I take on the task of looking at three takes on the same idea over 3 generations.
*Update* I have reconsidered these films now and I would like to say the following: The Carpenter film will literally always win. It’s a masterpiece. However, I do admit that the 2011 film has a lot more going for it than I thought the first time.
Each of these movies is an adaptation of the story “Who Goes There?” from 1938.
The general plotline of the films is that an Antarctic, or Arctic, research station finds a frozen alien spacecraft. The alien is revealed to be a threat to the world, because it consumes life forms and then propagates itself at a rapid pace, sewing a large amount of distrust among all of the humans. Everything else is going to be part of the compare and contrast.
This is the conclusion of my 13 reviews of Halloween. Four of the reviews were classic movies, four of them were reader requests, and four of them were independent movies/lesser seen films. This review has all three of those, but they’re all adaptations of the same story. This review originally ended up being over 3500 words. I’ve edited it heavily in order to get it to a reasonable length for a blog post. Maybe one day I’ll post the full thing, but… well, due to my own stupidity, I didn’t save a copy of the full review, I just cut it down. Long story short, this is a long story, short.
A little background here:
The Thing from Another World was made in 1951 by Christian Nyby, who really was just an editor throughout most of his career. It was in black-and-white and was produced by Howard Hawks’ studio, the makers of Scarface and The Big Sleep. It was a low-budget sci-fi horror film that was designed mostly to capitalize on the anti-scientific-exploration mentality that was prevalent after the world realized that “oh hey, atomic bombs are bad now that Russia has them” as well as the growing threat of “communism.” It was a big hit both commercially and critically, doing better than more well-known films like The Day the Earth Stood Still. It’s still considered a classic monster movie and holds up better than most movies from 1951.
The Thing is a movie made by the legendary John Carpenter in 1982. It could represent any number of potential social issues, because the central focus is that anyone could secretly be an alien and you’d never notice. That said, it could represent absolutely nothing and still just be a great horror film. The Thing was a critical flop of epic proportions, with most of the people saying it was too bleak and too slow to be a decent film. However, as time passed, the film was reconsidered by most audiences, where it went from being one of the most hated films of all time to one of the most celebrated films. It stands today as one of the best examples of practical effects in the 1980s and of suspense in films. The fact that it is so dark and depressing, what made people hate it when it came out, is now what sets it apart from other horror films. It’s just a masterpiece through and through.
The Thing is a prequel to the 1982 movie that was made in 2011 because you can always cash in on nostalgia. While the Carpenter film depended heavily on practical effects, the 2011 movie tried to replace it with CGI. Sadly, the CGI did not improve the film. While the Carpenter film has a slow pace to increase the paranoia and uncertainty of the audience and the characters, this version seems to go slow solely because the Carpenter version did. It also suffered because the end of the film had to correspond with the observations of the location from the Carpenter version. Ultimately, it wasn’t very successful either critically or commercially.
The big constants in every version are the alien, the setting, the team, and the paranoia. I’d originally intended to go through each, pick a winner and a loser in each category, and then do an overall analysis to determine the best movie. The problem was that I immediately knew that the one done by John Carpenter was going to win every category. It’s one of the best horror films ever made and one of my favorite movies, so… yeah, that one is going to win literally everything. Instead, I’m just going to explain WHY it wins.
1) The Alien
The alien is a global threat. In The Thing From Another World, the creature feeds on blood and is plant-based. It’s blood subsequently grows other plants, which will eventually feed on more blood. In this way, if it were to get out of the tundra, it would cause carnivorous plants to take over the world. In the 1982 The Thing and its 2011 prequel of the same name, the alien consumes living matter and can absorb the memories of anyone it eats, allowing it to perfectly duplicate its victims. After it consumes enough mass, it can duplicate itself into another organism, making any number of itself until it could eventually consume everyone on Earth without anyone even knowing it.
If it comes down to why The Thing wins here, it’s a combination of, ahem, things. First, the alien in the older movie, while it is played by the legendary James Arness, is nowhere near as scary. It’s also nowhere near as focal to the threat of the film. It basically shows up, gets injured, drives a guy insane, then dies in an incredibly stupid trap. It’s still fairly lethal, but much easier to deal with, due to it not propagating on its own. Also, it’s extremely humanoid, which removes some level of intimidation.
Meanwhile the Carpenter alien is a nightmare. It not only infiltrates with ease, but quickly consumes and spreads itself at such a fast pace that neither the characters nor the audience can ever be sure who is human and who isn’t. Now, you may point out that this is the same monster from the prequel, and that’s technically true, but A) it’s inherently not original, B) the creature is nowhere near as creative in its killing, and C) the digital special effects for it just don’t match up to the practical effects of the Carpenter film. *Update* Admittedly, CGI did allow for a lot of shots that couldn’t be done practically, but Rob Bottin and special-effects legend Stan Winston really came up with some disturbing shots for the Carpenter version.
2) The Setting
Every version of the movie takes place in a frozen wasteland. This is essential to the story, because it is the only reason why the creature doesn’t immediately start taking over the world.
In The Thing From Another World, the setting is the North Pole, which is unique among the movies in the sense that it’s on the exact opposite side of the world, but… how the hell would you know? I mean, it’s just a snowy desert. However, unlike the other two movies, the setting is much more tied in with the military. It’s ostensibly an arctic research base, but it is run by the air force and staffed by airmen. The base also is designed to be visited more often, keeping the feeling of isolation at a much lower level than the other films. To be fair, the movie is supposed to be more of a monster epic, as opposed to a psychological thriller, so the lack of isolation isn’t as noticeable.
The 2011 version takes place at the set which the cast of the 1982 film briefly visit, that of a Norwegian research station called “Thule,” an ancient term for the border of the world (solid reference there, guys). Similar to the 1951 movie, though, the fact that people keep coming and going from the station removes some of the elements of isolation compared to the Carpenter version. The station is also designed for more clinical research, which makes it seem more pristine and somewhat unloved. However, the movie does include the inside of the alien ship, which… actually is kind of a disappointment. The ship looks similar to most spaceships from alien movies, with hallways designed to accommodate humanoid inhabitants. This is despite the fact that the alien that inhabits it is a shapeshifter who wouldn’t need such regular dimensions. It still looks cool, but not as cool as it could be. Yes, we technically see part of it in the original, but there was a lot of room to expand on this in inventive ways that I think didn’t happen.
Then there’s the original. The people staffing the American research station aren’t scientists, they’re blue collar workers. They wreck stuff. They put their feet on stuff. You really believe this is the kind of place where a bunch of guys get stuck together for months at a time. But mostly, it drives home that this is the kind of place that is separated from the rest of the world. They can barely go outside for any amount of time, so the inside is kind of dirty and crowded and lived in. The shots of the landscape just show whiteness and emptiness everywhere; it’s perfectly bleak and isolated.
3) The Team
This is probably the category in which each of the movies is the most fundamentally different. It’s a little unfair that John Carpenter had Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, and Donald Moffat, although the 2011 film did have Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton. The Thing from Another World’s biggest star was James Arness as the monster, and he had only just started his career at that point.
However, it’s not just the performances and the caliber of actors that set the John Carpenter film apart. It’s the kind of people being portrayed. In The Thing from Another World, most of the cast are either military or scientists. A lot of them don’t know each other and thus, any distrust between them is kind of easy to create. Several of the people already have inherent issues, because the scientists don’t like the military and vice versa. None of the characters are particularly memorable aside from Carrington (Robert Cornwaite), a scientist who becomes obsessed with the alien. In the 2011 Thing, the team is composed almost entirely of scientists who were working at the Norwegian Antarctic research station. They have history together, but they trade out fairly frequently. They’re also always rational about the situation, reacting to it more analytically than would maybe be natural. Then, there’s the Carpenter version.
The 1982 The Thing features a team of blue collar workers who have all been stuck together for a long time. They’re close, almost to a familial point, but they’re not a pleasant family because they keep getting stuck together for such long periods of time. They have a level of “f*ck off* that they wear on their sleeves. Additionally, these are mostly normal humans who frequently react with emotional outbursts. One of my favorite scenes in film is when R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), gets mad at losing to the chess computer on site and pours scotch into it, destroying it. It’s such a perfect representation of the kind of people who are at this station, and they’re so much more relatable to the viewer than teams of scientists or military personnel. By making the characters more normal, it makes the horror of their situation more understandable to the viewer and more powerful.
4) The Paranoia
Since this is the core theme of the original story, each of the versions has tried to convey it with varying levels of success.
In the black-and-white film, the paranoia comes from the fact that the monster can propagate an entire army via the seed pods on its body and that it can convince people to follow it based solely on its superior genetics. It was apparently seen as a metaphor for Communism in the McCarthy era. The monster, while humanoid, drains its victims and grows new emotionless soldiers to replace them. I don’t think it’s a great metaphor, but then again I have the benefit of knowing how the Soviet Union panned out so far. Ultimately, while everyone is afraid of the threat of the monster, it still doesn’t give the same level of “trust no one” as the other films.
In Carpenter’s film and the re-make, the paranoia is because you actually can’t trust anyone. Moreover, in the 1982 film, the audience is in the same boat as the characters. We see a character get eaten and absorbed by the thing, but only in shadow, and we never get any confirmation who that character was. That’s the point, though: Anyone could be the Thing and you’d never know. Now, the creature appears fairly early on in the movie and nobody knows that it is an alien at first because it appears as a sled dog. That means, in retrospect, it could potentially have killed and assimilated anyone, because no one was even aware of the threat. Ergo, anyone can be the monster. Trust no one.
The prequel has a similar premise, because it’s ostensibly the same monster, but it has two major flaws. First, it takes almost an hour to get the thing into the movie and we know that it wasn’t there before. In other words, everything we’ve seen before then had to involve only humans, so we can’t read anything into those actions. Also, the people are aware of the Thing and its powers almost immediately, meaning that while the paranoia is palpable, it goes from 0 to 60 in about 2 scenes, rather than the slow build of Carpenter’s film.
So the winner is: Carpenter’s film. I literally said that it would at the beginning. There was never a question. However, I like all of these movies, although I admit that the 2011 prequel feels mostly unnecessary. *Update* It does have some good performances and a few added locations that at least expand the story a bit. The Howard Hawks film is a great monster movie that, while definitely dated, still can keep your interest and the prequel, while flawed and derivative, still does an amazing job of keeping the continuity of the previous film. However, Carpenter’s movie is not just one of the best horror films ever made, it’s one of the best movies ever made. Rather than being a metaphor for a particular idea like Communism, Carpenter managed to make a film about one of the most perpetually disconcerting inherent aspects of human consciousness: You will never, ever, truly know another human being. Now, you can have people you are close to, people you are completely honest with, or people you think you can understand, but you will never be positive that they’re that way with you. They could always be hiding something or, more likely, they could just change in a way that isn’t reflected physically. In this movie, Carpenter plays upon one of the most basic issues in the human experience and points out that, when we are forced to confront that fact, we immediately start turning on each other. It’s truly a bleak outlook that most movies wouldn’t even try to take on.
Happy Halloween, my readers. Regular schedule will come back in November, with probably a few hiccups due to plans.
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