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Thing, The

Entry updated 15 April 2024. Tagged: Film.

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1. Film (1951; vt The Thing from Another World). Winchester Pictures/RKO. Directed by Christian Nyby (but see below). Written by Charles Lederer, based on "Who Goes There?" (August 1938 Astounding) by Don A Stuart (John W Campbell Jr). Cast includes James Arness, Robert Cornthwaite, Margaret Sheridan, Douglas Spencer and Kenneth Tobey. 86 minutes. Black and white.

The Thing was by far the most influential of the films that sparked off the sf/Monster-Movie boom of the 1950s, and remains one of the most powerful of that decade. The film was actually directed by Howard Hawks, who arranged as a favour that Nyby (an editor on previous Hawks films) should receive the directing credit. It is full of Hawks's trademarks: fast pace, overlapping dialogue and an ability to elicit relaxed, naturalistic performances from the cast. It describes the discovery of a UFO in the Arctic ice, its retrieval, and the subsequent series of attacks on a military/scientific base by its thawed-out occupant, a humanoid, vegetable Alien, searching for blood. Hawks wisely kept the Thing (Arness) off the screen for most of the film; when seen it is disappointing – and not at all like an "intellectual carrot", as it has been described. The best things in The Thing are the increasing tension (every time a door is opened the audience jumps) and claustrophobia; the gutsy performance by Sheridan as the wisecracking woman who gives as good as she gets, especially in the astonishing bondage scene; and the convincing sense of a nervous group under siege. Typical of adventure films made during the Cold War, there is a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later morality (the Scientists who want to communicate with the Thing are seen as fools); the Cold-War feeling is heightened by the famous last line, "Keep watching the skies!" [PN/JB]

2. Film (1982). Turman-Foster/Universal. Directed by John Carpenter. Written by Bill Lancaster, based on the Stuart/Campbell story. Cast includes A Wilford Brimley, T K Carter, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Richard Masur and Kurt Russell. 109 minutes. Colour.

Not so much a remake as a return to the original story, this film reinstates Campbell's Shapeshifting alien that can kill and duplicate the base workers one by one, with all the Paranoia that that engenders. It was not very successful commercially, and was widely criticized as being merely a string of curiously disgusting special effects (designed by Rob Bottin, an uncredited Stan Winston and others) without any of the subtlety of the Hawks version. But the Hawks version, though vivid, was itself not very subtle, and Carpenter carries his beleaguered working men much further in extremis emotionally than Hawks would have cared to. Only two survive, and either or both may in fact be alien. There is a case for arguing that the Carpenter version goes as far as genre movies normally dare, if not further, in questioning not just the nature of humanity under stress but its value. Faced by the alien, the humans themselves become inhuman in every possible way, victims or inciters of something that in conclusion may be the End of the World. It is a black, memorable film, and may yet be seen as a classic. The novelization is The Thing (1982) by Alan Dean Foster. [PN]

3. Film (2011). Universal Pictures and Morgan Creek Productions present a Strike Entertainment production. Directed by Mathijs van Heijningen Jr. Written by Eric Heisserer, based on the Campbell/Stuart story. Cast includes Adewale Akinnuoye-Agjaje, Joel Edgerton, Eric Christian Olsen, Ulrich Thomsen and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. 103 minutes. Colour.

An immediate prequel to John Carpenter's film made three decades on, this reverent if necessarily unsurprising homage expends a great deal of trainspotterly ingenuity on reconstructing the setting and earlier events at the Norwegian base where the Shapeshifting creature is first excavated from the ice (while curiously jettisoning the largest element, the thermite demolition of the ice shelf over the buried Alien Spaceship); the final sequence goes directly into, and incorporates footage from, Carpenter's opening. As the marginalized American postgrad who gradually assumes leadership of the support cast of top Norwegian actors, Winstead restores something of the Hawksian feminine to Carpenter's barbiferous universe of men stranded with men, though at the expense of the 1982 film's sweat-and-tobacco claustrophobia. A rushed production allowed much less time for the preparation of mechanical effects than the year's lead granted Rob Bottin's celebrated work on the first film, but the digital elements are judiciously integrated. Screenwriter Heisserer would go on to adapt stories by Ted Chiang, including Story of Your Life (2016). [NL]

see also: Cinema.


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