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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Consider the Source: The Thing

YOU RANG? James Arness as the alien in 1951.
  • YOU RANG? James Arness as the alien in 1951.
Two of the film versions of The Thing depict a malevolent alien that can change its appearance, which is only appropriate, since the creature has altered its shape several times on the big screen, in two of the most iconic sci-fi films ever made. The creature originated with John W. Campbell Jr.'s novella "Who Goes There?" published in Astounding Stories in 1938. In the original story, a group of scientific researchers in Antarctica discover a frozen spacecraft and recover the pilot, which thaws and attacks the group. "The Thing" reveals the ability to imitate the appearance and personality of any living thing, but a handful of scientists figure out how to stop it. The text is here, but honestly, it's not the most readable vintage pulp story.

The first film version, 1951's The Thing From Another World, qualifies as one of Hollywood's sharpest and most effective science fiction films, but greatly altered Campbell's original tale. Not only is the locale switched to Antarctica, but the Thing is a lumbering, Frankenstein-like humanoid (played by "Gunsmoke's" James Arness) that happens to be a blood-drinking, intelligent form of plant life. "An intellectual carrot! The mind boggles!" exclaims reporter Ned Scott (the funny, scene-stealing Douglas Spencer). Like all versions of the story, the 1951 film shows intrepid heroes fighting both the deadly frozen climate and a cunning monster that cannot be killed through conventional means.

Part of what makes The Thing From Another World work so well is that it frequently doesn't seem to know it's a B-movie. Although Christian Nyby is credited as director, the film bears the influence of producer Howard Hawks, who specialized in fast-paced stories and rapid-fire dialogue. The Thing From Another World bears superficial similarities to Only Angels Have Wings, Hawks' great 1939 film about airplane pilots in the South American mountains, where tough women can stand toe-to-toe with hard-boiled men. There's a minor romantic subplot with the chief scientist's secretary (Margaret Sheridan) and Captain Patrick "Pat" Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), to the amusement of the men under the Captain's command. The last act, with the Thing increasing attacks, has a real-time feel as soldiers and scientists team up to improvise a solution before the Thing freezes them out or drinks their blood.

USING YOUR HEAD: Just a taste of the 1982 alien
  • USING YOUR HEAD: Just a taste of the 1982 alien
John Carpenter's 1982 remake, simply called The Thing, bears nearly as much of the influence of Alien from three years earlier. Just imagine the pitch: "It'll be like ALIEN, but our aliens will be more disgusting! And our humans - also more disgusting!' Like crew of Alien, the all-male line-up of the Antarctic base come across as scruffy blue-collar types, with only a few obvious scientists and career military guys among them. In addition to Kurt Russell as a take-charge helicopter pilot, Carpenter assembles a cast of colorful characters actors, including Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart, Keith David and David Clennon as the funny pot-smoker. The Thing gets points for avoiding a predictable, exposition-heavy introduction of the base and doesn't give the characters phony conflicts or backstories. But since we don't get to know the guys very well, the film loses some of the impact of having them replaced by aliens.

The Thing is justly praised (and, at the time, often reviled) for Rob Bottin's grotesque, graphic make-up effects, from relatively realistic close-up autopsy shots to freakily imaginative images. At one point a doctor uses a defibrillator on a heart patient but whoops! the patient's an alien, and its chest opens up like a mouth and promptly BITES OFF THE DOCTOR'S HANDS! Then Kurt Russell burns it and the head snaps off, grows spidery legs and stalk-like eyes while trying to make a getaway. One shudders at the idea of the make-up effects they didn't use.

You can re-watch The Thing and notice scenes where the alien-doubles cast suspicion on innocent people, but I'm not sure the film gives you enough evidence to figure out when all the alien switches take place. There's an awful lot of red herrings and unexplained mysteries: something destroys the camp blood supply, but the only two characters who could've done it were revealed to be human. (And why does the alien appear to Kurt Russell in its original form at the end?)

The original Thing gets more thematic mileage out of the tension between the military, the press and the scientific community than the remake does with its atmosphere of mutual paranoia. The chief scientist in 1951, Dr. Carrington, seems almost hilariously eager to defer to the alien's "wisdom." It's kind of like the time Homer Simpson went to outer space and Kent Brockman, mistaking close-ups of little ants for giant ant invaders, was prepared to surrender. The 1951 Thing evokes the paranoia of the Cold War and the Atomic Age. I wonder if the 1982 remake, with its demographically and ethnically diverse cast, offers an unappreciated metaphor for the social and racial tensions of the 1960s and 1970s. The ambiguous final scene, with Kurt Russell making a cease-fire with Keith David (the most antagonistic of the men), perhaps makes the most sense as a metaphorical image of racial detente. Even though one of them might be an alien.

Incidentally, I rewatched the two films on Oct. 6 and 10 respectively and made comments on my Twitter account, curt_holman, and will review the new version later this week.

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