Saturday, 23 February 2013

The Thing: From Another World (1951)



Excellent

  • Black & White (colorized version created in the early 1980s)
  • Running Time: 87 minutes approx...
  • Cinematography: Russell Harlan
  • Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, John J. Hughes
  • Film Editor: Roland Gross
  • Original Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
  • Story: Written by Charles Lederer based on a short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr.
  • Producer: Howard Hawks
  • Director: Christian Nyby (Many people contend that Hawks had more influence in this area than he was given credit for)


Cast & Characters


  • Margaret Sheridan as Nikki Nicholson
  • Kenneth Tobey as Captain Patrick Hendry
  • Robert Cornthwaite as Dr Arthur Carrington
  • Douglas Spencer as Ned 'Scotty' Scott
  • James Young as Lt. Eddie Dykes
  • Dewey Martin as Crew Chief Bob
  • Robert Nichols as Lt. Ken 'Mac' MacPherson
  • William Self as Corporal Barnes
  • Eduard Franz as Dr Stern
  • Sally Creighton as Mrs Chapman
  • James Arness as 'The Thing'
  • Paul Frees as Dr Voorhees
  • John Dierkes as Dr Chapman
  • George Fenneman as Dr Redding
  • David McMahon as General Fogerty





 “The Thing" would have to be one of my most favorite science fiction films of all time. It has a way of grabbing you and never letting you go. We’ll see why a bit later, but first let’s take a look at the story line of this fabulous film.


Synopsis


  • Scientists at a distant Arctic research station discover a crashed spacecraft buried in the ice.
  • They also discover the frozen pilot (The Thing!) after Captain Patrick Hendry accidentally destroys the vessel with thermite bombs.
  • After they take the creature back to the research station he is inadvertently thawed out!
  • The alien terrifies the soldier guarding him and is shot. He then escapes out into the blizzard where it is attacked by a sled dog which rips off the creature’s arm.
  • Dr Carrington suggests that "The Thing" is not an animal but is instead more akin to a vegetable, something like a carrot. Unlike a carrot, though, it subsists on blood!
  • Carrington embarks on a misguided attempt to spawn the creature’s offspring using blood. Meanwhile the creature embarks on a murderous rampage throughout the base in its quest for blood.
  • The female scientist, Nikki suggests that the best and obvious way to destroy a vegetable is to cook it. Methods for hopefully stopping ‘The Thing’ once and for all are then put into action.
  • Can  this small band of humans in their frozen isolated outpost devise a way of stopping this menace to humanity from another world? 


Points of Interest


The dialogue contains conversations that overlap and even run simultaneously. There is a lot of banter between the military characters, including the news reporter Scotty who obviously have a history and are at ease with each other. The result is a natural sounding dialogue between a bunch of guys instead of actors working from a script. These are indeed flesh-and-blood characters.

A hint of the geo-political context of the film is best conveyed when a likely explanation for the reported aircraft crash is that it “could be the Russians. They’re all over the Pole like flies.”

For the times, we are presented with a refreshingly, well-rounded female character (Nikki) who is nobody’s fool and who knows how to negotiate her way through a largely male-dominated domain. Steering her coffee pot she comfortably takes part in the male discussion of their dilemma and offers the most sensible course of action against their vegetable- opponent. Her conversation is engaging and her personality and sense of humour both shine through.




The Thing relies a lot on what the audience doesn't see. Graphic detail is replaced by glimpses and suggestion that lets your mind join the dots and fill in the details using the worst of what up your imagination can conjure up. Take the appearances by ‘The Thing’ character which are deliberately kept short and fleeting and appear indistinct such as the view we have of him as he appears in a doorway with the light behind him. It’s what we see from the corner of our eye and what we imagine that often most frightens and shocks us. All of this adds up to a wonderful blend of science fiction and horror. 





What else we don’t see in its entirety is the alien craft. We know that it causes a magnetic deviation, it manoeuvres unlike any natural phenomenon; it has a mass of 20.000 tons of steel; it emits radiation, suggesting some kind of atomic power; it has a tail fin and is constructed of “probably some new alloy.” Interestingly its magnitude- size and shape- is conveyed by the spacing of the men around the craft’s circumference. Added to this visual clue we have a poignant pause while the camera pans and the enormity of the fact that “we finally got one!” sinks in. We don’t need to fully see the space craft since we can well imagine it based on the suggestive clues that have been presented to us.

The overall mood and tension of The Thing is established right at the outset with the opening title, credits and of course the chilling and aggressive music score by Dimitri Tiomkin, interwoven with the eerie and haunting sounds produced by the Theremin. It seems to warn the audience that they are gradually approaching something sinister and dangerous or that “something wicked this way comes.” Watch the following clip to see what I mean;


video


“The Thing” character played by James Arness (who later starred in Gun Smoke) is more reminiscent of a character from horror fiction, namely, Frankenstein’s monster. Like Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster has become an iconic part of our culture and is synonymous with terror and everything inhuman. “The Thing” character is that and more and this product of our cultural nightmares confirms its true nature as the film progresses.




The film does contain some good action sequences, notably the 'fire scene.' With all the kerosene and flames engulfing the set, I couldn't shake that feeling of something about to go wrong! It was very realistic and I was surprised that no-one ended up being injured.

I feel that one of the most important elements of The Thing is its constant tensions, conflicts, clashes and unresolvable or almost irreconcilable elements. The following examples will serve to illustrate this;

The main conflict between the soldiers and the scientists: Initially this conflict is established when the scientists’ innate quest for knowledge by examining the creature is stymied by the military’s need to wait for instructions before proceeding. The military men, however, seem to be quite human, friendly, sentimental, and funny and are very concerned with the importance of survival. The scientists, particularly in the form of the cold and fanatical Doctor Carrington, are portrayed as being less concerned for doing what is best for the human race. Instead knowledge is considered to be more important than lives or even survival. They tend to concern themselves with facts, whereas the soldiers decide and act based on their own and humanity’s survival. Carrington expects obedience from his fellow scientists whereas Captain Hendry and his men tend to cooperate, with the captain relying on his men’s expertise and Hendry providing the necessary leadership and guidance at a time of peril.


Struggle for survival against hostile forces: Set in an isolated arctic lab and surrounded by ice and snow with the hostile forces of nature beating at the door, this vulnerable community must rely on solidarity and unity of purpose to win its death struggle with the hostile threat from another world also beating at its door. Note the cold breath coming from the characters when the heating is cut off. We truly know from that just how cold it is and how much peril they are in not only from the creature, but also from the hostile environment.

Individual and human rights vs. imperatives of national security:  Scotty is faced with the prospect of breaking the biggest news story of all time but his potential scoop is thwarted by the military’s need to “wait for authority.”  However, what is the value of determinations made by those in authority? After all, we learn in the film that the 1949 Department of Defense bulletin proclaimed the air force had discontinued further investigations into the existence of UFOs due to the lack of evidence! Really?

Assumptions & Preconceptions: Can we assume that an extra-terrestrial civilization would share our thirst and love for knowledge? Can we assume that it would act in a benevolent manner towards us or even care about our existence? Can we assume that it would have a higher or more enlightened sense of morality than us? Can we assume that it would share similar physical, emotional and other characteristics? OR Would such a civilization have beings whose cellular structure is closer to vegetation and who may view us as being little more than an inferior source of nutrients necessary for it to survive?

Because the creature is a stranger to our world and has “no hair” and lies within the block of ice with open eyes that “look like they can see,” should it be assumed that it is evil and dangerous? After all, when it first thawed out it was shot at and had its arm ripped off! Should we then assume that like Frankenstein’s monster it deserves our sympathy? It must be kept in mind that despite being “some form of super carrot,” this stranger in an unknown land was able to construct a space craft with an unknown form of propulsion! On that basis, it could be assumed that the creature represents a civilization with which we should “return the call.” Perhaps science holds the answer….or does it?

Science-saviour of humanity or its destroyer?  Scientific inquiry determined that the creature’s arm contained no animal tissue, blood or nerve endings. From this it is inferred that the creature itself cannot die in the way we understand it, that it has no emotions and feels no pain. For Carrington this can only mean that the creature is “superior” and is therefore “wiser than we are.” His desire to communicate with the creature and to continue to scientifically investigate it (without telling the “others”) has disastrous consequences, including the serious wounding of his colleague and the hanging up of two other dead colleagues from beams by the creature. For Carrington, there are “no enemies in science, only phenomena to study” and “knowledge is more important than life.” What he fails to grasp is that such attitudes or blind faith in science can blind us to the serious consequences to humanity that can result.  As was cynically pointed out in the film, this was the case with the “splitting of the atom.”

And so, dear reader, the message from this exceptional film, The Thing: From Another World, is that it is up to each of us to work together with a unity of purpose and to make sure that we continue to…..


“Watch the skies!” 

and 

“Keep looking!”





©Chris Christopoulos 2013