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The Thing from Another World (1951) vs. John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)

Who goes there?
Who goes there?

When are we going to build a space wall for the real alien problem?

Posted: Feb 23, 2019 12:59 PM

Welcome back, my friends, to the show that hopefully never ends. This is KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown, where we try to learn a little about ourselves and our society through the device of comparative cinema. Taking the stage this time around is that rarest of rarities. 1951’s “The Thing from Another World” is a classic and its 1982 remake as “John Carpenter’s The Thing” is also a classic. And without the distraction of the remake sucking the hind teat, there is some actual insight to be gained from dissecting these two films and what differentiates them.

“The Thing from Another World” is notable first for being made by the legendary Howard Hawks in an era when legendary filmmakers didn’t do sci fi. It’s difficult to draw you the proper analogy but imagine if Martin Scorsese signed on to direct the next season of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.” And even if you’re ignorant of Hawks’ resume, you’d know it was made by someone special when you measured it against the other monster movies of its day. The character interplay and dialog here is light years beyond what you see in most other 50s sci fi, even the good stuff. If you want to know why sci fi/fantasy/super hero movies have come to dominate Hollywood, look no further than this film. For generations, those genres were considered too childish and silly for serious artistes. Heck, Pierce Brosnan just talked about how he turned down the chance to be Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton’s Batman because he didn’t take the subject matter seriously…and his career highlight at that point was being TV’s Remington Steele. As that cultural bias had died out, more and more truly gifted storytellers have been allowed to fulfill the promise that Hawks made in 1951. A sci fi flick can be as good and as well made as anything else and has the scope and scale which only the big screen can support. Hawks doesn’t make any excuses or cut any corners with “The Thing from Another World.” He didn’t feel he ought or needed to.

Based on the story “Who goes there?” by John W. Campbell Jr., “The Thing from Another World” sees U.S. Air Force Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) leading an expedition to a scientific base in the artic. With his faithful crew and a dogged reporter named Scotty (Douglas Spencer) tagging along, Hendry meets head scientist Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) and together they discover an alien ship crashed in the ice. Hendry also discovers Nikki (Margaret Sheridan), Carrington’s secretary and the woman who drunk Hendry under the table and let him wake up alone. Oh, and they also discover an 8 foot tall alien (James Arness) frozen in the ice. Frankly, I would have stopped with Nikki.

Chipping the alien out of the ice, they bring it back to base where the careless use of an electric blanket thaws it out. Dr. Carrington is convinced the alien is an intellectually superior life form. After all, it possessed greater knowledge and technology, didn’t it? Well, Carrington must have skipped that day in philosophy class where they hashed out the difference between intelligence and morality because his superior life form kills a couple of scientists and uses their blood as food to try and grow more like itself. Even then, Carrington is still consumed with an adoration of intellect and believes he and the others should die if it means preserving the chance for the rest of the world to learn something from the alien.

The others on the base are not quite as willing to go quietly and fight back with bullets and axes and fire, only the last of which has much effect. As the alien decides the freeze them out, our valiant humans fight back with guts and brains to save themselves and the rest of their species. This was made in the early 1950s, so don’t expect some bleak and/or ironic ending. However, it does conclude with a clarion call of fear to “Watch the skies!” Given the anti-communist paranoia to come in America, you have to wonder about Hawks’ prescience.

When John Carpenter set out to do his own version of The Thing, which turned out so good it deserves better than to be labeled just another “remake”, he went back to the original story and its idea of an alien who could impersonate other living things. In 1982, the military base is in the Antarctic and opens with a sled dog running across the snow, pursued by two men in a helicopter trying to kill it with a rifle and some grenades. They chase the dog to an American base where one accidentally blows himself up and the other is shot to stop his single-minded rampage before he kills anyone else, including the dog.

Unlike in 1951, which fell over itself to show scientists doing sciencey things, it’s not at all clear what the purpose is of this American base and its crew. There’s a pilot named MacReady (Kurt Russell), a cook named Nauls (T.K. Carter), a doctor named Copper (Richard Dysart), a dog handler named Clark (Richard Masur) and someone named Garry (Donald Moffat) who appears to be a kind of commanding officer. What the rest of them do or why any of them are at the base is a total mystery. Blair (A. Wilford Brimley) talks and acts smarter than the rest but he no more resembles a scientist like Carrington than I resemble a Chippendale dancer.
As the rescued dog wanders about the base, MacReady and Copper take to the air to find out where the animal and its kill-crazy chasers came from. They find a Norwegian arctic base blown to hell and back with a pile of burned and warped bodies, along with notes and film that explain it was the Norwegians who found a starship and an alien which ran wild and almost killed them all. This alien can consume and imitate anyone, replacing its prey with an alien copy.

Yeah, the dog was an alien copy and though they destroy it, the 12 man crew of the American ice base can’t be sure which of them, if any, has also been replaced by an intruder from space. Blair deduces that if the alien makes it to civilization, it will inevitably consume and replace the whole human race. So he destroys any means the men have to escape or communicate with the outside world, setting off a terrifying battle of human against alien…and man against man.

What made “John Carpenter’s The Thing” stand out in 1982, besides being so damn entertaining, were the special effects that were wild and crazy then and now serve as a lesson that CGI isn’t the end all, be all of movie magic. There’s some stop-motion stuff at the very end which shows that technique had reached the end of its usefulness but the practical, physical effects and make up in this film are tremendous. The alien transformations are as striking and as believable as anything you get from a computer today and because they had to be done with real materials in the real world, there’s a weight and a solidity to them that’s so often missing from the jumping, spinning, flying pieces of digital gossamer we see on the 21st century silver screen.

Of most interest is how each film embodies and projects the cultural zeitgeist of its time. “The Thing from Another World” is about a group of people who all see themselves as part of a larger whole and behaves accordingly. Just six years removed from WWII, these folks work effortlessly in concert like a unit with no one man standing out from the others. Patrick Hendry is supposed to be the hero of this piece but he’s romantically outclassed by Nikki, who is clearly a step or two ahead of him all the way, and Hendry not only doesn’t come up with the way to destroy the alien at the end, he doesn’t even understand how it’s going to work! In a weird way, these 1951 Americans are a collective resembling the alien monster in 1982. Each is an individual but all combine to form a greater whole.

Take the reporter, Scotty, as an example. He is desperate to get a story out about the alien and chafes when the military denies him that chance. But Scotty totally accepts the military’s prerogative and understands his job as a journalist is merely a part of the process. He’s not happy about it but he sees it as the military doing what it needs to do. Likewise, Hendry understands both Scotty’s desire to get out a story and that it is important for him to do so at some point. These are two men on opposite sides of an issue who recognize the validity and legitimacy of each other. How often do you see that in a motion picture today? How often do we see it in real life?

In 1982, the men at the Antarctic base are pointedly and unmistakably individuals who just so happen to live and work with each other. In their dress, speech and behavior these men couldn’t be more separate if they were each living in their own individual sensory deprivation tanks. It takes the threat of horrible death to get them to truly cooperate.

And there’s a hopefulness in 1951 that is gone in 1982. Dr. Carrington endangers everyone but does so out of a dream that greater understanding is not only possible but essential. And the movie takes pains to tell the audience that Carrington is not a fool for thinking so. He’s cast as a man who is overworked, exhausted and simply doesn’t understand the situation. In the film’s final scene, his reckless actions are covered up with an indulgent nod that such a thing it entirely appropriate. Hawks can’t bring himself to trash the concept of an intelligent man who values intelligence.

In contrast, “John Carpenter’s The Thing” is bleak. These men have no higher purpose than staying alive and when that is gone, they grimly embrace the job of making sure they aren’t the only things that die in the cold. The worth to Mankind of contact with alien life and advanced technology isn’t even suggested. There’s no room in this story for anything but survival.

And whereas the struggle against The Thing in 1951 is a team effort, 1982 sees MacReady do almost everything himself. Heck, he even figures out a way to test who is and isn’t an alien, even though MacReady is shown to be about as tech savy as a walrus. By the early 1980s, the individualism that was a form of freedom and rebellion against oppressive thinking and tradition had begun to degenerate into a Randian celebration of the one with no room for anyone else. Think of the movie stars since 1980 and how many of them are solo acts with disposable co-stars that are there solely for the main star to kill and/or boink. And then think of the past when even someone like John Wayne would share the screen with other actors playing characters of real substance and grit. Many rage against the lack of strong female roles in Hollywood. Sexism undoubtedly plays a big part in that but there’s also truth in that there are fewer strong roles for anyone in any movie nowadays.

“The Thing from Another World” also singularly captures the paradox of 1950s America in that, while the movie had to abide by certain standards of decency, it didn’t shy away from ugly aspects of its story. The film is very specific in talking about how the alien kills two scientists and then hangs their bodies from the rafters so their blood can trickle down and feed the alien’s spawn. Yet while this 1951 flick aimed at a general audience had no trouble with such grisly details, it’s also chock full of Hendry getting needled for liking a girl. It’s not much above “Hendry and Nikki sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G.” It’s a great representation of an American culture that could confront rather nasty realities of violence and grapple with philosophical conundrums yet still giggled uncomfortably like a pre-teen any time sex enters the discussion.

While “The Thing from Another World” deserves its status as a genre landmark, I have to give the nod to “John Carpenter’s The Thing” as the better flick. While the 1951 original is still worth seeing, especially as a way for a parent to introduce a child to sci fi, and brings that glorious Hawks dialog that runs along like a babbling brook from sentence to sentence with barely room to breathe, there are only one or two moments here that can truly be considered scary any more. The 1981 version, aided by the unnerving music of Ennio Morricone, still has the power to both creep and gross you out. Maybe in another 20 years, the balance will tip back the other way. Regardless, both of them should go on your “must watch” list.

The Thing from Another World (1951)
Written by Charles Lederer.
Directed by Christian Nyby.
Starring Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, Robert Cornthwaite, Douglas Spencer, James Young, Dewey Martin, Robert Nichols, Williams Self, Eduard Franz, Sally Creighton and James Arness.

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)
Written by Bill Lancaster.
Directed by John Carpenter.
Starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, Joel Polis and Thomas G. Waites.

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