Thawed out horror – The Thing from Another World and The Tomorrow War.

The Thing from Another World captured cold war tensions. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

A hideous monster armed with massive powers lies frozen in the earth for centuries. An accident or something else causes it to thaw allowing for the creature to awaken and wreak havoc. The idea has been a staple for several films, TV shows and books. The most recent example is The Tomorrow War (2021), released through the streaming service Amazon/Prime. Many centuries previously, an alien spaceship carrying genetically engineered killer beasts crashed into the frozen Russian north. The beasts are bred to kill everything in their path and are virtually unstoppable. Even though the alien spaceship smashed into earth hundreds of years ago, the creatures have remained frozen but still alive. The alien monsters are released as global warming melts the ground around their frozen spaceship. As temperatures increase, the alien beasts come to life and threaten to destroy all of humanity.

Due to the discovery of time travel in the near future, soldiers can return to the present day to warn that civilization has 30 years to deal with the creatures or humanity will be extinct. In response to the threat, a rag-tag group of soldiers are sent to the future to fight the ‘Tomorrow War.’ The underlying fear is that global warming will destroy us all in the future if we do not do something about it now.[1]

It is surprising how long it has taken for filmmakers to address climate change. Given the amount of coverage and concern for global warming, it seems that Hollywood is reluctant to address climate change issues. In 2020, critic Nicholas Barber pointed out that Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) was one of few popular films to deal with the issue. [2] Barber is correct that few films contain the theme, but it could be that climate change is just too fearful a topic for filmmakers to tackle at the moment.

This reluctance for filmmakers to wrestle with pressing topics has certainly been the case in previous decades. In the 1950s, direct treatments of communism proved to be highly unpopular, but allegorical treatments in science fiction, biblical epics, and even westerns could deal with this pressing issue. The famous horror author Stephen King recalled seeing Earth versus Flying Saucers when the Sputnik scare was in full flight. King wrote that the monsters flying the alien craft were a depiction of the feared Russians. The destruction of the American Capital brought to the surface fears of nuclear oblivion.[3] King saw the destruction of the flyers saucers as a mental respite for those self-same cold war tensions.

The Tomorrow War contains a nod to another science fiction film of the 1950s. The Thing from Another World (1951) has another monster being released from the frozen depths of the polar regions. The 1951 film depicted an Antarctic expedition discovering an alien frozen beneath the ice. The alien in The Thing from Another World (1951) was a popular depiction of communism controlling American society by stealth.  The ‘thing’ was a mobile vegetable, and its seeds were planted in soil at the laboratory, and they quickly grew.  If the alien escaped to more fertile ground, such as the United States – it could threaten the world.  This alien must be contained and stopped from going any further.  In other words, if the alien was not stopped at an early stage, then the threat would grow until it became impossible to resist.  This argument contains the logic of Cold War containment, which would drive the United States into a myriad of proxy wars.  To reinforce the point, after the alien had been destroyed, newspaperman Scotty warned people to remain vigilant: ‘Keep watching the skies.  Keep watching the skies.’

Stephen King believed The Thing from Another World (1951) was the first movie of the 1950s to show the scientist in the role of the misguided appeaser.[4]  He wrote that for average America, the scientists were vilified in American cinema in the 1950s. This group had developed the atomic bomb and ushered in the nuclear age.  According to King, when Dr Carrington faced the alien, the image that would have come into the minds of the American audience was Hitler and Chamberlain.[5]  Appeasement by the United Kingdom had led to a dreadful war with Nazi Germany, which had almost been lost.  It was better to fight than to appease.  When the alien pushed Carrington aside, an American audience could only see it in political terms.  Enemies had to be dealt with using a firm hand from the military.

Of course, fears are not always political. The same message of thawed horror is contained in the first season of Fortitude (2012), a British TV show about a community living well within the arctic circle, but in this case, the horror is decidedly different. A frozen carcass of a long-dead animal is left to thaw, releasing some insects that could rip apart the small community. The insects turn people into psychopaths, and the community begins to disintegrate as blame shifts from one person to another. The fears raised in Fortitude deal with the idea that each individual can turn into a psychopath given the right circumstances. The Tomorrow War (2020), made in today’s environment, deals with another set of fears about global warming. For The Thing From Another Planet (1951), it was the threat of communism. These works have the same basic plot of a frozen terror being thawed and then released. The story has stayed the same, but the fears have changed.


[1] Some critics argued that this film was unsuccessful in linking climate change fears to a science fiction film, but the message about global warming is undeniable. Peter Suderman, The Tomorrow War Is a Tortured Global Warming Metaphor Disguised as a Dull Action Movie, 7 February 2021, accessed at https://reason.com/2021/07/02/the-tomorrow-war-is-a-tortured-global-warming-metaphor-disguised-as-a-dull-action-movie/ on 20 August 2021.

[2] Nicholas Barber, Why does cinema ignore climate change?, BBC, 17 April 2020, accessed at https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20200416-why-does-cinema-ignore-climate-change on 20 August 2021.

[3] Stephen King, Danse Macabre: The Anatomy of Horror, London: MacDonald  1981, 25-27.

[4] Stephen King, Danse Macabre: The Anatomy of Horror, London: MacDonald  1981, 173.

[5] ibid, 174.

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