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The Thing [from Another World] Movie Review 1951, 1982, 2011

After reading all the lackluster reviews for the updated The Thing movie, I passed on the theatrical release and figure I’d wait for the DVD rental. Before picking up on the re-imaging, I thought it might be wise to watch the original 1951 Howard Hawking version along with John Carpenter’s The Thing 1982 update.

The Thing from another World (1951)

the thing 1951

I remember this B&W classic from my childhood and being creeped out by the huge humanoid monster stalking through the hallways like an unstoppable Juggernaut. You didn’t need special effects or sophisticated graphics to turn a man into an alien beast. Giant hands and a helmet, along with good physical acting, was enough to convince anyone back then.

Watching the dialogue now reminds me of the different deliveries and sense of timing actors used in those early days of cinema. The rapid fire speeches gave a sense of military formality, efficiency and added a rushed importance to every line. We have the classic commander who is respectfully chided by his men and who is in full command, but also willing to listen to solid ideas from the men under him. He comes off as not knowing everything, but still being the smartest. Yes, they chose a military officer who uses common sense.

The scientist is still the early cliché of wanting knowledge of the unknown and is willing to sacrifice everything – including human life to get it.  To his un-cowardly credit, he is willing to trade his own life in exchange for furthering our understanding of the universe. Of course, he does an ill-advised, morally questionable experiment that does give us our only look into the habits of the monster. In this case, the alien visitor is a humanoid beast that has apparently evolved from plant life and feeds on blood. The sled dogs are fodder and food and have little involvement with the creature besides attacking the intruder early on.

This is a great movie that stands as a perfect example of our early paranoia about alien visitors and invasions. It ends with the memorable line “Keep Watching the Skies”.

The Thing 1982

the thing 1982

John Carpenter takes the basic concept and updates the science while keeping the atmosphere intact. He takes environmental factors like the cold and isolation and turns them into major plot points. He uses a research station as the backdrop and assembles regular men to go up against the threat from outer space. The monster has been turned up a few notches too. The original was a menacing brute and this version pits the humans against a shape-shifting alien that can impersonate any living organism it comes in to contact with. Assimilation after annihilation. Our paranoia over space invasions has been replaced with paranoia over who you can trust as it isn’t clear who is friend and who is foe- who you can turn to and who’s been turned.

We still have the alien saucer under the ice as the initial point of contact, but even that idea is pushed further as the alien tries to build another ship using spare parts from around the base in order to make his escape. The original alien was pretty smart for cutting the power, but this guy is really sharp (no pun intended). The surrounding cast is composed of well crafted characters and the main protagonist is the helicopter pilot J.R MacReady played by Kurt Russel. The movie has more of a singular focus as we mostly follow MacReady and learn as he learns. Like the best of horror movies, our characters are placed in a near hopeless situation and it’s only their spirit and willingness to live that keeps them going. If the original ended with the line Watch the Skies, this one should end with “watch the man next to you”. This is one of the few times where a remake does justice to the source material.

The Thing 2011

The Thing 2011

The newest version is listed as a prequel and although the events of this film bring us within a few hours of the 1982 John Carpenter classic, it still feels like a modern translation since several key scenes are recreated. I’m not sure why director Matthijis van Heijningen Jr would choose to helm this movie as his first big release. It wasn’t as though the 82 version was dated or The Thing represents some sort of big money franchise that needed to be restarted or reinvigorated like Star Trek.

Most modern horror flicks reply on jump gags where there’s a meaningless, but sudden action meant to deliver a quick jolt of fear. It’s the old cat jumping out of the cupboard and unfortunately that’s the engine behind this movie. It lacks the hard science and joy of discovery from the first movie and misses the ‘who can I trust?’ paranoia of the second. There is a good attempt to recreate that tension, but it falls flat since all the characters are fairly generic. It’s pretty much a few random Americans and a bunch of crazy Norwegians. When you compare this cast with stand-out characters from John Carpenter’s take, you’ll quickly realize why the deaths are meaningless. The writers Eric Heisserer, John W. Campbell Jr. never gave us any personalities to connect with. The main character, a Kate Lloyd played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead does a fine job as the one sensible character. It’s obvious from the beginning that she deserves to live and everyone else deserves to die for being so stupid.

The 1982 Thing did its best to show us a monster that was doing things on-screen that we had never seen before- from growing heads – to assimilating dogs- to, damn, just being gross and scary. The monster in this affair is a multi-lobster-limbed crawler and, I must admit, quite formidable. It copies the big punch-line or becoming a grotesque merging of all the victims it’s absorbed, but in this case, it looks kinda silly. When you finally get the payoff of seeing a version of the monster in full light, it’s a little disappointing and honestly, non-scary. Still, it does better to deliver the chills than the current crop of disposable horror-flicks Hollywood has been churning out in recent years.

In the original movie, it’s science verse the military when the army men want to destroy the dangerous alien and the mad scientist wants to be friends and preserve the monster at all costs. And although that was the same foolish opinion held by the upper branches of the military, it didn’t seem so sinister. The 1982 film simply stands us up against a monster we don’t understand and survival is the only goal. The 2011 thing brings us another dumb scientist, but you could argue that his interest also lie in a quest for personal glory. “We May lose this find” yes, he has a personal interest and is in it for his own immortality and legacy.

The music/soundtrack borrows or pays homage to the 1982 score by Ennio Morricone. Those two ominous tones drop at the very start and at the end of the movie. It makes for a nice wrapper. Speaking of endings, 1982 left us with two characters staring at each other with complete distrust. This is an amazing stalemate and a good way to end a classic. This movie, in perfect step with the younger generation, cannot leave anything to the imagination and we get a big impact. Yeah, I must admit this is a welcome twist.

Overall, I consider the 2011 The Thing to be a good movie. It’s worth seeing if you’re a fan of the original and the 1982 revisit. The original was a statement of our time and left a marker that exposed how we felt about first contacts. The second was a statement about the human condition and what it would take to break down the bonds that hold us together as a species. This third version details who we are in 2011 and beyond. Simply put: we are creatures that seem capable of holding on to every memory and experience while we refuse to let anything with $entimental value go. Once, we had a disposable culture, but now we have one of recycling: it’s all old- fashion, phrases, influences and ideas. The big question for every revisit or re-imaging is what are you going to add? Are you going to give us useful background information? Are you going to develop a beloved character more? Are you fixing technical flaws or enhancing an experience? The problem I have with most rehashes is that the priority lies in bringing us the memorable moments while forgetting to include the WHY as far as why we chose to hang on to those moments to begin with. I think I’m going to watch the 1982 version again. Thank you John Carpenter for including the why.

I am not a movie critic. I am merely critiquing a movie.

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