Synopsis: Arctic researchers discover a huge, frozen spaceling inside a crash-landed UFO, then fight for their lives after the murderous being (a pre-Gunsmoke James Arness) emerges from icy captivity. Will other creatures soon follow? The famed final words of this film are both warning and answer: “Keep watching the skies!”
A snappy ensemble. An eerie theremin-infused Dimitri Tiomkin score. Rising suspense. Crisp Christian Nyby direction. All merge in an edgy classic produced by Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, Rio Brave) and filled with Hawksian trademarks of rapid-fire dialogue and of people united by do-or-die stress. Keep watching the skies and the screen. Don’t miss a moment of “one of the best sci-fi thrillers of the ’50’s” (John Stanley, Creature Features).
eyelights: the ethical and philosophical questions being discussed. the zippy dialogue.
eyesores: the more action-orientated third act.
“I bring you a warning: Everyone 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.”
1951’s ‘The Thing From Another World’ is a sci-fi thriller produced by legendary filmmaker Howard Hawks, based on “Who Goes There?”, by John W. Campbell. An early classic of the genre, it is frequently cited as an influence by many directors. It was even remade by John Carpenter in 1982 as ‘The Thing’.
The plot is simple: A U.S. Air Force crew is sent to the Arctic to investigate a crash that had been reported by a nearby research outpost. Once there, they find what appears to be a flying saucer immersed in the melted ice. And only a few feet away, also in the ice, a humanoid male – which they bring back with them to the outpost.
Thus begins a two-day struggle between not only the armed forces and the scientific community, as they debate what to do with this historic find, but also between humanity and extraterrestrial life – because, unsurprisingly, many unexpected surprises lay in store for the outpost crew. And few of them are any good.
Although ‘The Thing From Outer Space’ may sound like any old, disposable sci-fi B-movie, there are a number of elements that put it in another class altogether: 1) Its suspense-building, 2) Its restraint, 3) its topical discussions, 4) Its repartee, and 5) Its direction.
1. Its suspense-building
From the amazing opening titles that burn into the screen to its final moments, ‘TTFAW’ knows how to captivate its audience. There weren’t any credits until the end, so the opening title gave the picture an enigmatic quality that was further developed as the story unfolded.
The filmmakers also chose to only reveal the core plot and show its chief antagonist gradually, leaving the audience intrigued and on the edge of their seats for at least half the runtime. Only then does it jolt and astonish them with a few more traditional scares and effects.
But even the early reveals were dramatic enough that draws the audience in. For instance, the expedition crew’s discovery of the flying saucer is unforgettable, what with the aerial shots and the impression that watching the group make a circle with their arms outstretched makes.
2. Its restraint
The fact that the antagonist wasn’t revealed until the midway point, got no close-ups, and was frequently in shadows shows that the picture was the model of restraint. It’s the same technique that made ‘Jaws’ the masterpiece that it is: give them just enough, but never too much. Make them want more.
When you think about it, the threat is omnipresent about a third of the way in, but the antagonist is only shown three times. Three entirely distinct, unforgettable times: a surprise reveal and quick dispatch, a shadowy attack that turns into a bonfire, and a deadly, electricity-fuelled trap.
And yet, the antagonist is almost all one remembers after the credits roll. Brilliant. No B-movie would do this so well.
3. Its topical discussions
‘TTFAW’ is not just a sci-fi thriller, it also takes the time to debate some pertinent issues pertaining to the discovery of alien life on Earth. This adds an intellectual layer to a movie that could have been just about cheap thrills. It forces the audience to reflect as it is entertained.
It helped that the filmmakers had a journalist tag along on the expedition. As a critical thinker, he brings incredulity to the mix, forcing the other characters to justify their positions and actions, making them more believable. It also included a brief discussion about the freedom of the press.
There was also a terrific series of discussions between the Army guys and the scientists about the best course of action with the alien body. For instance, should or shouldn’t they defrost it? What would the impact be in the short and long term? This created two camps, adding further tension.
There was also the question of scientific responsibility: is knowledge more important than safety? One overzealous scientists suggested that their lives were insignificant compared to the wisdom that their discoveries would unfold. But could the cost be greater? And would that be worth it?
I love that ‘TTFAW’ makes a point of bringing these issues (and others) to the fore, and does it soberly. It’s smart sci-fi.
4. Its repartee
Not only is the script meaty, it is also peppered with some superb repartee between the various characters. It was not just droll, but it created an atmosphere of collegiality between them, building bonds and allowing us to care about them relatively quickly, seeing as we feel part of this conviviality.
These exchanges were also well-staged. For instance, in the beginning there were two secondary characters who kept talking over each other – not enough to make it incoherent, but just so that we were plenty aware of the excitement between them. These were well-written dialogues, even if they could be unnatural.
5. Its direction
Honestly, with a title like ‘The Thing From Another World’, we already know what to expect – even though the characters wonder about the crashed plane, the unusual weather, …etc. Oh, we know. And yet the director built enough mystery to intrigue us and made it sober enough for it to appear convincing.
The staging was relatively natural, too. For instance, while our protagonist is talking with a scientist, the lead scientist goes to talk on the CB and is drowned out by the others. We can hear him talk, but we never know what is said – there were no cuts to him or anything like that. Just like in real life.
Ever since its release, there have been questions about the identity of the film’s director. Christian Nyby is listed as the director, but the picture style is very much Howard Hawks’ and there have been persistent rumours that he directed it in Nyby’s stead – who, it must be noted, had never directed before.
Even the cast provides conflicting reports to this effect, with some saying that Nyby was behind the camera, other saying that Hawks was and the rest saying that it was a shared duty: that Nyby was behind the camera, but that he consulted continuously with Hawks, who was always on set.
We will never know for sure.
Whatever the case may be, whoever directed it transformed what could have been a cheap exploitation picture (one has to remember that sci-fi films didn’t get any respect in those days) into a solid, credible piece of cinema. It was carefully crafted to make the utmost impact on its audiences. And it clearly did.
Other touches that I quite like in ‘TTFAW’ is the fact that it’s set at an Arctic scientific outpost because it isolates the characters from the rest of world, creating tension. This also justifies the claustrophobic indoor sets, which add a feeling of vulnerability to an already volatile situation.
Although I generally liked the cast, the female lead was especially charming; she has a sparkle in her eye. She displays great wit, has brains, and she doesn’t crumble under pressure. She’s a very strong, independent female character – the likes you don;t always get even today. In 1951, this must have been outstanding.
I liked that the decimation of the flying saucer was an accident, not some willful, wanton destruction (as it would be these days). It’s kind of stupid that it happened, but then their orders confirmed the actions that they had taken. Plus which it makes sense to not show the ship given the film’s budget; they wouldn’t have done it justice.
And, on a final note, at one point we see a severed hand come alive. Since the titular alien is branded a “Thing”, I wonder if this inspired Charles Addams to name his character “Thing” for ‘The Addams Family’. Or was the character already named that way in the comic strips (before it became a disembodied hand)?
In any case, I had a lot of fun seeing ‘The Thing From Another World’. It was my third time and it doesn’t grow old, even as its style is outmoded: It’s smart, funny, suspenseful, chilling, and all around entertaining. It’s hardly surprising that this is considered a landmark sci-fi film; this “Thing” probably was one of the first of its kind.
Date of viewing: Jan 4, 2015