The Thing From Another World (a.k.a. The Thing) is the first in what has become a venerable sub-genre of low budget sci-fi. The formula is well known to most folks who watch movies these days: a group of people, usually including soldiers, are stranded in a remote location when some sort of monster (usually an alien, but other science-inspired threats can also apply) shows up. The monster plays "ten little Indians" with the humans until science or human ingenuity or plain dumb luck prevails. In most cases science and human ingenuity involve lots of fire, probably because fire looks pretty on film.
The Thing came out remarkably quickly after the first UFO sighting to make headlines (Kenneth Arnold saw a flight of mysterious objects over Washington State in June of 1947, ushering in the age of the flying saucer). At that point it was immediately assumed that flying saucers were either secret American or Soviet aircraft. As late as 1950 that theory was still considered the most likely one, as seen in the film The Flying Saucer from that year. But the tide turned, mostly because of a number of popular books touting the extraterrestrial theory, including Behind the Flying Saucers by Frank Scully. But if aliens were buzzing around our planet, what were they? What did they look like? Back in those early days, pop culture hadn't quite decided what aliens were, so The Thing offers up an alien that doesn't match up all that well with the more enlightened expectations we have today. (Of course aliens look like us, only melted. How could anyone have ever thought any different?)
"In the future, science will make
espresso machines small enough to be
moved around by small trucks."
The Thing features a military unit sent to an Arctic base where "an anomaly" was spotted coming in from space. The unit, headed by Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), is the standard World War II era group of army guys. Heck, the soldiers in The Thing could be mistaken for the cast of Hogan's Heroes, except that there's no black guy. Hanging along for the ride is our favorite character, Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer), a reporter who gets all the best lines.
The Arctic base itself is manned entirely by scientists and related support staff, led by the black-cardigan-wearing Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), who is arrogant, brilliant, and (do we need to mention it?) evil. Adding comic relief is the pretty Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan), a woman working at the base at whom Capt. Hendry once made a clumsy pass. Now they rekindle their relationship, though Nikki insists that Hendry be tied to a chair before she'll have dinner with him. Who knew that 50's sci-fi could be so kinky?
The evil Dr. Carrington is tracking large amounts of radiation from somewhere near the base. Shortly thereafter, all of the magnetic compasses go wacky, so Hendry and company are sent to investigate. What they find is shocking to them, but de rigeur for movies of this type: a flying saucer. We never get to see the flying saucer, first because it's buried beneath the Arctic ice, and then because the dummies try to melt said ice with thermite grenades -- thus destroying the ship. Whoops. Hendry is afraid that he will get chewed out by his commanders, but he later receives a radio communication from the brass, advising him to use thermite to free any objects found in the ice. "That's what I love about the army, smart all the way to the top." cracks Ned.
"Watch the skies, everywhere!
Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!"
All that the hapless soldiers are left with is a humanoid form frozen in a block of ice, which they dutifully tote back to base. Though the scientists want to defrost the creature, and Scott wants to report to his editors, Hendry keeps both requests (ahem) on ice.
Scott: Think of what it means to the world!
Hendry: I'm not working for the world. I'm working for the Air Force.
Before you can say "electric blankets melt ice really fast," the creature is free and killing people right and left. Our heroes must then figure out what the Thing is, what it wants, and ultimately, how to kill it. Dr. Carrington, who of course wants to preserve the Thing "for science," discovers that it is essentially a plant.
Scott: An intellectual carrot -- the mind boggles!
Once the Thing is loose, the movie keeps a steady, suspenseful pace. There may be a million rip-offs of The Thing, but few of them can claim to involve the audience as completely as this film. The tautness of the narrative can probably be attributed to producer Howard Hawks, director of many a screwball comedy. His presence can be felt in the speed at which the plot moves and in the dialogue, which is quick-witted, funny, and delivered machine-gun style. ("What if [the Thing] can read our minds?" wonders one soldier. "He'll be real mad when he gets to me," quips another.) Hawks was not credited as director (his longtime editor Christian Nyby was), but very few film buffs doubt that Hawks was in charge on the set.
If all this weren't enough, The Thing From Another World features what is arguably the most haunting line from 1950's science fiction. When Ned Scott finally gets to report back to the world, he advises civilization to "Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!" That's pretty good advice. Unless, of course, there's something good on TV.