The Thing from Another World
Directed by: Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks
Starring: Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, James Arness, Robert Cornthwaite
John Carpenter’s The Thing
Directed by: John Carpenter (Who’d have guessed?)
Starring: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, T.K. Carter
Directed by: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
The concept behind these films is taken from the 1938 novella “Who Goes There?” a fictional work that arguably started the survival sci-fi horror genre and has been cited as the inspiration for the film Alien. The 1950s film adaptation of the novella is frequently listed among films such as The Blob and Invasion of the Body Snatchers as quintessential mid-century sci-fi.
Likewise, the 1980s remake fits into a class of pitch-black science fiction remakes from the late ’70s through the ’80s alongside works such as… The Blob and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. While initially reviled upon release, John Carpenter’s The Thing is now universally considered one of the greatest horror films of all time by everyone from Entertainment Weekly to the Boston Globe.
The 2011 film… also exists.
I’d already seen the 1982 and 2011 versions (though not for some time), but a lovely group I follow on Facebook, Turner Classic Movies Fan Site, recommended I watch all three back to back and compare the differences. Many commenters seemed to like both the ’50s and ’80s versions, though for different reasons. I became curious if I’d match their assessment.
All three versions follow a crew of scientists on a remote base (Arctic for ’51, Antarctic for ’82 and ’11) who discover evidence of a spaceship that crash landed with a single surviving passenger. Through either carelessness or scientific hubris, members of the crew bring the alien being into their base, unknowingly setting its ravenous appetite upon themselves.
Because the alien’s physiology and feeding patterns are different than anything of Earth’s nature, the crew must balance scientific curiosity with survival, studying the alien only enough to defend against it. Of course, everyone’s idea of where that line exists is different, and every second the humans spend bickering is one The Thing can use to overpower them.
While the alien in the ’38 novella (as well as the ’82 and ’11 film versions) consumes and copies any organic matter it comes into contact with, the ’51 alien is basically a sentient, mobile, carnivorous plant. This film also explored the alien’s reproductive methods, giving its audience creative and unsettling explanations: The Thing can regrow limbs because of vegetative regeneration, The Thing can deposit seedlings in blood-soaked dirt because they were fertilized before the ship crashed, The Thing grows larger after feeding because it uses organic blood to help with photosynthesis.
While viewing the film, especially with its focus on Cold-War fears and it’s “Watch the skies!” Sputnik predictions, I got the feeling that this version seeks to dehumanize people living under the red menace of Communism. By making a creature so like free-world citizens, yet craven and foreign in nature, the first The Thing movie stokes audiences’ Stalin-era fears: Given enough time and leeway, the enemy will overpower us, nourished by the blood of our fallen neighbors.
I feel queasy inhabiting this point of view. Obviously, Communist regimes have committed indefensible atrocities. Having just celebrated my country’s independence, though, I’m reminded that the United States government has its own history of atrocities, many of which have yet to be reconciled. I don’t regenerate limbs after drinking the blood of my enemies (not that I’ve had occasion to try…), so I imagine neither did the citizens of Communist countries of that time.
The film, therefore, smacks of Cold-War propaganda and, while not without its retro-futurist charm, resonates disharmoniously when current news pundits spew hideous “We’re being replaced by lesser races” conspiracies.
I was surprised at how many nods John Carpenter’s version had to the original. When Kurt Russell discovers the tape of Norwegian scientists removing the alien from the ice, the scene homages the arctic retrieval from the ’51 version. Also kept was The Thing’s acrimonious relationship with dogs. The ’51 film had dogs protecting humans from creature while this one featured dogs trying to warn the humans of impending danger.
Hypocritically, I love that this version takes the assimilation aspect further. Firstly, the alien tries to make an exact replica of its victims, rather than being othered so obviously. Secondly, the characters know the threat is real, so any indicator of suspicion is grounds for getting shot or torched. While the Carpenter version ends on a darker note than the original, it shows in plain daylight where unchecked paranoia leads.
Looking at the film with contemporary eyes, I feel like this adaptation was more honest with the American people in regard to its Cold-War themes. The witch-hunt aspect echoes Senator Joseph McCarthy’s unchecked character assassination and, by showing full assimilation into perfect human mimicry, the theme posits that dangerous ideas can take over anyone you know, altering them entirely.
Of course, that’s not a message the average American wanted to hear two weeks after E.T. opened, so it bombed harder than Blade Runner.
Both the ’51 version and ’82 version of The Thing dealt with Cold-War fears, though with different perspectives. Like a bad copy trying to pass off as the material it’s replacing, though, the latest version is empty mimicry.
2011’s The Thing crash landed upon release because it suffered from studio meddling as well as a directorial vision slavish to the 1982 version. In an especially brain-dead move, this version sets itself as a prequel to the Carpenter film, then provides needless detail about how the Norwegian camp became ruined. Viewers can surmise: “Oh, a corpse with a face splitting in two was found? I imagine The Thing was behind that.” That’s not good enough for 2011’s The Thing. No, we must see it happen; then we’ll know. The plot point that rankles me most, however, is that one of its characters escapes in a snow tractor. This happens a little before the climax of the ’82 movie, which opens the possibility that the survivors of Carpenter’s movie were rescued. Why? Did one of the decision makers watch the ’80s film and think, “I don’t like that this HORROR movie has a downer ending. I’m going to retroactively undermine the entire point of this film 30 years from now”?
To this version’s credit, updated special effects allowed for creepier puppetry and tentacle appendages. The film’s director also included a fascinating sequence where the main character enters the spaceship and discovers that the crashed aliens were fighting The Thing too! This discovery could’ve explored the idea of infectious ideologies on a level deeper than the ’82 version. Unfortunately, the studio thought that part was confusing and that the puppetry effects too old-fashioned, so they hurriedly painted over the puppets with CGI and cut the spaceship scene. The sole delight that remained in the official cut is a clever retread of the “blood test.” Since The Thing can only replicate organic material, people with tooth fillings are still human. Beyond that, this movie’s soulless.
My personal opinion is that the 1982 version reigns supreme. It’s direction and performances are inspired, while its effects are truly out of this world. The 1951 version has excellent cast chemistry (and a wonderfully quirky romance), but the simplicity of the premise, when compared to its successor, tie it down. The unsettling message of the first film also leaves me cold.