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The Thing from Another World (1951)

by on 2011/10/22

“This carrot, as you call it, has constructed an aircraft capable of flying some millions of miles through space, propelled by a force as yet unknown to us.”

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As far as I know, The Thing from Another World is just one of at least three feature adaptations — and a significant inspiration for the X-Files episode “Ice” — based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Campbell, an author and editor little-loved by his peers, had the sort of upbringing which makes his early (1948) tale an unsurprising creation. Unable to distinguish between his erratically loving mother, and her ill-tempered twin sister, he had reason to explore his demons of fear and paranoia.

While its first cinematic interpretation takes some liberties, it is in its broad strokes fairly similar. Beginning November third, in Anchorage, Alaska, Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) is dispatched to the North Polar Expedition Six. There, a “magnetic disturbance” has stirred the interest of eccentric scientist Arthur Carrington (Robert O. Cornthwaite). He tracks a metal object weighing 20,000 tons, and moving in an unusual manner, before crashing.

Although their attempt to excavate the discovery from the arctic ice proves disastrous, they manage to salvage a block of ice with a vaguely humanoid shape contained within. (This “thing” suggested by the title is played by James Arness of Gunsmoke, and the brother of Mission: Impossible’s Peter Graves.)

Does anyone fail to realize what will happen when they bring it indoors?

Audience? Doubtful. Characters? Definitely. Let the fun begin.

And fun it is, if only for the audience. An unusually dense affair — by which I don’t mean “stupid” — Another World happily lacks the common failing of “too little spread too thin”. Nearly overpopulous for a distant outpost of outmatched lambs-to-the-slaughter, it’s a narrative packed with players and dialogue.

Speakers trade in rapid-fire familiarity, often overlapping their chatter, sometimes speaking simultaneously. Scenes are decorated with the signifiers of their rapports: the way they act, the things they do, the topics they discuss. Sentences are left unfinished, and ideas aren’t over-explained.

On the other hand, the relationships are slightly overdone. Romance is not out-of-place in their world, however it does seem shoehorned in. Similarly, the camaraderie borders on faux cliches. The boys’ club vibe of good-natured teasing gets too rich for me, a nearly imperfect curdling of hearty and saccharine.

Fortunately, this sort of thing doesn’t lessen the sense of suspense. If anything, it may grate a bit, but it counterpoises the threat. For, if there was any doubt the alien was a danger to the men, a prescient collection of now-familiar genre motifs should set us straight.

Dogs become agitated in its presence. Victims are hung upside-down. Bodies are drained of blood. Geiger counters start clicking when the visitor approaches. The press demands the truth; the establishment delays. Science demands preservation; the foot-soldiers seek a corpse. All are devices and themes we know well from its inheritors: Alien, Predator, Terminator, and too many more to mention.

These new frontiers are tested with a stark minimalism. The less-is-more approach benefits the visceral dread and cerebral themes as much as it must have done the bottom line. Simple touches speak volumes. Figures spreading out on the ice to describe the unseen craft beneath them. An editing style which evokes an unbroken real-time tour of a killing jar. A creature’s menace rendered by a careful, gradual exposure: a vague darkness seen through ice, a fleeting shadow, obscured by a storm, silhouetted in a doorway, and so on.

In fact, though I realize the later adaptations are more faithful to Campbell’s story, I’ve found them too overt to win my love. To me, they’ll always be exercises in visual effects. At the risk of a kind of tastelessness, these metaphors come to mind: the newer Things are pornography; Another World is erotica.

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Not rated

87 minutes

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