The Thing From Another World (1951) 4.07/5 (2)


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Rating: The Good – 76.3
Genre: Science Fiction, Thriller
Duration: 87 mins
Director: Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks
Stars: Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, James Arness

When scientists and military personnel stationed at an isolated research base in the North Pole visit a meteor crash site, they discover a flying saucer and its occupant frozen in the snow. On bringing the alien back to their base, it’s accidentally allowed to thaw and, as the scientists attempt to piece together the mystery of this new life, the soldiers must organise their defence against it.

Writer-producer Howard Hawks’ classic adaptation of John Campbell’s Who Goes There? may not have the paranoia of John Carpenter’s remake but as a straight up sci-fi, it was one of the best. Set in the Arctic (as opposed to Antarctica), in a base run by the US Air Force (as opposed to the US Geographical Survey) and populated with either brilliant scientific minds from a selection of fields or professional Air Force personnel (as opposed to a rag tag collection of misfits), the scene is set for less mayhem, suspicion, and selfishness and more camaraderie, clockwork procedure, and OK, eventually mayhem. The alien they come across is also more old fashioned and by today’s standards a little goofy but the sense of wonder and fear which the premise held back in the 1950’s is still maintained thanks to the integrity of the performances and the writing.

It’s clear Hawks and Carpenter had two different ideas in adapting the story. The latter would explore the paranoid themes of the source material more closely because he had the special effects capability to build a believable shape shifting alien. Hawks’ film didn’t but, by virtue of how the characters are set up (more trustworthy and generally more pleasant), the paranoid elements to the story were clearly less important. Instead, it was the then freshly baked fascination with the concept of alien life, the possibilities it offered, and the implications it had for humankind which spear this story forward. The characters are just as rich as the 1982 film but less conflicted. Everyone knows their job and gets on with. That’s not to say there’s no tension. There’s some dispute around how the alien should be treated once it turns dangerous but the characters always remain true to their convictions. Of course, from a cinematic standpoint, having characters who are too scared and unstable to think clearly makes for a more dramatic subtextual tension but there’s a lot to be said for the overt straightforward kind that comes with just fighting for your life.

Christian Nyby is credited with the directing but most believe that was only because Hawks didn’t want to be associated with the sci-fi genre at a time when it wasn’t taken seriously. The overlapping, quick fire dialogue and the tension ramping devices (like that great shot of the scientists in a circle) would support this contention but there are moments when one can sense a more pedestrian hand on the camera. The action is quite spectacular at times (check out that ridiculously dangerous looking sequence when they attempt to fend off the alien with buckets of fuel and some cavalier match-work!) and is heightened by well timed revelations regarding the creature’s biology not to mention some spooky slower paced scenes wherein the scientists demonstrate the alien’s taste for blood. On the acting front, Kenneth Tobey who made a name for himself as a great support player over his career, proves an able lead equally adept at handling the physical or romantic stuff. Margaret Sheridan is terrific as the strong-willed love interest and there are some lovely scenes between the two.

Overall, The Thing From Another World is a must see for fans of science fiction. It tells a cracking good story full of excitement and disciplined construction which alone would make it worth the watch. But coming from a very different time, it also refocuses our attention on the more essential elements of the genre and whets our more sophisticated pallets for the baser, more wondrous qualities of the alien concepts which prop it up.

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2 thoughts on “The Thing From Another World (1951)”

  1. Great review! I liked what you said about JC and Hawks taking different approaches. So true. Hawks’ entry has the stalwart men and women knowing what they had to do to fight off this menacing alien where as Carpenter’s version isn’t as cut and dry. Thus the subtextual tension you brought up. Very astute observation. Once again, good job, D!

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