Monday, June 25, 2018

Cardboard Science: Some form of super-carrot


It's not often that the forerunner of a trend is actually one of its best examples, but then there's The Thing From Another World.

Directed by Christian Nyby and/or Howard Hawks
Written by Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht, and Howard Hawks (based on the story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell Jr.)
With Kenneth Tobey (Capt. Patrick Hendry), Margaret Sheridan (Nikki Nicholson), Douglas Spencer (Ned Scott), Robert Cornthwaite (Dr. Arthur Carrington), and James Arness (The Thing)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Poor The Thing From Another World; you've been superseded.  But the only big problem with you, if one lets it be a problem, is that your particular Thing can today exist solely in reference to 1982's The Thing—that is, the one that's considered by practically everybody to be one of the finest horror films of its whole horror-heavy decade and, by a fair few (maybe including me), the best remake of all time.

Of course, John Carpenter's masterpiece is only a remake by a technicality; he really only re-adapted "Who Goes There?", the John Campbell novella upon which the original was based, doing so with the kind of fidelity that the original never even considered a possibility.  Accordingly, in his "remake," Carpenter took almost nothing from The Thing '51 besides a loving fondness, and what the '82 effort shares with its predecessor otherwise can be boiled down to 40% of a title, a title card (though that title card, with the words "THE THING" burning their way across the screen to reveal the piercing backlight set behind them, is one of the great pieces of title design in an era not always known for it), and the very, very basic premise of an alien invader battling a group of humans who've found themselves trapped with their enemy at one or another of the two icy ends of our Earth.

The outcome, 67 years on, is a movie that looks like many other movies of its day, in large part because it was at least as influential in its own time as it would prove to be later; whereas JC's The Thing, though fitting comfortably within the 80s gross-out horror movement, is almost sui generis.  Even so, you can say something like the same thing about this Thing: it's better than the vast majority of its contemporaries, too, and practically every movie to come in the next decade that involved a single alien raging against a beleaguered pack of human meat would owe something—especially if it was any good—to the miniature classic produced by that reputable, Cahiers-anointed auteur, Howard Hawks, and directed (depending on your sources) either by Hawks himself, or by his erstwhile film editor and current protege, Christian Nyby, or by both.

Now, it does sound like a familiar pattern: a crew of Air Force men, commanded by Capt. Patrick Hendry, is dispatched to an Arctic research station to assist the scientists and staff present there—including a certain old flame of Hendry's, one Nikki Nicholson, who escaped his advances the last they met by drinking him under the table.  Yet there's not much time for their questionable courtship now (though there is a little time, enough for a weird bondage-inflected conversation scene between them), for these scientists, led by the brilliant Dr. Carrington, have recently observed the landing of a very curious "meteor."  This would be the same many thousand tons of metal that wreaked havoc with Hendry's compasses on the flight north, and which coaxed Hendry's friend, tagalong reporter Ned Scott, to make the trip to the further reaches of the Arctic alongside his old buddy in search of an ever-elusive scoop.  Together these men go out to to investigate, and what they find awes them: a downed flying saucer, caught beneath the melted and refrozen ice.  In a botched attempt at melting their own way into it, they blow the vessel to pieces; but, a few meters away from the crash site is the body of its pilot, also trapped in the ice, and this thing they claim as the only prize left available to them.

Inevitably, this proves to be their undoing, for when the block of ice containing their colossal humanoid specimen thaws, it demonstrates that death and life hold a different meaning for a creature such as it, no more harmed by its cold sleep than by the bullets that pass almost unnoticed through its fleshy mass.  This entity, which Carrington explains has more in common with the plant life of Earth than its animals—with the notable exception that it has a unspeakable thirst for animal blood—begins its lethal campaign, killing first their sled dogs, then the men themselves, not merely for the sake of it, nor even to feed itself, but to raise its progeny, the "seedlings" that it has planted in the base greenhouse, which it has soon transformed into both abattoir and fortress.  By now, Hendry would doubtless be about the business of killing it anyway, whether it was growing its own army or not; but that would prove a tall order, even if Carrington, in the name of science, weren't ready to sabotage every last effort Hendry makes to stop the uncanny invader before it's too late.

That synopsis makes it sound like The Thing might actually be about characters, and to a degree this is true, but it's more about the factions they belong to, duking it out with each other and between themselves about what to do about this damned thing that Earth wouldn't own.  And that's almost entirely down to the way it was made, which in fact often doesn't feel all that much like most sci-fi movies in the 50s, with their top-down science heroes and pliant womenfolk and bullshit last minute tech-tech solutions to every problem.  (As that summary makes plain enough, the closest The Thing has to a science hero is also the closest thing it has to an actual villain.  Still, Carrington's not exactly wrong when he says the alien monster has really only reacted to humanity's own violent provocations.)

I mean, we did start it.

In any event, if that scenario played out purely in what would soon become the conventional way, there's little doubt that the controversy surrounding The Thing's authorship would've never started.  But it doesn't, because while Hendry and Carrington are the most important voices here (followed, perhaps, by the exposition-prompting questions and wry interjections of the newsman, Scott), they're never quite predominant over everyone else, and everyone else always has something to say, sometimes germane, sometimes not, sometimes something fed to one actor without another actor even knowing it was coming, and, often enough, all at the same damn time.

The comparison to Hawks' penchant for pithy overlapping dialogue, most noticeable in his screwball comedies, was always kind of inevitable, then.  Thus it's anyone's guess whether Hawks (who's denied the credit) was shadow-directing on Nyby's behalf, or if Nyby (who rightly considered Hawks a mentor) simply channeled his producer's spirit.  Either option seems as plausible as the other; there's no real reason it couldn't be a little bit of both.  And, as with much, that style is something of a matter of taste and context: personally, I find Hawksian rapid-fire a lot more digestible in a nervy thriller like The Thing, where it's animated by a deadly and barely-explicable threat, than I do in (for example) Hawks' fatiguing newsroom caper, His Girl Friday, the Hawks film The Thing probably most-closely resembles.  (Yeah, Hawks didn't do a lot of movies about outer space monsters.)  Of course, once you think of His Girl Friday, it's hard not to think of Nikki as a Hawks woman, too, being pushed into the foreground by Hawks as an equal competitor—then again, it's also easy to overestimate any female lead in a 50s sci-fi yarn if she's got any vinegar at all, given what you're actually testing her against.  Hawks and Nyby and Margaret Sheridan go to significant pains to establish Nikki as a force to be reckoned with early on, certainly, but the fact is that Nikki does spend an awful lot of her remaining screentime making and delivering coffee.

Meanwhile, to many modern viewers (and to a substantial fraction of the audience even at the time), Carrington comes off almost as sympathetic as our actual heroes, despite Hawks and Nyby's level best attempt, from the casting to the way he's shot, to code him as everything 1951 would find unsympathetic in the extreme.  And boy, do they ever stack the deck: The Thing is a movie that, unlike a surprising number of its followers, actually mentions "Russia" by name, as if to prime the audience for the threat its alien metaphorically represents; and, in case Carrington's haughty demeanor (let alone the way he barely blinks when his colleagues die) was perhaps too subtle for the very youngest whelps in the audience to understand, they also give him a festive fur hat, not unlike that of a sniveling Soviet physicist presently unlocking the power of a fission bomb.

Yet for all that this movie is about disdain for the scientist who would blithely "split the atom!" without concern for what it might unleash upon the world—and it's about it a lot—it cannot seem to work up genuine hatred for Carrington, or even contempt, only a certain head-shaking frustration at his misguided intellect.  That's thanks in huge part to Robert Cornthwaite's unbowed and best-in-show performance, which somehow strikes a neutralizing balance for Carrington's crypto-communism, crypto-sociopathy, and crypto-homosexuality.  (It may be as simple as Cornthwaite's refusal to ever show Carrington being afraid: despite his manicured scientist's goatee, his turtleneck, his easily-overshadowed stature, and his positively enormous reserves of bitchy sneering, he comes off at least as tough as our blockheaded Capt. Hendry—with whom Kenneth Tobey does a much better-than-average job himself, evoking a certain calmness under pressure that's more like the product of shocked disbelief at the absurdity of his situation than it is any usual species of bland, stolid sci-fi masculinity.)  Either way, whatever else The Thing might find unappetizing about its human foil, it at least lets its weenie scientist put his money where his mouth is, providing Carrington a single great moment of legitimate heroism—but, importantly, providing that moment on Carrington's own terms, nobody else's.

And if that demonstrates that The Thing is a rich and satisfying movie to unpack on a metaphorical level, it does not mean that it is not rich and satisfying as the thing it is on the screen: a rad movie about killing the shit out of a seemingly-invulnerable monster from outer space.  It is, in fact, an extremely rad movie about that, Hawks and Nyby (the latter a skilled, Oscar-winning editor, recall) honing the tension of the piece throughout, despite running dry, relatively quickly, on interesting ways to actually film the two or three rooms of this snowbound Arctic fastness, which despite the throng of people don't always seem quite as claustrophobic as they ought.  (Aesthetically, The Thing never, ever tops its theremin-backed iconic scene of men circling a saucer they can barely see, rendering them mysterious dark silhouettes against an equally mysterious gray shape on the white ice; the good news is that The Thing doesn't need to top it.)

What I haven't mentioned, of course, is the Thing itself, brought to life by James Arness, and not too shabbily as far as his limited performance goes.  The role required him to be tall and angry, and Arness was definitely tall, and he reportedly hated working on The Thing, so that works to his advantage, too.  But here's where we run into the film's biggest and only serious weakness: despite a lot of fascinating supposition about the Thing's nature, the Thing isn't very fascinating itself, and its terribly basic appearance suggests a reason, beyond milking the suspense, that Hawks and Nyby might've been loath to reveal their monster.  Beyond its superhuman qualities, it makes no more impression than any big man in a bit of a makeup and a dumb jumpsuit would—that jumpsuit being the absolute worst, failing to fit with anything we know about the alien, plus making it look like our heroes are fighting an ornery groundskeeper who can apparently regrow his work uniform along with his limbs.  There's no question that Hawks and Nyby use this big man in a jumpsuit in the best way a big man in a jumpsuit could be used in 1951—particularly, setting him on fire, in what might still be the most awesome flamesuit sequence in history, with virtually the only light in the whole scene being the towering inferno of the Thing itself, this being the other iconic visual of this especially iconic film—but, at the end of the day, it really only is what it is.  Plus, if we're being brutal here, The Thing could stand a higher body count than it actually has, considering the ready availability of so many potential corpses.

Couple of good jump scares, though!  So, instead, let us be pleased that at least the screenwriters of this horror picture don't have the explicitly sexless creature attempt to rape the hot woman.

It ought to be damning, and "what's your monster movie's monster like?" ought to be a much, much more decisive question than it is here.  But it isn't—because almost everything else works so well, from the foundational subtext to the individual lines of dialogue, that The Thing earns its place as a damned fine creature-feature anyway.  It will always remain in its successor's shadow, but it casts a long shadow of its own; carving out a specific little niche in the canon of 1950s alien invasion films, I'm not sure it was ever bettered within it.

Score:  9/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • I'll repeat: the Thing, a creature which moves quickly, howls in pain, and drinks blood is best likened to "a plant."  You know, one of those plants that runs around and kills people with the muscles, nerves, and specialized organs like lungs the Thing is hypothesized not to possess.
  • On the plus side, while The Thing ends as all creature-features must, with a hastily-assembled scientific plan, it has a remarkably lo-fi approach to it, treating its monster as nothing too supernatural, merely strong, and our heroes operate under the guiding principle that anything can be burned to death, if you just get it hot enough.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • Carrington could make his case for clemency a little more persuasively than he does, perhaps by not baldly stating he doesn't care whether people live or die; yet one point he doesn't make, but should, isn't even a moral one, but a very practical one—the only thing we really know about the Thing is that it came to Earth from outer space.  Whether this was as an emissary or explorer or invader is almost beside the point: he came as a representative of a powerful alien civilization whose resources dwarf our own.  And, as we'll see when we arrive at 1951's other, wimpier portrait of the put-upon alien visitor, The Day the Earth Stood Still, maybe it's not the best idea to kill the representatives of powerful alien civilizations if you can possibly still help it.
  • "Holy cats!" is uttered at least five times as the most forceful expletive available in 1951 for dealing with a space alien that intends to drain your blood and feed it to its babies.
  • I swear there's a lady scientist in here somewhere.  She does not get anything to do, not even anything coffee-related.
  • It would be unfair to expect a thoroughgoing sense of wonder from a creature-feature like The Thing, but the discovery of the UFO sure as hell offers it up: it's eerie and recalls Lovecraftian occultism and sacred geometry, evoking vertiginous and hard-to-place feelings of inadequacy before a cosmos that is at best indifferent to us, and, at worst, hates our guts.  It's on the shortlist of "best sequences in a 50s sci-fi movie," and would place even on a longer list of "best ever."
  • But, speaking of eerie, the stethoscope sound of the Thing's seedlings, described as a crying child, is as conceptually creepy as anything.


  1. I feel like you're a bit unfair to the remake. They also use the "standing on the ice" scene to just as good effect, so that's 1% more faithfulness at least. There really IS a certain aesthetic to TfAW that occasionally gives it that extra oomph that would make anyone from any decade stand up and take notice, and I'm glad somebody did.

    1. I guess they do use a version of that scene in regards the backstory of the Norwegian base, don't they? Alright, sure, JC's is better, but one thing I'll always prize about this Thing is that it doesn't involve Wilford Brimley building a spaceship out of helicopter parts and oatmeal cans.

      Iirc (and I do, as I recently read your review--though you might've mellowed in the intervening years) you're not the hugest fan of the original. And fair enough. Truthfully, it's not even my favorite single-alien-invader-menaces-some-people movie (that was supposed to be this summer's Cardboard Science theme, but then I watched Fantastic Voyage, so, oh well). Anyway, that's one you've reviewed yourself, too. It's a silly film, I guess, but it's certainly got a lot of nerve.

      Nevertheless, TfAW is still probably the technically best-made of that movement-within-the-movement, whatever that actually means.