November 07, 2011

The Thing from Another World (1951)

To most people, the name of John W. Campbell may not exactly ring a bell; however, Campbell was probably one of the most influential persons in the history of American science fiction. As the editor of the legendary "Astounding Stories" magazine, Campbell changed the name to "Astounding Science Fiction", and began to publish new young writers such as Lester del Rey, Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov; essentially shaping up what later was known as the "Golden Age of Science Fiction". Nevertheless, Campbell wasn't only a skilled hunter of new talents, he was also a prolific writer himself, using both his name and the pseudonym Don A. Stuart. Campbell's novella "Who Goes There?", published in 1938, is perhaps his most famous work, not only because of its literary qualities (it's considered one of the finest American sci-fi novellas of all time) but also because of its film adaptations. The first of this adaptations is the 1951 classic "The Thing from Another World", a movie produced (and perhaps directed) by none other than Howard Hawks.

"The Thing from Another World" begins when a North Pole base, Polar Expedition Six, requests an Air Force resupply crew. Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) is sent to the place, taking amongst his crew a reporter, Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer). As they arrive, they are greeted by Doctor Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) and Doctor Redding (George Fenneman), whom inform them the reason of their request: a strange flying object crashed near their base, and they need to go and investigate. Pat's crew and the scientist travel to the crash site and discover that what crashed in the ice is actually a flying saucer. While they try to uncover the spaceship, the crew accidentally destroys it with the explosives, however, not everything is lost, as a frozen body is found in the ice nearby. The group excavates the body and take it back to their base, still in the large block of ice. A storm hits the base and leaves them without communication, and the strange being that was found at the crash site, begins to wake up.

Adapted by prolific scriptwriter Charles Lederer (though Ben Hecht and Howard Hawks himself also had uncredited but major participations), "The Thing from Another World" diverts significantly from the novella, and changes the basic nature of the monster. While in Campbell's story the monster was able to imitate humans (providing the suspense and paranoia), in Lederer's screenplay the Thing is an intelligent humanoid being with cellular structure related to vegetation. With this change, the story is less about the monster, and more about the social interactions between the crew and the scientists, particularly on the subject of how to deal with the Thing. On one side, the scientists of Dr. Carrington want to preserve the Thing alive, while Captain Pat Hendry wants to destroy it. Lederer takes the side of the soldiers, reflecting the general distrust of science that was felt after the Hiroshima nuclear bombs, and to a lesser extent, the Cold War paranoia, which was typical of sci-fi horror films of the Atomic Age.

Where "The Thing from Another World" shines is in the classy work of directing it has, which is by all accounts quite Hawksian. Though credited only as producer, there's some weight in the claim that it was Hawks and not Christopher Nyby who directed the film. And even if it wasn't Hawks, at least he had considerable input in Nyby's work. What is true is that "The Thing from Another World" is an action packed horror film that certainly plays the right notes and elevates its subject matter above the typical sci-fi fare. As written above, the tension in the film is entirely based on the friction between the human characters, and to this effects Nyby (or Hawks) put considerable weight in developing them and the difficult relationships between them. While they are essentially the basic archetypes of 50s science fiction (All-American soldier, mad scientist), a good effort is done in fleshing them out, and this is instrumental for the success of the film. Nyby and Hawks manage to make their monster a believable threat, something that most monster movies attempt and sorely miss.

Leading the cast as Captain Patrick Hendry, actor Kenneth Tobey delivers a good, restrained performance as the leader of the soldiers. Carrying the movie with his strong presence and natural charm. Subtle in his approach, there's a certain weight that he gives to his performance that makes his character feel trustworthy. Certainly, Tobey fits the classic 1950s hero role proficiently. Nevertheless, the film's highlight is Robert Cornthwaite, who plays Hendry's nemesis Dr. Carrington. Giving his role a calculated dose of malice, Cornthwaite makes a masterful depiction of a man driven by his obsession (knowledge) to the point of amorality, endangering the lives of everyone else. There's a bit of Melville's Captain Ahab in Cornthwaite's performance, and it's commendable the way he manages to portray his character's intelligence with minimal gestures. Margaret Sheridan plays Carrington's secretary and Hendry's love interest, and while her role is certainly limited, her work is pretty effective.

There's no doubt that "The Thing from Another World" is a classic of its genre, as amongst the countless sci-fi horrors from the 1950s, it has a certain class in its craftsmanship that elevates it above the many "creature features" that were produced in that era. Few horrors from the period manage to influx a premise like this (the vegetable monster) with the amount of gravitas the film has (1954's "Them!" would be another example). But certainly, for all its virtues, "The Thing from Another World" is not a film that has aged well, not only in terms of its technical merits, but also regarding its political ideology, which is clearly a product of its time. The film is fully imbued with the idea of treating any outsider as an enemy, and that military action should have more weight than any scientific approach (Dr.Carrington, embodies all the negative aspects of liberal and scientific views). In a way, it's the diametrical opposite to George A. Romero's 1985 film "Day of the Dead".

30 years after the making of "The Thing from Another World", director John Carpenter directed a remake of the film, more faithful (in plot and tone) to Campbell's classic novella. While this is perhaps a case of a remake proving itself superior to the original, Howard Hawks place as a classic sci-fi horror of Cold War remains unquestioned. While it does have several shortcomings and time hasn't treated it well, its enormous influence over science fiction cinema can still be felt. Though nowadays it's can feel dated and even archaic, Hawks' "The Thing from Another World" can still be an enjoyable film to watch, mainly because if had one element that no very few "creature features" of the same period had: class.



Kevin Matthews said...

I will be rewatching this soon because sci-fi month gives me an excuse. I remember reading some time ago that the fate of The Thing was suggested by a tea lady or cook.

J Luis Rivera said...

a cook? well, the monster is called "intellectual carrot" at some point, so I guess it's fitting.

Someone was hungry during the scriptwriting, heh