Sunday, August 1, 2010

Movie Turn-Ons, Part 4.5 (Cheesy Sci-Fi: The Thing from Another World)

Spoiler Alert: the things of this world are terribly rude to the visitor thing, and you shouldn't read any further, if you don't want to find out how.

One other note. Howard Hawks is credited only as producer. However, given the quality of the film, and that he's one of my favourite filmmakers*, I'm going along with the claims that he ghost directed it.

The Thing from Another World (1951)

So... we have these military types clearly bored, up in their base in Alaska, when a scientific facility near the North Pole informs them that there has been a crash. They gather up a rescue team, headed by Captain Patrick Hendry, pack in a journo named Scotty, and fly off. Even before they reach the site, they're aware of strange goings on: their magnetic compasses are thrown off by a few degrees - possibly caused by the addition of about 20,000 tons of metal to the Earth's crust, about 50 miles from the research station. Of course, no aircraft - that they know of, interject the scientists pointedly - weighs that much.

Over at the crash site, they see an aircraft buried beneath the ice. In a stunning scene, the rescuers, in an effort to estimate the craft's size and shape, spread out and form a perimeter around the outline below them. It turns out to be a perfect circle. A flying saucer... finally! Digging the saucer out being impossible, they decide to use thermite to melt the ice over it. It melts the ice all right, but it has side effects: it sets the saucer on fire.

A gigantic explosion later, they're all seen sprawled on the snow, picking pieces of alien alloy off themselves. So much for their hopes of getting their hands on "the key to the stars." Scotty - a little on the bitter side, due to permission to report the story ("the biggest since the parting of the Red Sea") being withheld - is bitingly sarcastic. Indeed, the US Air Force probably has had better days. As an aside, when they return to the research station, they find a message from General Fogarty, suggesting they use thermite to free the craft, in case it's stuck in the ice. (Scotty: "That's what I like about the Army: smart, all the way to the top.")

They now notice something else - a former occupant of the saucer, also buried beneath the ice. "More thermite?" someone asks tentatively. Nah, they stick with axes this time. A while later, the block of ice, with alien inside, is dumped in a store room.

The lead scientist, a Dr Carrington, with an impressive array of laurels to his name - including the Nobel - wants to defrost the alien. Captain Hendry, though, isn't quite as keen. He wants to confer with Fogarty, up in Anchorage, first. The alien has a distinctly sinister look, you see, and Hendry looks like he's seen his fair share of sci-fi films.

Let's now take a few minutes for character descriptions. The film is, on the whole, populated by extremely likable people. The military, for starters, aren't portrayed as a bunch of stuck-up morons, and are even  - judging by a couple of remarks - heart-warmingly anti-nuke. Hendry, while perhaps on the conservative side, is patient with - and willing to listen to - even the most trying of people, puts up with quite a bit of ribbing by his men, and is an excellent, level-headed protagonist.

He also has a romance thingy going on with Dr Carrington's secretary, Nikki. The two of them even share an interesting moment with a bit of rope, that I hadn't expected to see in such an old film. Nikki isn't the typical sci-fi heroine. She's intelligent, witty, willing to roll her sleeves up, and doesn't scream even once (yes, I count).

The only ones who come across as slightly stuffy are the scientists - particularly Dr Carrington, who, further, is sometimes downright suicidal. A lesser man than Hendry would've dismembered him by the half-way point of the film. It must be said, though, that the other scientists are portrayed in a more favourable light, particularly as the film progresses.

One thing leads to another, and an electric blanket ends up accidentally on top of the frozen alien. An inopportune time for accidents like that, as a storm has just cut them off from the rest of the world. The alien wakes up the soldier on guard duty, with what the latter interprets as a series of blood-curdling moans; but given that the former had spent much of the preceding day in a block of ice, he might merely have been asking politely for a cup of coffee.

The soldier, after firing a few exploratory shots at the alien, decides that screaming and making for his captain may be healthier. By the time the larger party gets down there, the alien has already made his way outside, and is in a kerfuffle with the sled dogs. Despite bets to the contrary, the alien comes out on top, minus a terrifyingly-clawed hand that was won by one of the dogs.

Scotty has a field day with witticisms. "We're liable to become famous. So few people can boast that they've lost a flying saucer and a man from Mars all in the same day. Wonder what they'd have done if Columbus, having discovered America, then mislaid it?"

Study of the severed hand reveals that the alien is a vegetable, and is practically indestructible: a "super carrot," to quote Scotty. He revises this to "intellectual carrot," when Carrington hands in his analysis that this is a planet on which vegetable life has undergone a similar evolution to what animal life has gone through on ours, and that the alien is also very likely mentally far superior to us. ("Its development was not handicapped by emotional or sexual factors.")

Just after the scientists point out to their incredulous audience that even on Earth, "intelligence in plants and vegetables is an old story; older even than the animal arrogance that has overlooked it," the hand covered with dogs' blood starts to move. "Miss Nicholson. At 12:10 AM, the hand became alive."

Apparently, the alien vegetable lives on blood. We may be no more than a field of cabbages to it, notes Carrington. While no one else seems to relish the reversal of roles in human-vegetable relations, Carrington is near orgasmic and is determined, more than ever, to communicate with the alien. And so, everyone spends five minutes listening to him spouting noble scientific principles.

The others beg to differ, particularly after two of Carrington's colleagues are found hanging upside down in the green-house, their throats slit. They're further alarmed when they discover evidence in the green-house that the crash seems to have brought out the maternal side in the intellectual carrot (he actually looks like an 8-foot greenish man). Most of them have clearly read "The War of the Worlds," and wonder if this is the start of an alien invasion, that would end with us as livestock.

From here on end, the film is a series of competently-filmed encounters between the alien and the humans, with the balance of power swaying one way, and then the other, before the humans emphatically declare victory by making a kebab (vegetarian) of the alien.

Just before the final face-off, Carrington attempts to sabotage the human plans, and makes a last-ditch attempt at peace talks with the alien. The latter's utter bafflement, on being confronted by Carrington, is pretty funny. I bet you'd be bemused too, if, just when you're starting to make salad, one of the vegetables, stems flailing, starts babbling repeatedly, "I'm your friend," in a tone getting progressively shriller.

All in all, a gem of a thriller. It's brisk, and builds tension very well, without ever losing its sense of humour: the characters engage in repartee even when things are at their bleakest. It also manages to convey the incredible cold, and the sense of claustrophobia, with the alien impervious to the cold outside and the humans boxed in by the Arctic storm. Plus, probably because it precedes "The Day the Earth Stood Still," the film uses a proper score, and not the annoying collection of clicks, beeps and techno-wails preferred by the sci-fi films of that era.

The only disappointing aspect is that, while the alien does have his moments, he seems a few braincells short of a cabbage. When the humans set up a trap, to try and fry the alien with electricity, they need him to stand on one particular spot. The sight of nearly a dozen humans staring at him expectantly, one of them with hands poised over a switch - and another throwing axes at him, to guide him back on track, whenever he wanders off - doesn't throw off any warning bells whatsoever, apparently. For heaven's sake!

Can you imagine Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, feeling slightly peckish, and then getting killed by a field of cabbages defending themselves? Perhaps it's an indication that the aliens are more inward looking than us, and do not send their best and brightest across space. But still, a bit of a let down. For everything else, though, two thumbs up, and whole-hearted approval.

I will leave you now with the words of Scotty, as he beams this message to the waiting news corps

"North Pole. November 3rd. Ned Scott reporting. One of the world's greatest battles was fought and won today by the human race. Here at the top of the world, a handful of American soldiers and civilians met the first invasion from another planet. A man by the name of Noah once saved our world with an ark of wood. Here at the North Pole, a few men performed a similar service with an arc of electricity. :a few sentences snipped here for lack of drama: And now, before giving you the details of the battle, I bring you a warning. Every one of you listening to my voice, tell the world; tell this to everybody, wherever they are: watch the skies, everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!"

Coming up next: "Creature from the Black Lagoon"

*The only Howard Hawks film I've seen yet is "Rio Bravo," and I wasn't too enthused by it. However, I'll put that down to John Ford turning me off Westerns for life. Besides, Hawks directed "The Big Sleep" and "Scarface." Granted, I haven't seen either, but I think both films are marvellous testaments to the art of filmmaking.

In my opinion, Hawks is second only to Fritz Lang - none of whose films I've seen, but whose "M," "Metropolis," and "The Testament of Dr Mabuse" are three of my favourites. The one time I've seen Lang, it was as an actor; in "Contempt," where he appears as himself. The trouble is, that film contains several scenes of Brigitte Bardot in the nude, and I can't remember anything else about it, sadly.

P.S. - John Carpenter (sometimes known as Wes Carpenter - and, presumably, John Craven) remade this movie as "The Thing," in the early eighties. Having seen several films of his, he's not amongst my favourites, naturally, and I therefore didn't rush out to grab a copy. However, if you've just put the original in your "to watch" list, I suggest you add the remake as well - if nothing else, it'll give you gloating rights on the comments page here.

P.P.S. - "Psycho" is generally considered the first of the slasher films. "The Thing from Another World," released nearly a decade before Hitchcock's film, seems to me to have the better claim - especially since the Thing is a natural predecessor to the likes of Jason and Freddy; much more so than Norman Bates. Perhaps it's its "sci-fi" label that has robbed it of credit?

1 comment:

missjane: morally sensitive pragmatist said...

Immediate reactions:

1. That was great! I am such a sucker for dialogue.

2. Captain Hendry was cute.

3. I spent most of the movie trying to figure why Scotty sounded so familiar, then realised why at the very end: he's sampled in this song, which I'm now thinking I need to get. Also his voice reminds me of James Stewart - regional accent, mebbe?

4. It's based on a story written by THE John Campbell... way cool. Rather loosely, it appears.

5. Dr Carrington describes the alien as a 'stranger in a strange land,' a Bible quote Heinlein rather famously used as a title 10 years after this movie, although apparently Heinlein had been working on the book since 1948.

6. I agree with your assessment of Nikki, and add that she actually gets to move the story along at one point by noticing something important and, what's more, forcing the blokes to pay attention to her. This being the 50's though, she's not a scientist, she's a secretary. Coz, you know, scientists are incapable of taking their own notes... that does feel a little nit-picky, because she is admirable for a 50's sf heroine.