Both based on the novella “Who Goes There” by John W. Campbell, The Thing From Another World and John Carpenter’s The Thing are incredibly different movies. They are both very much products of their time and yet interestingly touch upon a couple of the same ideas. The movies are very much worth examining on their own, but it’s also very interesting to see how well they stand up against each other.
THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951)
Both movies start with the same initial premise: a group of men at an Antarctic military outpost find something in the ice. This movie is much clearer and direct about that than its successor. These men find an object in the ice and excavate it, discovering it to be a flying saucer and find some kind of creature frozen in the ice—which they then take back to their encampment and thaw. Of course, it quickly comes to life and begins killing off the crew one by one.
One of the more curious things about The Thing From Another World is its obsession with doors. Every scene involves characters opening a door, and this most often is featured by multiple people doing so within a single scene. Sometimes characters open doors for no reason, seemingly just as something to do with their hands. Thematically, this might suggest the fear of the times, which was very relevant, of opening doors. Of gaining too much knowledge. In 1951 almost every science fiction film was about science going too far and becoming monstrous, and nearly every one of those films included a line suggesting that there were things man was not meant to know. Even The Thing does not escape this. These men aren’t all scientists, but they do dig the alien up out of the ice and they do unthaw it, so it all falls under another game of curiosity killed the cat.
There is some of the paranoia of the time evident in the narrative, but not nearly as much as the original novella. There’s no debate as to what the alien is or what it looks like, it’s all pretty clear. In a lot of ways it’s a straightforward monster movie, but even as that it is still one of the best of its kind. It’s a strong thriller with strong characterization. And the paranoia is most evident at the end, which leaves the audience with the words “Keep watching… keep watching the skies.”
THE THING (1982)
The Thing is a whole different, well, thing. John Carpenter is not shy about his influence from Howard Hawkes—who produced and possibly directed the original film (there’s still some debate on that)—so Carpenter knew that if he was going to do the movie he wanted to take it in an entirely different direction. And that’s exactly what he did. He went back to the original source material for his version, to Campbell’s original novella.
That story centered on the crew bringing up a different kind of alien from the ice. In the novella, the creature is a shapeshifter. It has no real form of its own and it can look like virtually anything it chooses to, or rather anything that it comes into contact with.
This makes for an entirely different movie. This is much more than an alien picking off a crew one by one. And Carpenter also used this to say some very effective things about human nature and people’s inherent distrust of one another, especially when situations get out of control. It is their inability to communicate with one another and trust one another that ultimately leads to their downfall.
There was another, very modern thing at the time that also contributed to the context of the movie. The Thing was made at virtually the onset of AIDS, or at least at a time when very little was actually known about the disease. At the time, AIDS was a pandemic, a frightening disease that anyone could have. You couldn’t look at someone and tell whether or not they had it. The only way to find out whether or not someone actually had the disease was via a blood test. And that is exactly what the crew use in this film to determine who is and is not a “thing.”
The special effects by Rob Bottin are revolutionary. There’s really no other way to put it. These effects changed the game. John Carpenter said that one of the things he wanted to do to make the film stand out from others in its genre was to make it a movie where you see everything. The general rule is to keep the monster hidden and build suspense, so obviously doing the opposite is a challenge. But it was a challenge that, luckily, Rob Bottin was up to. He put everything he had into this movie and it shows. Because this creature can take virtually every form it wants (even some more or less formless ones) the possibilities are limitless, so the movie is very imaginative in that department. But it works. All of it works completely and remarkably.
But the effects are never at the sacrifice of the story or the characterization. The cast all stand out from one another. There are scenes where the characters are so bundled up that you can’t even see their faces, but you can still see who everyone is and that is a true testament to the writing and the actors. It’s an ensemble cast that gels together extremely well, each one of them bringing a unique and distinct personality to the table. Because for the overreaching paranoia to set in in the way that it has to, it doesn’t work unless there are conflicting personalities all arguing the same point.
If you compare the two films side-by-side, Carpenter’s film comes out on top. While The Thing From Another World is a bona fide classic, this is one of those cases where the remake does surpass the original. It was ironically not well received upon its initial release, but over the years it has gotten the overwhelming praise that it deserves.