This is “The Thing” that started it all, the 1951 sci-fi classic that inspired John Carpenter to make his famed 1982 remake, which then led to another remake in 2011. The original movie belongs very much to the sci-fi genre of its era, while the later films emphasize the plot’s capacity for horror. If you are looking to be terrorized, then the Carpenter film is the way to go, but the retro charms of “The Thing from Another World” will please those with an affection for similar works like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956), and “The Blob” (1958).
The story unfolds at an Arctic research facility, where a group of scientists witnesses the crash landing of a UFO. Soon the U.S. military gets involved, with the usual conflicts between scientific principles and governmental control threatening to undermine the whole operation, even though it soon becomes clear that the alien survivor (James Arness) presents a serious threat to all of the humans at the site.
Although Christian Nyby is credited as the director, “The Thing from Another World” benefits greatly from the oversight and influence of its more famous producer, Howard Hawks. Striking images, like the human chain formed around the alien saucer’s perimeter, elevate the film beyond the level of many period sci-fi productions, while the no-nonsense dialogue and practical performances keep the characters from being too wooden. Kenneth Tobey ably plays the stalwart Captain who leads the military group, and Douglas Spencer offers a solid representation of the eager reporter who yearns to break the biggest story in Earth’s history. The film’s treatment of its one important female character, played by Margaret Sheridan, also offers a welcome break from the screaming females so typical of the genre.
The monster, mostly seen in long shots and quick glimpses, avoids that familiarity that breeds contempt for many classic movie monsters. Really, the alien is more or less a vampire plant, with the frozen facility replacing the isolated castles where vampires usually stalk their prey. Rather than give in to Gothic hysteria, the movie presents us with a can-do team of American fly boys who never lose their will to survive this experience, even though the leader of the scientists (Robert Cornthwaite), madly believes that it’s their duty to die in order to preserve the monster for future studies. The end of the film features the famous line, “Keep watching the skies!” and a very compelling argument for preventing global warming.
If you like 50s sci-fi, “The Thing from Another World” is definitely a must-see movie, and its influence on later pictures makes it worth watching even if its own attractions seem quaint by modern standards. For the opposite end of the era’s spectrum of sci-fi films, try campy classics like “Attack of the Giant Leeches” (1959) and “Plan 9 from Outer Space” (1959). For more influential sci-fi classics, see “Metropolis” (1927), “Forbidden Planet” (1956), and “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” (1964).
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