If you’ve seen The Thing from Another World, the classic Howard Hawks film from 1951, you remember the vegetable Frankenstein monster, the snowy setting, the 50’s charm, and the iconic line, “Always, watch the skies.” It’s a movie about the clash of ideals, here between military and science, about alien invasion and heroism. It may not be as intellectual as The Day the Earth Stood Still or as recognizable as Forbidden Planet (to use its contemporaries), but its an entertaining ride with a few great moments and wonderful characters.

It is, though, very light. The characters never seem to take the issue too seriously, and this reasonably reflects on the situation. There’s really nothing all that scary about Frankenstein’s monster in the year 1951 when one has access to rifles and electric floors. Never once did I feel like this creature would be victorious, or even half of the crew would be injured. This is where I come in and say that John Carpenter’s The Thing is so much different – and it is – but comparing these two seems almost wrong. Yes, they are two very different movies on a tonal and visceral level, but more than that, neither of these movies should have to live in each others’ shadow.

They’re both major entries in the canon of science-fiction film, but it seems that rarely do sci-fi fans appreciate both equally. I don’t. With the coming of a third Who Goes There? movie, I begin to wonder just what people will make of this unofficial trilogy sixty years in the making.

But that’s not important now. Merely musing…

We’re here to talk about The Thing, because this is not only one of John Carpenter’s best, but one of the very best science-fiction films. Certainly one of the best horror movies, though many would consider it second as horror/sci-fi to Ridley Scott’s Alien. Just like how Robocop owes its production to The Terminator from three years earlier, Scott’s sophomore picture is the reason why The Thing exists as it does. It showed a world hung up on Star Wars that space wasn’t such a nice place, and that science-fiction was more than a pretty face. It was an acne-scarred, sniveling one.

After the dreary sixties, and I suppose the dreary seventies, Star Wars reinvented pulp science-fiction, the romantic heroes who got the badguys and heroines who got kidnapped. I wouldn’t say that Alien is necessarily counterculture; it was born of a rather brilliant idea of O’Bannon and Shusett’s for a horror movie – what’s the scariest thing you can think of (the answer of course being rape by alien) – but possibly The Thing is. It’s aggressive, paranoid, violent, raw.

And yet, it’s a callback to the original short story by John W. Campbell. Carpenter wanted to do what Christopher Nyby and Howard Hawks didn’t: talk about what people do when thrown in an isolated space with the most frightening thing imaginable. This creature takes the identities of others, as well as their places, and this begs the question “who among us are human?” Since you can only be sure of yourself, this question offers Reason 1 why The Thing works.

The other is something of a controversial thing, the effects. Nobody can watch the The Thing and scoff at Bottin’s makeup and animatronic monsters. They’re a highlight in eighties visuals for sci-fi film, an absolute horror and joy to watch. Not only do they look freaky, they move around in ways you don’t want them to and do things to really mess people up. But some people are so understandably taken by these effects that they’re distracted, or come to think that they’re the reason for the movie. While the effects amount to Reason 2, they also did a lot to hurt the movie’s critical reception.

This is certainly an odd analogy but take for example Higher Learning, a film by John Singleton. Critics liked it, but didn’t think it had a strong enough romantic appeal (strong character relationships) and believed the characters were stereotypes. Essentially they wanted the movie to be more conventional drama. Having character drama about romance isn’t the movie’s point, that would definitely draw away from its message, which is all about how radical thinking is proliferated through generations, masquerading as education. Why is it that film is a medium that must conform to certain conventions and standards? Why must we always be entertained by these things?

The Thing‘s effects shouldn’t be tuned down. Perhaps that thinking stems from our appreciation of The Thing from Another World, which creates suspense with no gore. What works about the effects in The Thing is their service to atmosphere. There’s nothing more scary than Antarctica. Oh wait there’s nothing more scary than a creature that can take our identities. Now there’s nothing more scary than a stomach that eats your arms. We’re touring through a nightmare reality, a terrifying hallucination that is testing these men, seeing how long they’ll dangle over the abyss before falling off – snapping and turning on each other.

It’s a Twilight Zone-esque character study with a budget. We have characters thrust into a situation that keeps getting worse, where even survival seems pointless. In The Twilight Zone, the cheesy effects actually serve a purpose (whether intentionally or not), they create a layer for us to pierce through and see what’s just below the surface – they force us to investigate, and be rewarded, more often than not (some of those episodes are pretty aimless). The Thing does have the effects. No big-headed aliens, no Sasquatch thingy on the wing. We have an effective glimpse at not an alien creature, but at an alien world, and it’s scary as hell. I suppose it is forgivable for people to be distracted, but it’s the two elements that are absolutely crucial.

That of course is neglectful of the characters themselves, the script, the direction, the acting, and the music (though Morricone himself earned the film a Razzie, forever sealing that organization’s fate for me as “jokards”), all of which are astounding, especially for science-fiction film. Only rarely do we see attention to detail on all fronts in a movie with aliens.

Will we see it again tonight with The Thing (2011)? I know we’ll at least see the effects. They’re in the trailers, and they look great, if a bit Dead Space-ish (ain’t nut wrong with that). I assume that lip-service will be paid to the who goes there aspect of the story, but that’s just fine. As long as a body is on a laboratory floor morphing in the most horrifying ways only to be blasted by Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s flamethrower – that’s all I need.

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