January 1, 2015
The Thing from Another World – US, 1951
In an interesting way, Christian Nyby’s debut film The Thing from Another World perfectly captures the times in which it was filmed. This is a film made in the early days of the Cold War and just four years after the report of a UFO crash in Rosewell, New Mexico, and the effects of each of these events can be felt in the film’s early scenes. When a mysterious flying object is captured on radar flying near a US base near the North Pole, there is immediate suspicion that it could be Russia; when the men sent to investigate the object’s crash realize that the craft has a circular shape, their first response is telling: It’s finally happened.
With a title like The Thing from Another World, it will come as no surprise that something survives the crash. What may come as a surprise to present-day audiences is just how long the film waits before revealing just what that survivor is. This is a film that is clearly more interested in its human characters than its monster, and audiences are the better for it. Screenwriter Charles Lederer infuses the film with snappy dialogue, smile-inducing innuendos, and a classic duel between science and defense. If there is also a bit too much “scientist talk,” it’s helpful to remember that many of the characters in the film are as confused as audiences are likely to be.
The film’s chief character is Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), a well respected man who when the film begins is the butt of jokes from the men serving under him. It seems he embarrassed himself in front of a woman he was interested in and she in turn caused him to be embarrassed in a rather public way. This set-up produces much of the film’s comedy, as well as its romantic plot. Interestingly, Hendry’s men have such respect for him that they are capable of going from ribbing their captain to following his orders without even the slightest hesitation. The film also introduces viewers to a group of scientists led by Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), a rather optimistic man who sees the events unfolding as a great opportunity for science and understanding. He remains this way even after it is clear that the visitor does not have the best of intentions.
Compared to today’s sci-fi/horror films, The Thing from Another World takes its time. It doesn’t pile on the body count or ratchet up the gore like the two John Carpenter films it obviously inspired. Instead, the visitor remains for the most part off camera. He is a constant threat, yet a rare physical presence. This – in addition to the way Geiger counters factor into the film - creates an enormous amount of tension. In fact, for much of the film, the main conflict involves a debate over how to handle the visitor. As expected, Captain Hendry recognizes its potential danger, while Dr. Carrington only sees it as a prospective source of knowledge. The debate proves fascinating, even though it is clear which side the film will eventually take.
If there is anything that could be described as a disappointment in the film, it is the visitor itself. After a fascinating revelation of its evolutionary origins and some emotional discussions about what to do with it, the film elects to depict the visitor as essentially the equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster. Apparently, this is a being so advanced that he can fly clear across the universe in a spaceship, but can only utter grunts and moans as he slowly lumbers his way around. In fact, I half expected him to walk with his hands stretched out vertically in front of him. And how do you explain the fact that it appears to be able to use the door knob but can only smash through everything else? There’s also the small matter of the level of fear that the human characters exhibit. At certain points in the film, I had trouble believing that people in their situation would remain so calm.
But I digress. The Thing from Another World remains an enjoyable film, yet its insistence on repeatedly proving its scientific credentials dampens the experience slightly. I enjoyed getting a glimpse of a more innocent time, one in which science worked with the military without there being much discussion of cover-ups and conspiracies. In this film, there is a universal sense of honor, even when characters make what ultimately turns out to be the wrong decision, and its refreshing to see a film end with a message that present-day films would likely depict as being suppressed – that we are not alone and that we must be on alert. Quibbles aside, The Thing from Another World is a fine effort by all involved. (on DVD)