The Thing is John Carpenter's adaptation of the John W. Campbell story "Who Goes There?" and a remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks production The Thing from Another World. It met with a poor critical reception and was not a hit at the box office. Critics complained that it was overly gory and that it failed to preserve the atmosphere of Hawks' original, although it was more faithful to the source story. Stephen Spielberg's immensely popular E.T. was released at the same time, and audiences avoided Carpenter's downer of an alien invader film. The intervening years have seen a shift in opinion to the point that a number of critics consider The Thing to be the greatest horror film ever made.
The Thing was Carpenter's first big-budget film, and the money was well spent. The cast is led by Kurt Russell and contains an excellent set of character actors. Rob Bottin and Stan Winston both contributed special effects work, and Dean Cundey handled the cinematography. The great Ennio Morricone created the film's soundtrack, which is often minimalistic and electronic.
Researchers at an Antarctic base are disturbed by a Norwegian helicopter that is flying low over their camp. Its pilot is shooting at a dog, which seeks refuge from the Americans. The Norwegian grazes an American with a bullet, and the Americans fire back. The Norwegian is killed, and the Americans head off to investigate his base. It is found in ruins: its occupants are dead, some by suicide, and the freakish corpse of something is found burned in the snow. The Americans bring it back for examination.
The Norwegian dog keeps a watchful eye on the camp through the day, and at night turns into a writhing mass of tentacles and attacks the other dogs. It is killed and found to be a creature that imitates other life forms. The crew, who were already on each others' nerves even when there was nothing wrong, quickly become paranoid. It becomes clear that any of the men could be a thing, and all of them become suspicious of each other.
Fights and shooting break out, and teamwork dissolves. Blair (Wilford Brimley) studies the organism and is driven mad by the discovery of its capabilities and the realization that it has the potential to eradicate the human race within three years. He goes on a destructive spree that destroys base equipment and gets locked away in isolation. Before long, the characters are left to wonder whether they can survive, or whether they even should.
The characters are realistic and play against racial stereotypes common in films of the era. There is no "token" black character. There are instead two black characters, and neither is an early victim. Childs is angry and hostile, but he's the last to believe what's going on. Black characters in many other films are superstitious or may even have a few voodoo tricks up their sleeves. Nauls is outwardly friendlier and listens to funk on a jambox as he skates around the base, but he is not the grinning or subservient buffoon that a character of his personality type is often made to be.
Carpenter views The Thing as part of an "Apocalypse Trilogy" along with Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness. The Thing has been described as the most successful filmed representation of the ideas of H.P. Lovecraft, because only Carpenter has truly succeeded at creating an unnamable terror.