Return of the Thing screenplay reviewed: Part 2
Posted by Patrick Sauriol on Wednesday, February 18, 2009
This is the second part of the review for Return of the Thing, a two-part mini-series that was in development in 2005 for the Sci Fi Channel. Click here to read the first part of this review or else you're going to be locked in a kennel with the rest of Clark's dogs.
The second part of David Leslie Johnson’s Return of the Thing screenplay is titled “Extreme Amplification”, as in things building in sound and fury. It’s an accurate description of what takes place in the final chapter of Johnson’s sequel to one of the best monster movies ever made, John Carpenter’s The Thing.
It starts off with the U.S. military and Homeland Security entering the small New Mexico town of Christmas, approximate population 300. Even though the strike teams conduct a search from top to bottom they only find about 50 people and everyone else missing. The team also find the shredded clothing of a technician inside one of their mobile labs. The Russian scientist that re-discovered the remains of the Thing from the events in Carpenter’s movie, Dr. Lukanov, knows what this means: the creature has taken over at least one of them and there’s no telling how many more soldiers, scientists or government agents are now Things. Right on page four, four minutes into the start of the final show, Lukanov gives his advice to the general in command: pull everyone out and drop an atomic bomb on Christmas, right now. The Americans still don’t fully comprehend what it is that they’re dealing with but they’ve taken the advice of Lukanov and have dozens of teams in helicopters shooting and burning any animals that they find in the area surrounding the downed airliner and the town.
Meanwhile and miles away from the town are John Little Bear and an escaped convict named Gates. The two of them know what the Thing is although Little Bear calls it a skinwalker, a fabled Indian creature that can imitate anyone or any animal. They’re in pursuit of a Thing-Coyote that has been trying to escape the area, all the while infecting any other animals that it can find along the way. Little Bear and Gates are killing the infected animals and burning the corpses as they pursuit their quarry, including a run-in with a man that turns out to be a Thing.
Back in the town the military has quarantined the survivors that they could find and begin forcing the residents to take the blood test that MacReady developed to root out who’s human and who’s not. After an intense moment when one of the residents goes all Rob Bottin, the General and his Homeland Security advisor, Avery, are convinced as to how scary this threat is. Blackburn advises the President and lays it on the line: even though the General has men out there shooting and burning all animals they discover, what about the insects and birds that they can’t see? What about what happens if one of the townsfolk that they’ve got quarantined is a Thing and it starts to sneeze millions of Thing-infected germs into the air that everyone else is breathing? And it gets worse: according to the blood tests performed all of the Christmas survivors are human. But Lukanov isn’t so sure that’s the case. What if the Thing has figured out a way to get around the blood test?
The decision is made shortly thereafter: an atomic bomb will be dropped on Christmas in 10 hours. To raise the stakes even more, Lukanov and his American colleagues agree that unless they find a new way to test for who’s infected by the Thing, they’re not going anywhere and they’ll die in the blast as well. Furthermore, all orders from within the hot zone to the outside world are to be ignored unless all of the senior members of the strike team are in agreement. Everyone now knows that the fate of the world rests in what they do during these next few hours.
Around here Johnson really amps the sense of paranoia to the max. Just as Carpenter did with the last third of his movie, when no one knows for certain who’s a human and who’s a Thing, Johnson wisely follows in the same path – except this time he’s got hundreds of soldiers and townspeople running around, some of which we get to see ambushed by Thing creatures and imitations. Bullets don’t stop these Things when they’re tearing at you. And where have all those missing 300 people from Christmas gone? It gets crazier early on in the second script and doesn’t let up for quite a while.
Lukanov and Little Bear come to realize that there is a second way to reveal if a human being has become a Thing. Here’s where the writer showed me that he’s put some hard thought into what the Thing is and shows care and attention to Carpenter’s work. The roots of the second test to determine who’s a Thing lies with that memorable scene in the 1982 film where Norris suffers a heart attack and Doc Copper administers shock paddles to Norris’ chest and…well, you remember what happens next, right? Johnson’s theory is that just as the Thing couldn’t avoid having an autonomic response to high heat, it can’t stay hidden when a high electrical current is applied to it. In fact, if it’s a large organism being electrocuted the Thing will lose control of its body and rapid, uncontrollable manifestations will emerge from its flesh. Johnson uses that scene of Norris’ body receiving an electric shock from the medical paddles and spins it into a different light: the Thing was cornered and it had no other option but to violently emerge from Norris and attack. In Johnson’s sequel, it’s discovered that when a higher electric shock is delivered, the Thing will not just manifest itself but it’s flesh will “de-evolve” back and show incarnations of earlier forms it took.
The electric shock test proves to be a success and there are some frightful moments that happen when people are discovered to be Things. In one scene the heroes take one Thing-infected person and continue to re-shock it over and over again. Different faces and entities ripple across the mass of flesh showing the earlier forms the Thing took, of characters we were introduced to earlier in the story to faces of the men from MacReady’s camp to the Norwegians – and further back to the insectoid aliens whose ship brought the Thing to our world, back further to hundreds of bizarre alien creatures and then finally back to it’s original form. I don’t want to say much else about what that shape is but it’s here that we finally have a dialog with the primal creature and it only has two one-word answers to give to humanity. It wants to live; it wants us to die. It’s as simple as that.
As the clock winds down the action goes into overdrive. Lukanov and Little Bear’s stories eventually sync up. We find out what the Thing-townsfolk have been up to and it blends together two more memorable plot discoveries from Carpenter’s original (think of what Blair was building out in his shack but a lot more and for an smaller occupant that might make you say “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me” when you lay eyes on it.)
Is this idea for a Thing sequel completely dead or is there some hope, any hope that parts of Johnson’s version will find their way into the new movie? Even if there’s the slimmest chance I can’t bring myself to ruin the ending or who among the major players becomes a Thing or who lives or dies at the end, Thing included. Maybe when the day comes and I know for certain that nothing in Johnson’s take survives in Moore’s, then I can reveal the whole enchilada but right now if I did I’d feel like I was betraying Johnson, somehow, or just the possibility that Moore is going to salvage some of what’s in the mini’s two screenplays.
And once again I’ve spent over a thousand words on describing plot points and next to none for my analysis and final verdict on Johnson’s work. When I had finished the second part of Return of the Thing and had some time to digest it, the closest comparison I can come to is what James Cameron did for Aliens. Ridley Scott’s Alien is a haunted house nightmare set in space with a monster that no one had ever seen before. We didn’t know what the Alien’s lifecycle was, where it had come from, how smart it might be or if it could be killed. When Cameron created Aliens he had to offer some answers about the Alien and in doing so some of the mystery of the creature had to be removed. Aliens establishes that the creatures can be killed by guns and fire, that they have a hive structure and that there is a bigger Alien to face, the Queen. Johnson answers several of our lingering questions about the Thing but he also is faced with the dilemma that with new knowledge comes the dissolution of the mystery behind what the shapechanger is. No, certainly not every question about the Thing is answered in Return of the Thing and there are new questions brought up by the answers given in this story. And I don’t think Johnson’s answers are bad ones at all but I fear that some Thing fans that read this concentrated overview of the story will walk away nonplussed. If that’s the case, no, you shouldn’t. Cameron’s Aliens gave far more to the mythology of the creature and our enjoyment of that franchise than he ever took away by revealing that there’s a Queen Alien, or that the Aliens might not be as indestructible as we might have believed. Johnson’s Return of the Thing does (pardon the pun) the same thing: he gives more than he takes away. Johnson’s script didn’t fall short of the potential for great horrific transformation sequences, nor did it forsake what I think is are two very necessary ingredients for any Thing follow-up story truly worthy of being a successful sequel: the air of extreme paranoia and distrust that the characters have for one another, and the sense that if this Thing gets out into the world it’s all game over. “Infection” sets up the shot, “Extreme Amplication” delivers the strike. David Leslie Johnson, you did what I couldn’t do in my head for nearly 30 years: come up with a pretty damn solid Thing sequel that had great potential to stand alongside Carpenter’s movie.
Which brings me to my next point: why didn’t Return of the Thing get made? I can only offer my best guess, that being that this script would have exceeded the confines of a TV budget, or at least one that didn’t cut corners and thus fall short of greatness. There’s easily more biological transformation sequences in the mini’s screenplays as there is in the ’82 movie, and if this was intended to be a TV movie spread out over two nights, I can’t see all of the Thing effects being done without using CG, especially for the money shot that Johnson uses near the climax of his story. A Thing sequel needs to keep its CG to a minimum, if not use any CG at all, and keep the transformations to practical effects. Maybe, and I’m totally guessing here, someone in charge of approving this project also realized that it’s not the quality of Johnson’s material that was in question, it’s the restrictions that Sci Fi Channel/Universal Television has that prevent this ambitious mini-series from getting the greenlight. What Return of the Thing needed was to get done as a four-hour movie, or done like Kill Bill and made as two features. We all know that would never have happened, don’t we? But that’s not enough to say that Return of the Thing couldn’t get done as a video game, like what happened with the 2002 release of The Thing on last gen consoles, or an animated direct-to-vid movie like Batman: Gotham Knight, the Chronicles of Riddick anime or the more recent Dead Space: Downfall. Hell yeah, especially as an animated movie where the animators can go nuts on the transformations.
My final thoughts are that the foundation for a worthy successor to The Thing was lain down here in Johnson’s two screenplays. The answers Johnson gave to the questions posed by Carpenter’s movie were satisfactory and the thematic elements of paranoia, distrust and a Lovecraftian sense of standing on the precipice to the end of humanity are all retained in this sequel (and that last one is larger in its size than the self-contained threat in the ’82 movie.) On the page Return of the Thing is a solid work and offers hope to longtime fans of the original film that there are still creative people out there working in the trenches of Hollywood that want to make worthy sequels. When Johnson closed his script by dedicating it to John Carpenter, Rob Bottin and Bill Lancaster, I completely believed that he truly wanted to make a something that wouldn’t be an embarrassment or a money grab. Unfortunately, just like MacReady and Childs at the conclusion of the first movie, no one in the real world would know the real story. Consider me just a guy that discovered a reel of recording tape left in the snow and now wants to tell the world that, at one point, there was something called Return of the Thing.