Exclusive: A look at the Return of the Thing screenplay
Antarctica, Winter, 1982. The two survivors of U.S. Outpost #31 face each other as the blasted remains of their camp burn around them. Both men are unsure if the other is who they say they are, but both also know that it doesn’t really matter right now. As they accept the inevitable they sit down across from each other and begin to pass a bottle of booze back and forth, never taking their weapons from off the other.
That’s how John Carpenter chose to end his remake of The Thing and in the years that followed fans of the movie have long wondered what happened in the aftermath of MacReady’s destruction of the Thing. Did some part of the alien shape-changing creature survive? Was Childs infected? Did MacReady also become infected? What happened when the rescue party came to the camp? And what happened to the uncovered flying saucer that carried the Thing to Earth 100,000 years ago? Those questions have lain unanswered for nearly three decades like the Thing in its frozen block of ice waiting for the warmth of discovery to finally come. While Universal Pictures now has a movie sequel in development that may answer some of the puzzles, early buzz indicates that it’s going to be a direct sequel or possibly even a prequel featuring MacReady’s brother and showing us what happened when the Thing was unfrozen by the Norwegians.
But there exists another version of a sequel to The Thing, one that is now dead and would have been almost forgotten. In 2005 Sci-Fi Channel announced that it would make a sequel to The Thing with Shawshank Redemption/The Mist director Frank Darabont serving as a producer. This earlier Thing sequel project was to be a four-hour mini-series written by Darabont’s former assistant David Leslie Johnson and broadcast on the cable channel. For reasons that I haven’t been able to discover Johnson’s iteration of the Thing sequel was shelved and Universal has instead decided to start from scratch with a feature idea penned by the new Battlestar Galactica mastermind Ronald D. Moore.
It’s a shame because I’ve read Johnson’s sequel, titled Return of the Thing, and it had potential to be a good follow-up to Carpenter’s movie. Now that mini-series is dead and there doesn’t seem to be any of Johnson’s ideas in Moore’s sequel take I think it’s fair to let Thing fans know what could have been.
Night One: Intro
The first night of Johnson’s mini was titled “Infection”. It begins with a recap of the final showdown between Childs and MacReady before flashing ahead six months. The Soviets heard fragments of Windows’ rescue call during the first winter storm and arrive first at the destroyed American camp. They find the frozen bodies of MacReady and Childs and salvage what they can. Led by Dr. Lukanov and his wife Alina, the Russians also discover the spacecraft that brought the Thing to Earth, now partially reburied due to the winter storms.
The story then jumps ahead 23 years and to a commercial jetliner flying over New Mexico. It turns out that one of the Russians privy to the genetic samples recovered from Antarctica is on the plane. Back in Russia, Lukanov and his superiors discover the man on the jet has a sample of the Thing and can’t risk it being exposed to the outside world. They tell the Americans a quick cover story: that the man is a Chechen rebel and has a weaponized strain of smallpox onboard that he intends to release in America. The plane has to come down before it lands in a populated area.
Back on the jet things go to hell and before U.S. military planes can shoot it down, the commercial jet crashes of its own volition into the desert of New Mexico. One man, John Little Bear, sees the jet crash and investigates. He also bears witness to a nearby coyote that is attacked by something inhuman and dragged off into the wreckage. A few moments later what looks like the same coyote emerges from the crashed jet and locks eyes with the native man before padding away. Little Bear believes that he’s seen something that his people call a skinwalker, a creature that assumes the flesh of other animals or people to harm them. He decides to go after the coyote and kill it.
I’ve now spent some time going into detail describing the script’s first half-hour, the set-up for the show, but I have to pull back or else this is going to be a monster-sized review. Now you know the way that Johnson chose to answer several of the lingering questions: how the Thing got loose, how the Americans don’t know what truly happened in MacReady’s base and that the Russians have been studying the Thing for the past 23 years. Lukanov is one of the story’s main characters and he knows what will happen if the Thing gets loose into the world. Russia sends him to New Mexico to help assist with the large military operation that’s now being deployed where the jet crashed. I’m skipping over introducing several of the major American characters on the containment team, as well as some high ranking members of the government and Homeland Security also involved with the operation. Close to the crash is the small town of Christmas, NM, and as the Thing-Coyote attempts to make its way away from the crash it also infects other local animals, which in turn start to infect members of the town. The script’s action is then split into two parts: Little Bear and another man named Gates who chase after the Thing-Coyote and try to contain the spread of the organism by killing the other Thing-infected creatures; and Lukanov, the members of the government strike team and the townsfolk of Christmas as they come to the realization that several of them are no longer human anymore. The paranoia that was prevalent in the latter half of Carpenter’s movie finally surfaces at the end of the first part of the mini but really comes home to roost in part two.
What Did The Thing Look Like in the Aborted Sequel?
I haven’t spent any time talking about the Thing effects as described in Johnson’s script but as anyone who has enjoyed Carpenter’s movie will attest, Rob Bottin’s jaw dropping effects are just as much a part of that film’s success as Carpenter’s direction, Bill Lancaster’s script or John W. Campbell’s short story that served as the basis for the 1982 movie. When it came to describing the many different shapes and forms that the Thing changed into in his story I had the impression that Johnson knew he was walking in big footprints. Some of the shapes that the Thing assumes would be familiar to those that recall Bottin’s monster creations, like the multitude of tentacles erupting from the body of the Thing-creatures, or when the Thing-Coyote attacks other animals it does so in a way that’s very nearly identical to what we saw the infected Norwegian dog do to the American dogs in the kennel from the first film: the flesh of the dog’s head peels back into four quads and a white fluid shoots out to infect other animals. However, don’t think that all of Johnson’s Thing FX are homages or simply stuff we’ve seen before because he also has some original and very extreme visual shocks spread into the story. There’s one truly unsettling moment when a character goes to fry himself an egg and when he drops it into a sizzling flying pan the egg squeals and leaps out – and then things get really crazy when the egg starts shapeshifting and attacking him. There’s another scene where a character that you’re sure of is a Thing gets -- the best way to describe it is engulfed, and I mean that literally -- by another character that you didn’t suspect was infected at all. Imagine what these scenes would be like if Sci-Fi had managed to coax Rob Bottin to work on this.
Before the end of “Infection” Lukanov has come clean with the Americans as to where the Thing originated. He feels tremendous personal responsibility for unleashing this nightmare on the world. He tells the American scientists and officials how the Soviets/Russians found samples of the Thing’s blood inside the spacecraft that brought it to our planet. Lukanov recounts what he saw inside the crashed saucer and the forms of the insectoid crew – which was a big surprise to me because I always believed that the ship was the Thing’s, but in this sequel idea it was merely a passenger that got weird and pissed off long before it did the same thing to the Americans at their base. Lukanov tells how he learned how deadly the Thing was by explaining what happened to his wife, and how the notes and records from the American base helped the Russians understand what the Thing was, and that the imitations could be flushed out by exposing the blood to heat. And finally Lukanov reveals the Soviet Union’s original plans for why they wanted the Thing for themselves: to create the ultimate biological weapon, at least before they found out that the smallest part of it was intelligent and beyond their control.
I want to stop there and pick the rest of this review tomorrow. This was a four-hour mini-series and I’m already well over to a thousand words right now and I’ve just got to the end of what would have been the first night. There’s lots to cover remaining as well as my own thoughts on the overall story. Does Return of the Thinglive up to what I would want to see in a sequel to one of the best monster movies of all-time? Yes and no…but I’ll save my reasoning for tomorrow and tease you with one final thought about what’s discovered in part two of the mini-series…
…the blood test doesn’t work anymore.
Sleep warm tonight.