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‘The Thing’ and ‘Blade Runner’ at 40: The Day Sci-fi Hit Its Peak

Forty years ago this week, two science-fiction films released on the same day but failed to live up to box office expectations. They later went on to achieve cult status, cement the legacy of their directors, and inspire countless other entries in the genre.

Ringer illustration

In June 1982, moviegoers were charmed and terrified, respectively, by two of the most celebrated alien movies ever: Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Forty years later, we’re celebrating their legacies. Welcome to Alien Day.

A science-fiction film arrived in theaters on June 25, 1982, and despite coming from a renowned director, its release was met with minimal fanfare and middling reviews. The movie was overshadowed by Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which came out earlier in the month and sat atop the box office for 16 weeks; audiences emphatically favored an all-time-great crowd-pleaser over an ambitious project with a darker tone. But over time, this film would gain its share of admirers, who transformed it into a cult hit and eagerly debated its biggest unanswered questions. The enthusiasm for the movie was substantial enough that a sequel was made in the 21st century, when history repeated itself and the film failed to light up the box office.

Incredibly, this description could apply to two movies: John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. While both films take different routes within the genre—Blade Runner is a futuristic detective noir loosely adapted from a Philip K. Dick novel; The Thing is a terrifying B-movie boasting gnarly practical effects—their shared release date would be unheard of today as major studios map out the calendar to avoid competition and maximize profits. (As if sharing theatrical real estate with E.T. wasn’t challenging enough, Poltergeist, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Rocky III, Conan the Barbarian, Tron, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan also came out within the same 10-week window.) The world might not have been ready for The Thing and Blade Runner in the summer of 1982, but 40 years later, Carpenter’s and Scott’s masterpieces still mark the day science-fiction peaked on the big screen.

For Carpenter, The Thing was far from a sure, well, thing. Universal had acquired the rights to John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, which was already the basis of the 1951 black-and-white horror film The Thing From Another World, and eyed Tobe Hooper to direct after the success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But Hooper’s vision, described as an Antarctic version of Moby Dick, was too unwieldy, and coproducer Stuart Cohen feared the movie would be “something akin to a disaster.” Carpenter had his own reservations about helming the remake—he was a fan of The Thing From Another World, and even had the film playing in the background of a scene in Halloween—but believed Campbell’s novella was timely enough that his adaptation could stand on its own.

The Thing, which follows a research group in Antarctica terrorized by a parasitic, extraterrestrial entity that can assume the likeness of its victims, is indebted to special effects and creature designer Rob Bottin, who brought the titular monster to life in all its stomach-turning viscera. These days, visual effects can conjure just about anything, but there’s nothing quite like a man’s chest cavity unfurling into jagged rows of teeth with the help of state-of-the-art prosthetics. Just weeks after Spielberg introduced viewers to a benevolent alien with a love of Reese’s Pieces, Carpenter and Bottin presented a shape-shifting creature capable of grotesque, unspeakable horror. I don’t know how the detached head of an alien posing as a human sprouted giant spider-like legs, but I do know I’ll never get the image out of my head.

Sorry, but you’re not going to unsee it, either. I mean seriously, what the fuck?

But for all the deserved attention The Thing’s practical effects received, Carpenter’s film also resonated as a master class in suspense. Because the Thing can perfectly imitate anyone, none of the characters can trust each other and they become increasingly paranoid—in a nerve-racking scene, Kurt Russell’s MacReady takes blood from everyone to suss out the alien, and some of the humans look relieved their own sample passed the test. (Another underrated virtue: The film’s ensemble has strong survival skills, which makes the inevitability of their demise all the more harrowing.) Carpenter keeps that tension going into the ending, when the only survivors, MacReady and Childs (Keith David), share a bottle of whiskey, unsure whether the Thing has taken the form of the other. Whether MacReady or Childs was the Thing has been argued about ever since.

While Carpenter had plenty of supporters for earlier films like Halloween and Escape From New York, The Thing was hammered by critics upon release. The New York Times called it “instant junk,” and Roger Ebert’s faint praise conceded the movie provided only good shock value. The Thing subsequently limped into theaters, where it landed eighth on its opening weekend and grossed under $20 million off a production budget of $15 million. The movie was such a disappointment that Universal opted against Carpenter directing its 1984 adaptation of Stephen King’s Firestarter. “If The Thing had been a hit, my career would have been different,” Carpenter told The AV Club in 2011.

Meanwhile, Scott went into Blade Runner off a hit of his own in Alien, one of the greatest horror films ever made. Scott originally planned on tackling Frank Herbert’s Dune before backing out of the project upon learning the production would have to take place in Mexico—instead, he signed on to an adaptation of Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. The Blade Runner shoot was not without complications—Scott and star Harrison Ford notoriously clashed on set—but the real problems began when Warner Bros. demanded changes to the movie in post-production. Most notably, the studio had Ford record a voice-over narration that neither he nor Scott wanted. (In all, between studio and director tinkering, there are eight different cuts of Blade Runner, though “only” six are widely accessible.)

But even the inferior version(s) of Blade Runner deliver the goods: the Oscar-nominated production design crafted an eerily timeless dystopia; the androids known as “replicants” were equal parts pitiable and terrifying; as Rick Deckard, the bounty hunter responsible for tracking down replicants, Ford showed why he’s a generational leading man. The greatest endorsement of Blade Runner’s cultural footprint, however, isn’t solely what transpired on the screen, but just how much its cyberpunk aesthetic influenced other works, from films (Dark City) and TV shows (Altered Carbon) to anime (Ghost in the Shell) and video games (Deus Ex). In modern parlance: The movie is a vibe.

Unfortunately, like The Thing, the vibes weren’t great for Blade Runner upon release. The film grossed just north of $6 million in its opening weekend, while E.T. hauled in more than twice as much in its third week. It would take years for Blade Runner to find a wider audience, but the rise of home video helped it gain a large enough cult following that a much-improved director’s cut came out in 1992 that omitted Ford’s voice-over. It also doesn’t hurt that Blade Runner holds up well on rewatch, and not just because there are literally several versions of the movie to appreciate. The movie’s dystopian vision of Los Angeles feels impressively authentic and lived-in, while the question of whether Deckard is secretly a replicant remains so tantalizingly ambiguous that Scott and Ford still argue about it to this day. (For what it’s worth, Scott believes Deckard is a replicant; Ford doesn’t.) Hell, I can’t even count the number of times I’ve revisited the poetic sendoff for Rutger Hauer’s replicant Roy Batty.

As if The Thing and Blade Runner didn’t already have enough parallels, both films have been subjected to follow-ups with mixed results. In the 2011 prequel to The Thing, which was also called, uh, The Thing, we see what happened to the Norwegian researchers who first encountered the alien and whose base was briefly explored at the start of the original film. (Mild spoiler: It doesn’t go well for them.) But the new Thing’s fatal flaw was swapping out practical effects for CGI—if the key to the alien’s survival is perfect assimilation, the prequel was doomed because of how easily you could see through the bullshit.

Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049, fared much better. As a continuation of Scott’s work, it’s gorgeous and melancholic; Roger Deakins’s Oscar-winning cinematography speaks for itself. Really, the only area where Blade Runner 2049 underwhelmed was at the box office: Like the original, it couldn’t provide a solid return on investment for the studio. (In retrospect, I’m not sure what Warner Bros. thought would happen after distributing what’s essentially a $150 million arthouse film.) The experience led Villeneuve to believe he’d never make a movie of that magnitude again—the joke’s on him since he went on to direct the latest and greatest adaptation of Dune.

Despite Blade Runner 2049’s financial shortcomings, the fact that the sequel was even green-lit—or that it would go on to win two Oscars from five nominations—demonstrated how much the cultural tides have shifted for the original film since its tepid debut in the ’80s. Similarly, The Thing is perhaps the most beloved Carpenter joint outside of Halloween, which puts the movie in pretty elite company. (The Thing is also one of the films that garnered a wave of morbid interest at the start of the pandemic.)

As for why these movies didn’t catch on during their initial release, it’s hard to point to one deciding factor; film criticism isn’t a monolith. But as many people clung to optimism at the start of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the early ’80s, a sentimental movie like E.T. may have been more appealing than a cyberpunk dystopia or a nihilistic creature feature. Of course, Hollywood had its fair share of cynical films questioning the virtues of the Reagan era, but the most successful efforts had several years of the administration under their belt to rebuke—RoboCop, for instance, was released in 1987.

As we’ve seen repeatedly in the history of cult movies, sometimes it just takes time for a project to find an appreciable audience. Forty years on, there’s no questioning The Thing’s and Blade Runner’s status as not just cult hits, but as two of the defining films of their era—the fact that they happened to come out on the same day remains an extraordinary pop culture milestone in and of itself. The Thing and Blade Runner didn’t win at the box office in June 1982, but an enduring legacy as the very best science-fiction can offer feels like a solid consolation prize.