Saturday, 3 July 2010

Re/Made: The Thing [part 2]

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Howard Hawks is a name from an extinct era – the Hollywood studio system. The American motion picture industry in the 21st century is in a digital age where studio output is written and produced in binary numbers. Part due to the lack of cultural significance of current studio releases but mainly because of the communicative power of the internet today’s movies are under more scrutiny than ever before. Some films from the Golden Age continue to live off their reputations. Some are worthy of a remake. They deserve a contemporary review.

The Thing from another World 1951 is available to watch online courtesy of Google Video[1].
Director Howard Hawks’ resume speaks for itself. You may not know who he is but you will have heard of/seen his movies; Scarface 1932, the Big Sleep 1946, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes 1953, Rio Bravo 1959. There is contention over who directed what in The Thing from another World[2]. It behoves the Hawks legacy to have then debutant Chris Nyby credited as director because there is onscreen incompetence evident to a layman:

The opening shot is an exterior of the Officer’s Club in Alaska. It’s clearly a sound stage and sets a tone challenging the suspension of disbelief. That itself is forgivable. All motion pictures are restrained by budget ergo some are no more than filmed stage plays. However in act 2 Dr Carrington reveals the plasma-fed alien nursery to his fellow scientists. He invites Professor Wilson to examine them. Wilson is the focus of the shot. He is obscured by a prop for most of it.
The film is verbose and expository. Key action happens off camera – for example Carrington planting the nursery and the killing of the scientists in the greenhouse. This highlights another problem; the majority of the cast are undeveloped and ill defined. Dr Carrington is a stereotype. Nikki is the sex bomb and Scotty is comic relief. All other characters, including the hero, are faceless fillers. So when the scientists die they are neither missed nor mourned by the viewer or the cast.

Dr Carrington has a modicum of character arc. Though introduced as clipped and stiff he is amiable. As soon as the Thing is discovered his purpose is revealed. His role is to align with the alien. Though his intentions are benevolent he is prepared to disregard the lives of his fellow man in his quest.

1951 was the year the North Koreans captured Seoul. US led UN troops recaptured it. In America the communist Rosenbergs were sentenced to death and later (1953) executed[3]. This backdrop of national hysteria incubated The Thing from another World. It is a military film. It is a propaganda film: the Air Force boys repel the alien invasion despite the best efforts of the (liberal) American collaborators. It cannot be read as art. It is didactic, sneering of Eskimos and casual in its approach to genocide.  

In terms of entertainment it has not aged well. The acting style, dialogue and delivery are antiquated. The construction of story and the lack of characterisation dull the tension. The Thing itself is never the focus as threat the way Frankenstein 1931 was – the audience has to be told it is a threat.

This is indeed a cautionary tale but not in the way it was intended.

Who Goes There? pub. 1938 by John W Campbell Jr is a Science Fiction Hall of Fame novella. Like The Thing from another World its language is antiquated (‘damnation’ is a used cuss word). Unlike The Thing from another World its story retains pertinence and power. The adaptation from page to screen end results in a different species sometimes unrecognizable to its progenitor. The Thing from another World is an example of this. The title of the novella is pertinent. It is a story of distrust and paranoia. Who Goes There? had to be remade.

Aliens invade with gravitas and The Thing from another World duly has an appropriate soundtrack. The problem is it is scarcely used. John Carpenter is master of the movie soundtrack. More than any director his films have a signature theme; from Assault on Precinct 13 1976 to his most famous Halloween 1978 to Escape from New York 1981 and the Prince of Darkness 1987. The Thing’s Ennio Morriconne’s score supersedes Hawks’ and is used throughout to buoy tone and mood.

Location is an advantage cinema has over other storytelling forms. Avatar 2009 is the best recent example of this. The Thing from another World is set in the North Pole with a paucity of exterior shots. Furthermore the interior shots fail to convey a feel of the death cold outside. The Thing opens with a prolonged sequence of Antarctica exteriors. Carpenter learnt from Hawks’ mistake. Station 4 comprises a number of buildings which means the men have to go outside to access different locations. Not only do these shots/sequences remind the viewer of the cold they also induce the tension of life threatening freeze. The interiors of Station 4 are shot like First World War bunkers: functional, uncomfortable and a reminder of the inhospitable.

Horror/sci-fi/thriller films need a centrepiece; something to hook the viewer’s memory. Be it a phrase, “I’ll be back”, or a scene – the chest burst in Alien 1979, or a shot – the statue of liberty in Planet of the Apes 1968. The Thing from another World has none. The Thing has the blood test. Home video not withstanding it is this centrepiece that has spread the word of mouth and popularity and reputation of this film 30 years after its release. 30 years after the release of The Thing from another World it was a forgotten artefact despite the release of the remake.

Both films fail on the monster front. Most films do. Frankenstein was the high point prior to HR Giger’s Alien. Predator 1987 is a comfortable third. Hawks’ monster was less frightening than Campbell’s description and Carpenter’s creation was a menagerie of mishmash. His monster saving grace was the spider scene however the final act reveal was a disappointment. 100 years of cinema proves that man cannot make monsters. They come from beyond. They come from within.

The Thing has spawned comic books videogames and a theme park. This is the legacy of John Carpenter’s film but acknowledgement must be made to John W Campbell Jr’s novella. Who Goes There? can be read here[4]. Hawks’ film has no place in the canon.

The legacy continues with The Thing 2011 – a prequel of original material. Clearly the ending is already written – and filmed. It will probably be the most anticipated film next year among the Horror Folk.

That’s down to the work of John Carpenter[5].

Read more Thrill Fiction: Re/Made: The Thing [part 1]
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