The criticism of modern Hollywood cinema is often related to the dominance of sequels, adaptations of other forms of fiction and, most of all, remakes of older films. Constant remaking makes modern cinema unoriginal and predictable. However, remaking older films is not a new practice. Hollywood filmmakers have been remaking same plots since the dawn of American cinema. This tendency is even more evident in the genre cinema, especially in sci-fi and horror film genres. Three films: The Thing from Another World (1951) directed by Christian Nyby (with assistance by Howard Hawks), The Thing (1982) directed by John Carpenter, and The Thing (2011) directed by Matthijs van Heijningen are different variations of the short story Who Goes There? (1938) written by John W. Campbell. These three films demonstrate how one plot can be interpreted by different filmmakers and how each respected film represents the period during which it was made. From Nyby's B-movie sci-fi, to Carpenters suspenseful body-horror masterpiece and Heijningen's uninspired action horror, the remakes of The Thing are a great illustration of the history of sci-fi horror genre.
All three films under analysis stay mostly true to the plot of Campbell's story: a group of polar researchers finds an alien ship buried in ice and encounter an extraterrestrial creature that hunts them when they are isolated from the outside world. The Thing from Another World (1951) was a typical sci-fi B-movie of the 1950s. The film was shot in black and white and had a limited budget. The alien creature was played by an actor James Arness who was wearing a costume. The monster in Nyby's film is a vampire plant-creature from Mars who drinks blood of dogs and looks more comical than threatening. The film was a pure representative of the sci-fi genre with little suspense and special effects. It focused more on ideas of encountering beings from other planets. One of the most interesting characters in the film was doctor Arthur, portrayed by Robert Cornthwaite, who studied how the alien organism operated and tried to communicate with it, hoping to establish contact with the being. The Thing from Another World is a story of failed contact and a warning for the future generations, as presented by the words of one of the films characters, Scotty (Douglas Spencer): "Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!" (Lasker & Nyby, 1951). Similarly to other famous science fiction films of the time such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1953) and War of the Worlds (1953), the film reflected the caution with which people of the time saw the development of science. Another motif of the film is the celebration of unity of people. As the team of the station faces the unknown menace, they join their forces and prevail against the threat. The theme of unity in the film is often connected with its producer (and uncredited director) Howard Hawks. As stated by researcher Stephen Prince, "the films: emphasizes the resourcefulness of human community, its solidarity and efficiency in defeating the intruder" (Prince, 2004). The film is considered a genre classic, and it inspired many generations of filmmakers.
The 1982 remake, called simply The Thing, while not a critical or commercial success on the moment of release, gained a cult following, and now considered to be among the greatest genre films of the 1980s. Unlike in the original film, the director of the 1982 remake mixed genres and combined the sci-fi plot with more horror and action elements. John Carpenter's film can be considered a remake only partially, as it is a closer adaptation of the Campbell's story (Prince, 2004). In Carpenter's film, just like in the literary source, the alien life form imitates the looks of people and animals to hide among them. This change helped to transform the film from the straightforward sci-fi film to a genre mixture of science fiction and horror. Carpenter utilized state-of-art practical special effects created by Rob Bottin to full extent. Creature transformations in The Thing are creative, grotesque, and gruesome. However, gore and creature design are not the only draw of the film. Carpenter carefully creates the atmosphere of hopelessness and isolation in which his characters are found. Gloomy mood of the film is further complicated by the ability of the alien creature to imitate anyone of the survivors. Thus, suspicion between the characters increases as the events escalate. This adds up to the film's hopelessness, as salvation for the characters can put all the humanity in danger. The outcome of the film is far less optimistic than the events of the 1952 film. When comparing the remake to the original, Stephen Prince (2004) describes Carpenter's film as "Anty-hawksian":
... The Thing details the breakdown of teams network of authority, friendship and trust, as the social order is infiltrated by ambiguous thing... Not only does the group not prevail, but such Hawksian qualities as teamwork and camaraderie are nowhere in evidence.
The point Prince makes emphasizes the social aspects of the film. The Thing is often considered to be among the sub-genre of horror films called "the body horror". This unique subgenre was mostly referred to the works of David Cronenberg (The Fly (1986) and Videodrome (1983)), David Lynch (Eraserhead (1977)), and John Carpenter ((Prince of Darkness (1987), In the Mouth of Madness (1995)). Researcher Emily Smith (2013) describes this subgenre as such: "Horror is principally derived from the graphic destruction and degeneration of the body. Other types of body horror include unnatural movements, or anatomically incorrect placement of limbs to create monsters of human body parts." This genre uses physiological mutations and deformations as a metaphor for human psychological conditions, crisis of identity, and social alienation. The horror of Carpenter’s film lies in the visual inability of both the characters and the audience to distinguish between humans and monsters, the fear of inner the enemy and destruction of social trust (Prince, 2004). The film's dark mood is accented by the minimalistic soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. It also has some action elements and has a famous action star of the 1980s Curt Russell in the lead role. However, even with all other genre elements, The Thing remains a smart sci-fi movie with interesting ideas on the nature of alien organism and integral social commentary.
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The 2011 film is, in its turn, also not a pure remake of both previous incarnations. Plot vise, it is a direct prequel to the 1984 movie. Its plot centers around the finding of an alien spaceship by Norwegian scientists. From the point of view of the story, it has more in common with the 1951 film, as it focuses on the group finding an alien ship. Further events of the film directly link it to Carpenter's The Thing, at the same time copying most of its plot points, structure, visuals, and style. One of the interesting themes added by the creators of the remake is the inclusion of American characters in the Norwegian team. While this was made to appeal to American audience, it also brought the theme of distrust between people of different countries and cultures. However, the possibilities of this conflict were not fully developed in the film. As a reconstruction of the plot for modern generation of viewers, it is more fast-paced and has a young female lead character (Kate Lloyd played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead). At the same time, the film is filled with numerous homages to both earlier versions in order to please the devoted fan base. As most of modern remakes of classic sci-fi, The Thing seriously lacked creativity and originality, and it was made to capitalize on the names and popularity of its predecessors. Most of the special effects the 1984 film was famous for, were made using CGI, and looked less impressive. In addition, the emphasis in the film was made on action sequences, and not on building tension. Unlike previous films, the 2011 remake lacked its unique social commentary and copied most of its scientific ideas from the 1984 film without providing anything new. This film represents a trend in modern Hollywood cinema of using famous titles, trademarks, and recognizable images to draw the audience in the theaters. As a result, The Thing (2011) remains a pale copy of Carpenter's movie.
The Thing franchise draws a bleak picture of human contact with alien life, where tension is built with the help of character interactions and a unique claustrophobic setting. All three versions of The Thing reflect the way the sci-fi and horror genres developed since 1950s until today. All three films share the same premise and unusual setting. At the same time, ideas they develop differ. The 1951 film is concerned with science fiction ideas on the possible contacts with alien beings. It is humanistic and optimistic in its nature, providing confidence in humanity. John Carpenter's remake is a much darker film. It deals with suspicion and uncertainty that existed in society of the late 20th century. The 2011 version, while having some tense scenes and impressive visual effects, lacks either the humanity of the 1951's version and sense of dread that made Carpenter’s version so memorable. John Carpenter's film proves that remakes not necessarily mean uninspired copies when there is enough originality and director's unique style involved.