a guide line, MacReady breaks into a camp storage room and threatens the rest of the crew with dynamite. In the course of MacReady's standoff, Norris (Charles Hallahan) suffers a heart attack. When Dr. Copper attempts to revive him, Norris' body transforms and kills Copper. Norris' head detaches from his body, sprouts legs and attempts to escape as the others burn the body, leading MacReady to theorize that every piece of the alien is an individual animal with its own survival instinct. In an altercation that precedes a test proposed by MacReady, Clark tries to stab MacReady, who shoots and kills him. The rest of the crew complies with the test; blood samples are drawn from each member of the team and jabbed with a hot wire to see whose blood will react defensively. Palmer (David Clennon), the backup pilot, is soon unmasked as an imitation, and manages to kill Windows before being lit on fire by MacReady and blown up with a stick of dynamite.
Confirming that MacReady, Childs, Garry, and Nauls (T.K. Carter) are still human, the surviving crew set out to administer the test to Blair, only to find that he has escaped. After discovering that Blair had been constructing a small flying craft of alien design underneath the tool shed and witnessing Childs inexplicably abandon his post at the main gate, the facility loses all power. Realizing that the creature now wants to freeze again so a future rescue team will find it, the remaining crew acknowledge that they will not survive and set about destroying the facility with dynamite and molotov cocktails in hopes of killing the creature. While setting explosives in the underground generator room, Garry is assimilated by Blair. Nauls follows the sounds of a creature and is never seen again. Suddenly alone, MacReady prepares to detonate the charges when the creature, now huge, emerges from beneath the floor. MacReady kills it with a stick of dynamite, which sets off the rest of the charges and destroys the entire facility.
After some time, MacReady is shown wandering alone in the flaming rubble. He encounters Childs, who claims to have seen Blair and gotten lost while chasing him in the snow. With the polar climate closing in around them, they acknowledge the futility of their distrust, sharing a drink as the camp burns. It is never revealed if either of them had been infected or if they survived long enough to be rescued.
The film took three months to shoot on six sound stages, with many of the crew and actors working in cold conditions. The final weeks of shooting took place near Stewart, British Columbia, where snow was guaranteed to fall. John Carpenter filmed the Norwegian camp scenes at the end of production. The Norwegian camp was simply the remains of the American outpost after it was destroyed by explosion.
The film is cited as the first installment in Carpenter’s "Apocalypse Trilogy", followed by 1987’s Prince of Darkness and 1995’s In the Mouth of Madness. While the plots and characters of the films are not related, they all feature a potentially apocalyptic scenario. The film is also notable in Carpenter’s career for two reasons—it was his first foray into studio film-making and it was Carpenter’s first film to be made without Debra Hill as co-producer. The Thing was the fourth film shot by cinematographer Dean Cundey (following Halloween, The Fog and Escape from New York) and the third to feature Kurt Russell as the lead actor (Russell would appear in two additional Carpenter films following The Thing: Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from L.A.).
In the documentary Terror Takes Shape offered on the DVD, film editor Todd C. Ramsay states that he made the suggestion to Carpenter to film a "happy" ending for the movie, purely for protective reasons, while they had Russell available. Carpenter agreed and shot a scene in which MacReady has been rescued and administed a blood test, proving that he is still human. Ramsay follows this by saying that The Thing had two test screenings, but Carpenter didn't use the sequence in either of them, as the director felt that the film worked better with its nihilistic conclusion.
According to the 1998 DVD release, the "Blair Monster" was to have had a much larger role in the final battle. However, due to the limitations of stop-motion animation, the "Blair Monster" appears for only a few seconds in the film.
In the book Prince of Darkness, Carpenter remarked that the audience for horror films had shrunk when questioned about the box office failure of The Thing. In spite of its lackluster box office performance, the film’s reputation improved in the late nineties through home video releases. The film ranked #97 on Rotten Tomatoes’ Journey Through Sci-Fi (100 Best-Reviewed Sci-Fi Movies), and a scene from The Thing was listed as #48 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments. As of October 2008, it is ranked #171 of the top 250 movies of all time in the Internet Movie Database.
In September 2006, it was announced in Fangoria magazine that Strike Entertainment, the production company behind Slither and the Dawn of the Dead remake, is looking for a writer or writers to write a theatrical prequel to The Thing. Producton is said to be continuing.
As of early 2007, there have been two announced projects to expand the franchise. Sci-Fi planned to do a four-hour mini-series sequel to the film in 2003. Carpenter stated that he believed the project should proceed, but because of the lack of updates and the removal of all mention of it from the Sci-Fi Channel homepage, it is likely now abandoned.
According to Variety, Strike Entertainment and Universal Pictures are preparing to remake The Thing. Ronald D. Moore is set to write the script with Marc Abraham and Eric Newman producing. David Foster, producer of the original film, will be executive producer of the remake. In a 2007 interview with Ronald D. Moore, Moore states that he is working on a script, but no date has been set for production.
Dark Horse Comics published three comic miniseries sequels to the film, featuring the character of MacReady as the lone survivor of Outpost #31 and depicting Childs as infected. The series was renamed The Thing from Another World after the original 1951 Howard Hawks film in order to avoid confusion and possible legal conflict with Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four member, also named The Thing. After the comics' publication, John Carpenter stated he enjoyed the comics so much that he would adapt them if he ever filmed a sequel himself.
In 1997 the British Film Institute published a 96-page monograph on The Thing by Anne Billson in its BFI Modern Classics series. Billson was one of the first film critics to offer a rebuttal to the poor critical reception the film received on its initial release, suggesting it had been underrated by mainly elderly reviewers who didn't care for the science fiction or horror genres to begin with, especially when special effects were involved. She also noted the film had attracted a strong cult following in the interim.
In the first season of the The X-Files, Episode Eight "Ice" adapts "Who Goes There?" in a manner similar to The Thing, with Mulder and Scully investigating an unknown parasite which infects humans in an Arctic base.
In an episode of The Outer Limits, stock footage of the helicopter landing at U.S. Outpost 31 from the film, is re-used for an isolated compound in the 1995 series.
Season one of Mighty Max episode 12 "Out in the Cold Max encounters an Artic base inhabited by shape shifting aliens whos weakness is heat. The story plays out in a very similar fashion to the movie.