Thing (From Another World), The (1951)

“An intellectual carrot. The mind boggles!”

Synopsis:
When a team of scientists and soldiers at an Arctic military base discover the presence of an alien life form (James Arness), they disagree on how to deal with it: Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) wants to try to communicate with the creature, while Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) is convinced that it must be destroyed at all costs.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately notes that this “first of a handful of masterpieces that came out of the fifties sci-fi cycle… has lost none of its class and power”. An interesting mix of sci-fi and horror — with clear ties to the “Monster flicks” of the 1930s and 1940s — The Thing also possesses a healthy dose of screwball comedy, most notably during the interactions between the two romantic leads (Tobey and Margaret Sheridan). This element becomes less surprising when one learns that producer Howard Hawks “was more than [simply] an adviser” on the set; to that end, Peary points out numerous examples of his influence, including “rapid-fire overlapping dialogue; humor in the midst of turmoil; a male universe where men respect each other’s talents and rank; an intelligent, strong, funny woman (Margaret Sheridan) who’s passed the test and is allowed to pal around with the boys; a strong leader type (Kenneth Tobey) who’s a little befuddled by the woman pursuing him, but realizes that he needs her for his life to be complete; [and] men working together under pressure, with each — professionals all — contributing his singular skills to get the difficult task done”.

The Thing is notable as “the first sci-fi film to show opposing views of the military and scientists on how to deal with aliens”, given that “army men want to shoot them, [while] scientists want (foolishly) to communicate with them” — and it’s this tension that drives the narrative. In his Cult Movies 3 review of the film (where he argues that “to qualify as a true fan of the [sci-fi] genre, one must see this film many times”), Peary provides an even more extensive analysis of this dynamic. He notes that while we may “immediately distrust… Carrington, as we do most geniuses in horror and science fiction” — especially given that “he wears an insidious goatee and a Russian fur hat and fur-lined coat” — he’s not truly a villain, given that Tobey is never fully dismissive of the value provided by science. As Peary puts it, “Military strategy coupled with scientific application is a powerful combination”, and remains one of the film’s dominant themes (along with parallels drawn “between the Cold war and the Battle of the Sexes”, and the patriotic notion that “America’s armed forces can turn back any type of invasion” and “defeat any enemy”.)

Perhaps most impressive about The Thing is its pacing, which manages to feel both relentless and natural at the same time. From the very beginning — thanks to Charles Lederer’s smart, literate script — we believe that we’re watching a real crew of airmen heading to the North Pole (viz. the fascinating scene in which they all spread out across an ice field to assess how large the spaceship is). You may need an extra cup of coffee to keep up with the rapidfire dialogue, but it all feels refreshingly authentic. Meanwhile, as Peary argues, “the sustained tension” throughout the film is a “result of [both] the clever timing of shocks” and the incorporation of “horror-movie elements”, such as “when Tobey opens a door expecting to find the alien hiding in a room only to have it standing right in front of him”.

[To that end, my only minor quibble with the film is that the characters never seem quite scared enough; they’re having such a grand, confident time together that one never doubts they’ll come through with flying colors.]

It’s been noted — and was especially clear to me during this most recent viewing — how much of an influence The Thing seems to have been on Alien (1979). Indeed, the parallels are positively uncanny, given that they both present a group of diverse yet (supposedly) united individuals trapped in a confined space with a “seemingly indestructible alien”; diverging opinions on what exactly to do with said alien; and an ultimate emphasis on survival at all costs. A key difference, naturally, is that Alien features a rare female sci-fi heroine, while The Thing relegates its primary female presence to a supporting (if strong and impressive) role; it’s too bad Sheridan’s movie career never really went anywhere, as she’s quite memorable here in a potentially thankless role.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Plenty of genuine tension


  • A smart, surprisingly humorous script

Must See?
Yes, as a genuine sci-fi classic. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book, and discussed at length in his Cult Movies 3.

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One Response to “Thing (From Another World), The (1951)”

  1. Must-see – and one which could be easily returned to once in awhile.

    I honestly cannot remember how many years passed before I saw this again the other night. I’m thinking I was quite young the last time I saw it. I don’t know that there’s any particular reason for not revisiting it until now. But…maybe it has something to do with the fact that I can sometimes hesitate when it comes to revisiting certain sci-fi/horror films.

    As we all know, time can be terribly unkind to films that depend heavily on technology or effects for their impact. Old films about space travel, in particular, can sometimes now look downright silly – not only because of how much more the experts know about space and other planets but because of what filmmakers can do now…which couldn’t be done years ago.

    Since ‘The Thing…’ was remade by John Carpenter (which I also haven’t seen in a long time) and since it served as one influence on the ‘Alien’ series – and who knows how many other films? – I suppose I had it in the back of my mind that it, too, would now look quaint.

    That’s not the case. It has held up remarkably well for a film over 60 years old. Its ambitions really aren’t that large and, luckily, it did not rely on that many effects…so the film retains something of its timeless quality.

    From what I’ve read, Hawks was Nyby’s mentor and Nyby was a devoted pupil. In other words…one can believe this is Nyby’s film but one also sees clear evidence of Hawks’ ‘presence’ on set (and in the screenplay he worked on without getting screen credit). The ease of some of the early Hawksian scenes (i.e., the refreshing male/female ‘love hunt’; the joking around; the overlapping dialogue) actually serves the latter part of the film well. We know from the title that we will be scared (or at least shocked), but we are lulled more easily into the entertainment factor of the piece.

    The director and some of the cast would eventually have thriving television careers – but it’s unusual that a classy sci-fi film of this sort wasn’t responsible for leading more of its players into several other films. As evidenced here, the cast is comprised of highly capable people (and James Young as Eddie is a dish!)…but many of them are now and forever ‘known’ more or less only as the characters they memorably portrayed in this one film. Still…if you’re going to be remembered mostly for one film, it doesn’t hurt if that film is something as memorable and lasting as ‘The Thing…’.

    The film moves along rather efficiently and it’s kind of over before you know it. Its build seems effortless and the ending packs a wallop (followed by a smooth fade-out). Overall, a fine piece of work!

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