Sunday, September 09, 2007
The Thing from Another World (1951)
After watching John Carpenter's version of The Thing and seeing it appear on TV screens in both versions of Halloween I decided to revisit this, another classic I haven't seen in quite a while.
Even though this is one of the most influential sci-fi movies ever made (it set the form for the 'isolated men vs. a monster' subgenre) you might not know how it goes: briefly, a bunch of Air Force men are sent up to the North Pole to check on a remote station of scientists. It turns out that a flying saucer has crash-landed and they haul a frozen block of alien back to the camp. It thaws out into James Arness wearing Frankenstein makeup and the battle is joined.
The major plot complication is that the scientists, led by an obviously suspect type, are more interested in studying and communicating with the monster while the military guys, noticing that it's a hulking beast with a thirst for human blood, are more interested in killing it - and the movie is on their side, seeing them as no-nonsense regular joes and the scientists as effete eggheads obsessed with perceived notions of the alien's superiority even though all it does is grunt and murder.
I enjoy this movie, but it's obviously problematic, a one-sided Cold War parable made at a time when the U.S. military had won WWII, but scientists had brought the world the A-bomb. I like to think of this movie as a companion piece to The Day the Earth Stood Still (the other sci-fi classic from 1951) because, even though it's kind of a cliche, the movies complement each other perfectly. While the alien in The Thing is a thuggish monster, in Day he's a charming Brit (and the movie's protagonist, to boot). While the scientists in The Thing are cold Oppenheimer types, in Day they're kindly Einstein types. And where The Thing is paranoid and insular, Day is open-minded and thoughtful.
The flip side is that, problematic as it is, I think The Thing from Another World is a better-made movie - the narrative is clean and direct, the characters rattle off their dialogue in a way that feels modern and lifelike, and most importantly, Howard Hawks doesn't need to resort to contrived Jesus metaphors to get his point across. The Day the Earth Stood Still has a preachy, head-in-the-clouds, Adlai Stevenson quality that The Thing is thankfully free of with its emphasis on the great American tradition of regular guys working hard to do the right thing. It's a movie in the best Hawks style (yes, I know he's only credited as Producer, but still) with a fun mixture of action, comedy, and a sassy dame so that it all manages to transcend its somewhat clunky, dated subtext.