The Thing About The Thing

Fathom Events was doing a screening in honor of The Thing’s 40th anniversary, and obviously I had to check it out. I can’t pass up an excuse to see one of my favorite movies on the big screen. It’s just not allowed. But because I’m me, I’ll take basically any excuse to get all autistic about something and read/watch/etc a ton of it at once, so here we are!

Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. (novella 1938)

The group tensed abruptly. An air of crushing menace entered into every man’s body, sharply they looked at each other. More keenly than ever before–is that man next to me an inhuman monster?

John W. Campbell Jr.

The vast majority of this novella is multi-paragraph monologuing by like two or three characters, and it’s occasionally genuinely a bit difficult to imagine everyone else just standing around and listening patiently? Especially when Blair is the one monologuing. Yeesh. Things do get a bit more interesting towards the end of the novella when there’s less talk and more action, but only a bit.

Honestly, I don’t want to yuck anyone’s yum, but it’s a bit surprising to me that this story developed into not one but two drastically more famous films. I mean, the premise is obviously inherently interesting, but if you’ve seen the 1982 film adaptation first (which, let’s be honest, you have) the novella just… doesn’t have much to offer you? Worse, I actually think the movie improved on its source material to such a degree that the original story is just super underwhelming.

(C-Rank)

The Thing from Another World (movie 1951)

“Please doctor, I’ve got to ask this. It sounds like, well, just as though you’re describing some form of super carrot.”

Ned Scott

The first time I saw this I gave it quite a bit of leeway because having already seen the 1982 version felt kind of unfair. A rewatch unfortunately didn’t bear that out. It’s not just that the 1982 version is better, this is… just kind of not great? It feels much longer despite being over 20 minutes shorter, likely owing to its relative lack of characterization and glacial (sorry) pace.

Having now read the story both films are based on, I’m actually surprised by how little it has to do with the original story. I figured maybe the 1982 film just drastically expanded upon a rather threadbare story, but actually quite a few details like many of the characters’ names, the general nature of the alien creature, and everyone’s paranoia were lifted right from the novella, though most of them were expanded and improved upon. This version feels like it deserves a “suggested by” credit rather than a “based on” credit.

To end on a positive note, this does portray a couple being slightly kinky, which I didn’t know was even allowed in 1951? So, there is that!

(C-Rank)

The Thing (movie 1982)

“You don’t wanna hurt anybody!”

R.J. MacReady

Yeah, I know most people would probably go with the extremely obvious/iconic “nobody trusts anybody now and we’re all very tired” if they were gonna open with a quote. And it’s for sure one of my favorite lines in the movie, too. But there’s a couple times MacReady is deescalating and says “you don’t want to hurt anybody,” and it’s just weirdly meaningful to me. I believe the kids would say I vibe with it.

I love scifi/horror, especially from around this period. Actually, fuck, I might just be thinking of this and Alien. That being said, please please please feel free to recommend me movies with similar vibes and quality if there are such things!! (Just to preempt literally everyone suggesting it: yes, I’ve seen The Fly. Not a fan.)

The isolated, desolate setting is a big part of the appeal here. It’s funny that I like snowy settings so much in movies, but I just love how much it can contribute to the mood of a setting? It can make cozy movies cozier, creepy movies creepier. You can do so many interesting things with it visually, which this movie takes ample advantage of. But I actually hate snow in real life? Or, at least, I used to? I’ve been living in California for a few years now, so it’s easy to forget how awful Chicago and New England winters were.

Kurt Russell is also a big part of the appeal. I’ve said this before, but I think any movie that has an all-male cast should be required to have Kurt Russell. It’s like basically the least you can do. I don’t have a crush on him or anything–he’s super not my type. He just makes every movie he’s in better. He exudes a kind of effortless, rugged masculinity, the kind you also get from a Harrison Ford or a Michael Douglas, those types of guys. It’s kind of perfect for a scifi/horror if you can’t get Sigourney Weaver.

Okay, yeah, we’re back to the Alien comparisons. This certainly has a lot in common with it. Whereas a lot of scifi tries to astonish, both try to keep their non-monster stuff grounded and relatable to enhance the horror of their monster stuff. Their settings are inherently dangerous–Antarctica and space–and both are made even more dangerous by the monsters.

I also noticed a lot more this time what pains the actors (and director, and editor) went through to make the characters feel a lot more human and grounded. Everybody does things a bit more awkwardly and realistically than you often get in movies. There’s a scene where MacReady is going to check on the helicopter that Blair has smashed, and he kind of stumbles on his way to it and struggles with the tarp a few times before actually getting a peek beneath it. The camera doesn’t track either of these things the way you would expect it to if it were intentional. There’s a few times I noticed him making choices like these, and he’s not the only one. It just adds a little texture of realism and verisimilitude to his performance.

The monster effects are pretty outlandish, and they totally hold up on the big screen. I’d even go so far as to say they’re more effective on the big screen. I sometimes struggle to enjoy the gross out brand of horror, but Carpenter deploys it here in ways that work for me quite a bit more than a Raimi or Cronenberg does.

I know faithfulness to Who Goes There? is hardly a metric most people are concerned about with The Thing, given that it has without a doubt surpassed the novella it’s based on as the ur-text of this story. Still, unlike The Thing from Another World before it, this is definitely a “based on” not a “suggested by.” A few things are moved around–MacReady’s name is spelled differently and he’s the helicopter pilot instead of second in command, the expedition’s complement is a more manageable 12 instead of 37. Plenty of details are also expanded upon or altered completely. A lot of the discoveries being related to the team in the infodumps by MacReady and Blair in the text are instead moved to a separate, Norwegian (or is it Swedish, Mac?) expedition. This allows us to see through the characters’ eyes as they investigate the other doomed expedition’s base at a slow and methodical pace, making everything feel even more grounded and creepy.

But compared to The Thing from Another World which has differently-named characters fighting some sort of super carrot man (and even changes its setting from the South Pole to the North Pole, seemingly out of spite), this is actually a pretty faithful adaptation. Again, not that it matters.

What really astonishes me is that when approached about the project, Carpenter was reluctant because he didn’t think he could improve upon The Thing from Another World. The man is either seeing something I’m not in that movie, or is in possession of an overabundance of humility that’s directly proportional to his skill as a director. Or maybe he was just trying to be merciful, because he absolutely blew the earlier adaptation out of the water in every category.

(S-Rank)

The Thing from Another World (comic 1991-92)

Yeah, no, this is not good. It did absolutely nothing to justify its existence. The only thing stopping me from declaring it a soulless cash grab is that the art is actually pretty fantastic, like I think quite a bit of effort went into it, but they just didn’t have a story to tell here. And to me, that is the absolutely one essential element you need to even bother with something like this.

(D-Rank)

The Thing from Another World: Climate of Fear (comic 1992)

This wasn’t great or anything, but it was definitely an improvement over the other one. In this one McReady wakes up on a base in mainland Argentina, and it’s honestly just pretty refreshing to at least have some new characters and something different going on. Also there’s a huge herd of sheep on the base and obviously one of them gets infected and it’s very tragic but also aww sheep.

The first issue is probably the strongest one, overall this is just kind of okay, but “okay” is still a definite improvement.

(C-Rank)

The Thing from Another World: Eternal Vows (comic 1993)

Whoa, dang, one of these was actually good! (And is apparently the most-hated of these. What the heck, guys?)

I knew this one had potential when I first heard about the concept. In this story, one of the Things that survived the other two stories assimilates a couple and the pair of them just want to live quietly in a small coastal town, eating as many other humans as they need to to survive. I don’t think this quite fits in with how the Things were supposed to work in the movie, but I kind of don’t even care since we finally got a wholly original story in one of these comics.

MacReady eventually shows up because I guess he’s some kind of Thing hunter now, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense imo, but again I kind of don’t care!! Issue 3 has a truly iconic moment where one of the Things is in human form but with tentacles going everywhere from her, and she licks up some human blood from one of her tentacles. It was weirdly sexy? And just when I was starting to think there wasn’t much more they could do in their current setting, issue 4 takes place mostly on a boat!

Seriously, I can’t believe this is the most-hated one of these. It’s one of the best ones imo. And it’s largely self-contained so you can safely skip the other two stories and read this one on its own.

(B-Rank)

The Thing from Another World: Questionable Research (comic 1993)

This one was much shorter than the others by virtue of being serialized in Dark Horse Comics’ short-lived eponymous anthology series. It appeared in Dark Horse Comics #13-16 alongside the likes of Aliens and Predator and whatnot, and each of the four parts was around half a dozen pages long. So if you put all of them together you get basically the length of a single issue.

Still, this one was in a similar vein to Eternal Vows inasmuch as it featured wholly original characters. It’s also even more disconnected from the other comics, picking up with a research team investigating the destruction of the Antarctic station from the movie. MacReady doesn’t even show up in this one!

It’s hard to compare this to the other comics given that it’s so much shorter, but it definitely fits in with the movie better than most of them, if that matters to you. But it manages to do so while still also telling a new story with a new group of characters, which is honestly how all of these should be approaching things in my opinion. MacReady is great, but having him survive the movie at all never really felt necessary to me. If you want to continue this story, you really should find another way to do it like this comic did.

(B-Rank)

“The Things” by Peter Watts (short story 2010)

I was actually really sympathetic to the Thing right up until the last line of the story. I mean, in retrospect the whole thing is actually colonial apologia, so I shouldn’t have sympathized in the first place. But the author did such a great job of portraying a genuinely alien voice. I was sucked in–entranced, almost.

A lot of The Thing relies on the visceral horror of its human protagonists when confronted with something so alien, so (to their eyes) obscene. Seeing that reflected from the aliens’ point of view was a really interesting direction to go. The shock value of the last line reframes the entire narrative, and makes me notice obvious things I had missed. Overall the structure of this is just pretty fantastic.

This story deliberately retcons major aspects of the creature’s biology, by the way, and it buys wholly into the idea that Childs was assimilated by the end of the movie. So if either of those things matter to you, know that going in. Also, CW: for sexual assault language as allegory for the physical violation represented by assimilation.

(B-Rank)

The Thing: The Northman Nightmare (comic 2011)

I really loved the concept of this, but sadly this was totally phoned in. The idea of a bunch of Vikings facing off against one of the Things in Greenland had a lot of potential. I know this was a single issue but it doesn’t give anything time to breathe, you don’t get to know any of the characters at all, and at the end of the day I’m just not sure why I’m supposed to care even a little. The art was good, though? So there’s that I guess.

(D-Rank)

The Thing (movie 2011)

What if we made a dull, lifeless remake of The Thing with dull, lifeless CGI and dull, lifeless characters and dull, lifeless writing. Okay, that’s not totally fair. The CGI is sometimes laugh-out-loud-funny bad, and one of the characters is played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She’s not written any better than anyone else, mind you. She’s just played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, so, that helps.

Wait, does that actually make this worse? I think that might actually make this worse. That you had fucking Mary Elizabeth Winstead and just weren’t remotely prepared to utilize her.

There is a staggering lack of effort on display here. This is one for the “why did they even bother?” file. John Carpenter’s film was oozing with personality. This one has none whatsoever.

(D-Rank)

Short Things (book 2019)

Anthologies can often be a mixed bag, and this one was no exception. I also have to say that it was rather frustrating how blatantly this needed way more copyediting than it got. It’s honestly kinda embarrassing for something attached to a major franchise. (Yes, I know it started life as a series of Kickstarter incentives that got out of hand, but you still decided to compile it and make money off of it, so put some effort into that please?)

Sidenote: after how much of a big deal the introduction made about Frozen Things (the recently-discovered longer draft of Who Goes There? that was published), I did actually start reading it, but tapped out after a couple chapters when I realized it wasn’t any less boring than Who Goes There? And like, I’m a masochist, but reading a longer version of a boring novella isn’t one of my kinks, sorry.

On that note, I should add that these stories are based on Who Goes There? not on its drastically more popular film adaptation, so bear that in mind I guess? And a lot of the stories left me feeling like “meh whatever,” but the ones I enjoyed made this anthology more than worth it. My favorite stories, in the order they appeared in the anthology:

“The” by Chelsea Quinn Yarbo

This was probably the one that seems the most out of place in this anthology since I can’t really see that it has anything to do with Who Goes There?, but I’m way more interested in her weird Star Trek populated by beings with weird pronouns (!!!) and whatnot.

“Cold Storage” by Kevin J. Anderson 

This is honestly exactly what I would expect Kevin J. Anderson to write given this assignment. His is probably the most lighthearted story in the anthology. It has two government employees who are heavily implied to work at Area 51, one of whom ends up studying Blair’s journal.

“Good as Dead” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

In this story the wife of one of the Antarctic expedition members deals with her husband returning after a long time away, and her nosey neighbor trying to bully her. She actually ends up befriending one of the Things to an extent, as it takes up residence in her beloved family dog and puts an end to her neighbor bullying her.

“The Horror on the Superyacht” by Mark McLaughlin

This has the feel of one of those horror comedies where everyone is half naked and you’re not supposed to take anything seriously but it turns into a massive bloodbath. It’s a lot of fun. Not where I would want most of these stories to go, but an effective change of pace to have in an anthology like this one.

“Apollyon” by G.D. Falksen

This was a story about Roman centurions encountering a Thing centuries ago. It was a little difficult to get into at first, but once it got going it was just phenomenal. And the pathos of the protagonist listening to a Thing that took the form of his dead lover hearing “her” talk about what it’s like to be alone in the universe, cut off from your home… this one was a lot.

“The Monster at World’s End” by Allan Cole

This is probably my favorite story of the anthology. This one is told from the point of view of a Thing, but unlike “The Things” by Peter Watts it’s telling a wholly original story. In this one a captured Thing is being tortured but ends up befriending a human woman. Amusingly, it refers to humans as Things from its perspective, which is a fun little inversion. When it’s later able to escape, it hears her in the process of being sexually assaulted and rescues her. She convinces it to let her run away with it, and as their friendship deepens she begins to convince him that humans are not inherently evil. There’s even some pretty rad class consciousness on display as she tells him “those depredations are the fault of a greedy, deliberately ignorant few who have seized power over the rest of us.” It’s a remarkably succinct way of describing capitalism to a literal space alien.

And yeah, there are plenty of clunkers too. But I think there’s more than enough in here to make it worth your while if you enjoy science fiction and want more Things to read.

… more Things to read?

Yeah, okay, I’ll show myself out.

(B-Rank)


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