The Thing From Another World (1951), Dir. Christian Nyby
Margaret Sheridan, Kenneth Tobey, Robert Cornthwaite and Douglas Spencer
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now:
Look, I'm busy enough trying to watch as many bad 1950s sci-fi movies as I can. Are you telling me I need to start watching the supposedly good ones as well?
It's common for a remake to live in the shadow of its predecessor. It's rare for an original film to live in the shadow of its remake. Such is the case with The Thing From Another World, a perfectly capable slice of finely made 1950s studio schlock that doesn't have the impact it probably deserves because three decades later John Carpenter would shape this story into something of a masterpiece. Is it unfair to compare The Thing From Another World to Carpenter's The Thing, which is up there with Alien as one of the most perfect sci-fi horror movies in existence? The answer to that question is yes, but at this point in film history, the comparison is inevitable. Let's not get delusional and pretend otherwise.
Fans of the remake (and the original short story) will know the basic concept: scientists at an Antarctic base discover a crashed UFO, accidentally un-thaw the alien creature inside said UFO and are soon being picked off one-by-one with no help on the way. Of course, this being a 1950s B-movie (albeit a handsomely made, well polished B-movie), the characters are thin, the plot bare bones and the alien creature not in the least bit threatening.
It all comes back to that damn remake, which had a cast of great characters, a terrifying monster, incredible visual effects and a story about trust, deception and paranoia. What can I really say about the original? I can say it's a good time, a real watch-with-cold-pizza-at-midnight-because-you-can't-sleep kind of movie. But what's it really about? It's about an alien pulling people behind corners and the image fading to black as the victim screams bloody murder. Look, I know all about limitations of the time and yadda yadda and so on and so forth, but sometimes I just need a little more than that.
After watching The Thing From Another World, I've come to the conclusion that it is different enough from Carpenter's remake to stand alone as its own thing. So I've decided to limit my comparison of the two films to one sentence and then never mention the remake again for the rest of this piece. Okay? Ready? Go!
John Carpenter's The Thing is a significantly better film to its predecessor due to all of the reasons I speculated in the Pre-Viewing section, mainly that the equally massive cast is far more well developed in the remake, the 1950s alien monster is is not particularly inspired and that despite some efforts, there is not a whole lot going under the hood of this very simple movie, something of a tragedy considering the fascinating gray morality flowing through Carpenter's film.
There we go. My one sentence completed. We will not speak of the remake again.
The premise of The Thing From Another World is clean and simple. A UFO crashes near a scientific outpost at the North Pole. The ship cannot be salvaged, but the frozen creature inside of it can. The creature is accidentally defrosted and proceeds to create havoc for everyone involved. In many ways, the straightforward nature of this plot is a blessing. It gets in, it does its business and it gets out before 90 minutes have passed. It's fast, efficient and entirely watchable, never getting bogged down in unnecessary details or the lame pseudo-science that permeates so many 1950s science fiction movies.
This is a narrative double-edged sword. In order to achieve this pace and efficiency, the film sacrifices character development and any sort of truly deep conflict, telling a story about Men vs. Extraterrestrial when there is obviously so much more that could be mined from the complications of the plot. Take the relationship between the army captain who is hellbent on destroying the alien and the scientist who desperately wants to communicate with it. There is an interesting (if not entirely original) conflict at play here. Is the alien a true threat to the world? Maybe it's just frightened and wants to defend itself. Should they risk that? Is it better to feel safe above anything else? What if the alien can be reasoned with? What can we learn? How can our world be changed by communicating with a being from another world? Surely we can't just destroy something with such vast knowledge.
Unfortunately, there's more depth in my previous paragraph than the entire movie, which boils these conflicts down to black and white by presenting the army officer as tough, brave and always right and the scientist as sniveling maniac who's sinister enough to be obviously in the wrong from the get-go. How much stronger would the film be if it didn't take sides and let both men be sane, likable, intelligent gents who only want what they think is best? The answer to that question is that it would be infinitely stronger. There's a jumping-off point where a fun movie becomes a great movie. The Thing From Another World missed this jump.
That's not to say the movie is bad. There are a handful of great scenes, a few of which feel truly ahead of their time. The best scene in the movie involves an attempt to kill the alien thing using kerosene and torches. Our heroes turn off the lights and lie in wait in the darkened room. Suddenly, the creature opens the door and stands silhouetted against the raging snowstorm outside. What happens next is a fast and brutal encounter, lit only by the light of a soon raging fire. This chilling, chaotic scene is, to put it mildly, pretty awesome. I also loved the first time the alien appears on screen. We don't get a grand entrance where we see the whole thing clearly and close-up, but rather we get two guys having an off-topic conversation and opening a door, only to find the alien waiting for them right there. It's a jump scare done right and modern filmmakers should revisit this 59 year old movie to see how it's done.
It's a shame that the alien design itself is incredibly uninspired. Why would a monster from a distant galaxy wear a nice black shirt tucked into his pants? He looks like he's going to his cousin's wedding rehearsal. And why does a highly evolved vegetable being look like a guy with a big head? Shouldn't he look like, um, an alien? It's a good thing that the actor is physically imposing (he literally towers over the other characters) because otherwise, this may be one of the dullest-looking movie monsters I've ever seen.
Ultimately, the biggest disappointment I have with The Thing From Another World is that I didn't care about any of the characters. The cast is massive and we don't get to know many of them and those who do get highlighted are simplistic cliches. In fact, this massive cast seems to solely exist to provide instant solutions to immediate problems. Need an electrician for the climax? Don't worry, here's floating around in the sea of useless people in the background! And a special note to genre filmmakers of the past and present: putting two people in an obvious and charmless romance does equal character development.
If you're looking for a fun, occasionally exciting movie about a veggie man's North Pole rampage, this is the film for you. If you want something with a little more imagination and a lot more depth, there are other places you can look because if you approach this as a "real" movie, you're bound to be disappointed.
(Your votes were cast last week and you guys wanted me to watch Enemy Mine. Join me this time next week for some Dennis Quaid-meets-an-alien shenanigans!)