Watch the Skies!

November 6, 2011

The Thing from Another World (1951), is a film that influenced a lot of sci-fi movies that came after it.  I don’t know if there are any similar ones that preceded it, but it surely was the mold for much boring and formulaic stuff that I watched as a boy.  The TV  Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea comes to mind with its standard ‘monster epic’ plotting:  strange, destructive things happen; monster revealed and monster rampages; solution found, monster killed – all is well.  But The Thing, however preposterous it is as a sci-fi story, is a wonderful entertainment because of its characters, pacing, and dialog.

Anyway, just what thing from another world are we talking about?  Men from Mars and women from Venus?  The captain and the fetching assistant in the North Pole station have some romantic missteps from a drunken bar encounter to put behind them:  he suggests that she tie up his wandering hands, and she agrees.  “I’ll bring a rope, ” he says.  He does, and they’re loving it!

The captain’s a crack officer – he leaves off the sexy hijinks to do his duty and check station security.  After a bungled attempt to lift a flying saucer out of the ice – they burned it up by accident – they retrieved the alien pilot from the ice and brought it back to their station.  A negligent guard covered the iced-alien with an electric blanket to hide the ugly sight, but the blanket was on!  Oops again.  The alien broke free as its ice block melted, and proceeded to escape, loosing an arm in the process.

Examining the arm, the chief scientist realizes that the alien is a vegetable.  There’s a metaphor there somewhere.  He is enthralled by the idea of an anthropoid being reproducing with the more efficient botanical method, rather than the messy, chaotic, and uncontrolled sexual technique we inferior humans employ.  “No emotion at all!”  It also turns out that the alien is sustaining itself by drinking the blood of sled dogs it kills.

The characters make many snappy references to army bureaucracy, at one point lampooning the complex and long-winded army regulatory memoranda by which they are supposed to abide, while they repeatedly bungle their work, and the garbled radio messages provide a humorous counterpoint.  A directive to keep the alien prisoner arrives just after it escapes.   At one point, the men point out that according to Army documents, UFOs are simply an illusion, an example of mass hysteria.  Carl Jung agreed.  The men chuckle.

The scientist is a stock character, so wrapped up in his intellectual passion – “It doesn’t matter if we die, we must communicate with it!” that he achieves a sort of comic grandeur.  Of course, his sexual frigidity – the comely assistant is his amanuensis, that’s the only way he uses her – is a funny contrast to her penchant for bondage games with the captain.

How do you kill a vegetable?  The woman supplies the answer:  boil it, steam it, fry it… When will we properly value women’s work as homemakers?  The scientist tries to reason with the green giant, offering himself as disciple to the greater wisdom of the alien.  Mr. Vegetable replies, humor again, with a grunt and a shove.  Then he’s fried, or is he being crucified?

The newsman is finally given permission to broadcast his inspiring scoop to the press, and he concludes with the warning to all Earthlings to “watch the skies.”  Indeed.  The Russians are coming – it’s the Cold War after all, and things are seen in the skies.