All Things Considered

It’s been a while since I’ve watched any of the 1950’s sci-fi “invasion” movies, but I imagine The Thing from Another World (1951) is one of the best of them. It may seem old-fashioned and talky, but it is also atmospheric and creepy.

The 1951 adaptation, written by Charles Lederer and directed by Christina Nyby, follows the set-up of the novella closely, but there is one major difference. Instead of a grotesque, shape-changing alien, it’s “thing” is a more straightforward, hulking monster. Such a difference eliminates the “who’s who” part of the story and turns it into a more typical “how do we destroy the creature” adventure.

This version of the creature at first sounds silly; it’s basically a walking vegetable. In fact, one of the characters calls it “Super Carrot”. But it’s a huge credit to the production that The Thing (both movie and creature) is as effective as it is. It may not be able to digest you, but it does live on blood and can, uh… knock you down in the hallway. And it’s really the narrow hallways of the Alaskan scientific outpost that are scary in The Thing (1951). Anything lurking in its shadows could be scary when it jumps out grab you.

You’d think that the gore in Carpenter’s 1982 remake, written by Bill Lancaster, would have been a creation of the era. But the original novella is surprisingly icky. It’s “thing” is first described as an animal with “those three red eyes and that blue hair like crawling worms. Crawling – damn, it’s crawling there in the ice right now.” Later descriptions of alien transformations in the novella suggest that Carpenter’s adaptation is less original than previously thought; it is instead an extremely faithful adaptation.

Something both movies share with the novella are long, scientific discussions regarding their creatures. From “should we thaw it” to “should we kill it”, and everything in between, all versions offer intelligent debates about the pros and cons, as well as thorough scientific explanations for what is happening (even with the walking vegetable). Surprisingly, it’s the 1951 movie that most effectively exploits the ethical issue of whether or not to capture the monster for the sake of science, or destroy it for the sake of survival. Its scientist character comes across as the most “evil”.

The 1982 version shares the claustrophobia of the 1951 version, but adds the paranoia of the novella. It has a smaller cast than both the original movie and the novella and eliminates the love interest of the original movie. In fact, Carpenter’s The Thing has no females at all. But they’re not missed; there’s no time for romance for any of its gang of recognizable actors: Kurt Russell, Wilfred Brimley, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur and Donald Moffat, to name a few. Casting the roles with character actors instead of A-list stars only strengthens the production.

The Thing (1982) is a near-perfect horror classic. It’s the kind of movie that makes you cringe when you hear there’s going to be another version. After watching The Thing (2011), though, the idea doesn’t initially seem ill-conceived. Remember that the Antarctic crew in the 1982 version was not the first to encounter its creature; it was the crew of a Norwegian outpost that the Americans later found burned and littered with mangled bodies. So there is actually another story to tell: what happened at the Norweigian outpost?

Therefore, The Thing (2011) is not technically a “remake”; instead, a prequel. But the problem is, it’s really the same story, just told in a different location. It includes the original discovery of the crashed alien ship and the thawing of the creature, which in the novella are flashbacks, in the 1951 version are part of the story and in the 1982 version are a mystery. And since it’s a prequel to the 1982 version and not the 1951 version, the creature is a grotesque shape-shifter, not a walking vegetable. And since it shares the who’s who paranoia of the 1982 version, almost step-by-step, I don’t think anyone would argue its inclusion in a feature called “Remake/Rewind”.

While similar to Carpenter’s The Thing in so many ways, there is one significant difference between it and the The Thing (2011): the special effects. Whether or not you like the 2011 version may very well depend on whether you prefer practical effects or CGI. The practical effects from 1982 hold up remarkably well. And I have to say that in this case, they are the ones I prefer. I mean, neither one is going to necessarily look “realistic”; I’ve never seen an angry alien transform into a human being. But practical effects have a… texture (?) that seems more organic to me. CGI seems faster, blurrier and sometimes more cartoonish.

How else does The Thing (2011) compare in the areas we’ve been discussing? In a way, it’s been dumbed-down. The lengthy scientific debates and explanations are largely absent from this version. In fact, the best scene from Carpenter’s version, where they develop a way to test each other’s blood, has in this version been removed of any scientific logic whatsoever. It’s kind of clever, but it’s also laughable in comparison. However, its concluding shock comes a little bit later and truly surprised me. There’s also no argument made for protecting the creature; its absence removes a layer of subtext present in all other variations of the story.

The Thing (2011) not only adds two women to the cast. The first serves no purpose other than to be a damsel in distress, but the second is in fact the lead character. As an American paleontologist flown in to assist with the removal of the creature from its icy grave, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is easy on the eyes, but ultimately lacks the acting chops to fill Kurt Russell’s shoes. A couple of the male cast members look vaguely familiar, but they’re strictly B-movie grade.

As much as I like Carpenter’s version of The Thing, I’ll admit its climax doesn’t thrill me. (Notice I say the “climax”, not the “ending”.) But I think that’s a problem it shares with both the novella and the new version. After reading/seeing bloody and magnificent transformations throughout the novella/movie, how do you possibly top them in order to provide a satisfying conclusion? While the big finale in The Thing (1982) is merely anti-climactic, in The Thing (2011), it’s appallingly bad. I won’t spoil it in case you actually find it original, but I absolutely hated it. It’s pointless and, although I’m hesitant to say this about anything, stupid.

Other than that, The Thing (2011) isn’t necessarily bad. Just don’t expect anything new. It has its share of thrills and chills, but when the biggest jump in a monster movie is a human being saying, “Boo”, you must admit it has some problems. I don’t know that I can tell you to rush out and see it, but neither would I tell you to avoid it. Just keep your expectations low and they might be exceeded.

Your time would be better spent with The Thing (1982) and, to a lesser degree, The Thing from Another World. Or, here’s a crazy idea: read the novella! Your imagination may just be able to conjure something more terrifying than any special effect, practical or CGI.

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The Thing from Another World (1951)
The Thing (1982)
The Thing (2011)
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