Film Essays

Sewing Cinema:
 Stitching Together 2011 Oscar Greatness, One Costume at a Time


“A designer is only as good as the star who wears her clothes.” It’s a philosophy spewed by Edith Head, one of the most celebrated names in the history of the Academy Awards.

Edith Head’s name isn’t synonymous with star-power or box office success, as most of the politicized institutions associated with the words “awards” and “season” tend to be. She’s no Angelina Jolie. She’s no Meryl Streep. Alas, she’s bounds ahead of them; She was a costume designer, one with more Academy Awards than any other woman in history.

Her line of work is visual and prominent throughout each of the 433 films she worked on, but remembered only as a fleeting compliment to the performers who donned her creations.

Yes, Edith Head dressed everyone from Gloria Swanson to Joan Fontaine, and if her career as a costume designer throughout Hollywood’s golden age up until her death in 1981 proves anything, it’s that she made such glamorous stars, well, shimmer.

That’s the job of a costume designer, after all; to aide in the illusion, to craft the cinematic fantasy which envelops us, sometimes out of materials we’d be hard-pressed not to find at a local Pat Catan’s. It’s not everyday someone like Anne Hathaway can whip up a sustained, award-winning performance out of a clearance bin at a flea market. Costume designers often shop on a budget, with some of the most effective pieces finding their way onto a set because a diligent member of the costume department strolled off set and into a sale rack at a shoe store (I speak from firsthand experience: I once sold a pair of $15 Vans that were to be worn by Viggo Mortensen, purchased by the costume designer for 2009’s The Road which filmed here in Pittsburgh).

In short, it’s a costume designer’s ability to turn the ordinary into spectacle. That’s why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has taken it upon itself to recognize the countless men and women who sew, pluck, rip, tear, and stitch together the framework of some of the biggest spectacles in American cinema each year with an Oscar for Best Costume Design.

Representing 2011’s crop of contenders are five designers who crafted gorgeous pieces representing eras as far apart as Shakespearian Britain (Lisy Christl’s work for Anonymous), the brooding moors of 1800s Gothic fiction (Michael O’Connor’s designs for Jane Eyre) and the streets of 1930s Paris (Sandy Powell’s contributions to Hugo).

Most of 2011’s nominees (as is true for every year, actually) crafted dazzling wardrobes which harken back to periods of years past, what with the most contemporary representation hailing from Arianne Phillips’ work in W.E., a film whose narrative spans between the 1930s and 1998 as it chronicles the love affair between Britain’s King Edward VIII and an American, Wallis Simpson.

Its director, having never been a stranger to the aesthetically rich, Madonna’s film boasts perhaps the most arresting costumes of each of the nominees with hats by Stephen Jones, gowns by John Galliano, and other contributions from the likes of Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli, and even the National Museum of Costume in Scotland, who donated a Michael O’Connor wedding gown for filming.

The power of film to incorporate so many contemporary facets of the fashion industry into a single lavish homage to historical fashion is particularly evident in W.E., a film which utilizes the savvy of head designer Arianne Phillips to string together other magical pieces which drape the veil of 1930s European glamour over the delicate cheeks of Madonna’s sophomore directorial effort.


Recreating the fantasy of the past through fashion is often the primary task of a costume designer. As CGI and digital projection technologies evolve to elevate the medium itself to higher standards of sophisticated (albeit illusory) presentation, the spectacle itself becomes simply representational. Yes, the fantastical flora and fauna which populated Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar were imaginative and spectacular, but they ultimately remain fantasy, relying on our classically trained tactic of suspending disbelief in order to “accept” them in context.

But, costume designers have a different job. They must create the past in the physical, in the present, in the now, bringing a glorified age of, say, 1920s Hollywood to life with every stitch, sequin, and wing-tipped shoe at their disposal. Of course, I’m referring to Mark Bridges’ work as seen in The Artist, also nominated this year. The film is a cinematic love letter to the silent era of Hollywood, when looks were everything and an actress’ wardrobe was the yesteryear equivalent to a computer generated explosion. Bridges’ costumes here do more than just catch the eye, they serve as a reminder of the simplicity of an era, the ability of an audience to listen with their hearts to a film which didn’t contain a single spoken word of its own. Costumes were more than just flashy adornments, but rather beacons of prosperity or shining testaments to the desire of the public to one day afford something just as beautiful as the drapery cascading down the frame of the actress dancing before them. Yes, the stars are the ones who conspicuously consume and uphold the business. Maintaining the fantasy, however illustrious the illusion; that’s what costume designers have done throughout history.

It seems as if Ms. Head’s observations are correct. A designer’s work can certainly be esteemed by its presence on the frame of a Hollywood actress as she poses for photographers on the red carpet outside the Kodak Theatre. But as the evening of February 26 comes to a close, one costume designer at the Academy Awards is going home with an Oscar; the other starlets just pretty girls playing dress-up.

Urban Mausoleum; Loneliness and Dependency in “Lost in Translation”


Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation tells a story revolving around two people that form a deep friendship while visiting Tokyo, Japan. Various subjects contained within the film include those regarding marriage, romantic relationships, diversity between cultures, and the phenomenon of celebrity. The most prominent of subjects within the film deal with innate human feelings of loneliness and alienation as framed against one of the most densely-populated spaces on the planet. Through the use of cinema’s various aesthetic tools, Coppola conveys the thematic idea that any given person’s interpersonal connections can at once facilitate feelings of loneliness yet also allow such feelings to become altogether more bearable.

To set the stage for an analysis of the film’s thematic handling of the subject of innate human loneliness, it is important to first characterize such feelings that ostracize the film’s protagonists. The audience is introduced to Bob Harris scenes that characterize his feelings of alienation as complex byproducts of interpersonal connections through work, his life at home, and within his adaptation to new surroundings that radically differ from the American culture (and people) he is used to.

The first time the audience sees Bob he is sleeping in the backseat of a car. A close up shot frames his face against a backdrop of neon advertisements that are slightly out of focus but clear enough to be distinguishable objects. As Bob opens his eyes and adjusts to his surroundings, the shot is almost immediately replaced by a mid close up on the opposite side of the car window that reflects the neon advertisements in clearer focus that mirrors Bob’s initial adjustments to his new environment. An extreme long shot of the streets of Tokyo replaces the mid close up, establishing Bob’s minute location amidst the mass of dwarfing urbanity. The shot immediately characterizes Bob as an individual who is out of touch not only with this gaudy atmosphere, but also with himself seeing as the proceeding extreme long shot shows an advertisement with his face on it. Because the ad contains a picture of Bob, the audience understands that he is a famous figure of sorts; however, the text on the advertisement is entirely in Japanese. Seeing himself advertised amidst a barrage of foreign words contextualizes Bob’s sense of self; although he recognizes his own image, he cannot understand the literal meaning of what surrounds him. He is as disconnected from himself as he is from the Japanese language, culture, and setting he is currently immersed within.

Bob’s isolation from his surroundings is visible in another scene that relies heavily on mise en scene to speak to the viewer. Arriving at a hotel, Bob (a Caucasian male) is carefully placed at the center of an elevator car and surrounded by Japanese businessmen, each of whom stand a good foot shorter than him.  To say that Bob sticks out like a sore thumb amidst this crowd (as well as in the rest of Tokyo) would be an understatement. In fact, most of Bob’s interpersonal experiences towards the beginning of the film are those that convey his sense of culture shock as he adapts to a foreign culture radically different from his own.

It is eventually learned that Bob is an aging actor working in the city to promote a brand of whiskey, and he is further isolated from his surroundings in a scene that sees him filming a commercial for it. Sound plays an important part in this scene, seeing as a director who presumably only speaks Japanese barks orders at Bob’s translator, who relays the directions to Bob in English. The scene is composed in a fashion that never sees Bob and the director in the same shot. Simple shot-reverse shot editing conveys to the viewer that the director and Bob are in fact in the same room and part of the same conversation, but neither is really on the same page as the other, hence the lack of equating the men together in the same shot. Bob is being utilized for what he has built a career upon (the art of acting) yet is hindered by his inability to understand what the director wants from him. This lends itself to Bob’s increasing feelings of isolation; he now not only feels disconnected from the world around him, he literally can no longer interact with it. In similar fashion, a proceeding scene in which Bob shoots a print campaign for the whiskey brand sees him in various states of commercial fabrication; countless hordes of makeup artists and wardrobe stylists adjust his appearance to the point of perfection, caking makeup onto his aging face and placing heavy-duty clamps onto the back of his jacket to create the illusion that an ill-fitting jacket is the perfect size for him. It is all a trick for the camera, a fabricated version of reality to convey that Bob is a “perfect” human being. But the fact that the audience is able to see the work that goes into creating a “perfect” reality suggests that Bob’s sense of reality is merely a constructed one as well.

A motif that runs throughout the film involves that of nocturnal restlessness, connecting both of the film’s protagonists (both are experiencing this) through editing. The shot that precedes the introduction of Charlotte contains a close up of Bob staring wide-eyed at the ceiling from his bed. A jump cut shows Charlotte (presumably at the same exact time) similarly unable to fall asleep as she stares through a window. The motif of the pair’s separate (but shared) restlessness characterizes their loneliness and facilitates the personal bond (and its resulting mutual coping quality) that is to come.

Charlotte’s loneliness stems from a somewhat different place than Bob’s, although her various interpersonal connections also offset feelings of security as well as facilitating internal harmony. Charlotte is not alone on her travels to Tokyo; she is accompanied by her photographer husband on assignment in the city to shoot rock bands and models. Charlotte, although married to someone involved in the art and entertainment industry, is a self-proclaimed unemployed drifter of sorts, having graduated with a degree in philosophy but entirely unsure of what course her life will take. Charlotte aimlessly wanders the streets of Tokyo in search of some sort of spiritual enlightenment, but is overwhelmed by the intense visual onslaught of commercialized Tokyo as well as by the barrage of inner-city sounds (such as pop songs, car engines, etc.) that increase in volume (exaggerating her subjective perception of the city) as their containing shots become wider and wider, dwarfing her in a sea of urban chaos.


Charlotte’s husband is physically alongside her at select times (primarily when the two are alone in their hotel room) and their relationship is often characterized through the film’s cinematography. A particular close-up shot towards the beginning of the film sees Charlotte as she looks out a window from her hotel room. The audience’s visual perspective sees the city that overwhelms her in clear focus, yet she is out of focus in the same shot. The city is all Charlotte sees, and the intense feelings of anxiety and uncertainty the city’s vast openness instill within her are mirrored by the incomplete image we see of her unfocused silhouette. Although offscreen, a door is heard opening and closing and accompanied by her husband’s voice as he enters the room. As his unfocused silhouette embraces that of Charlotte’s, a rack focus brings the couple into focus and the city skyline out of focus. This suggests that although Charlotte feels isolated and out of place in her new surroundings, her husband brings an internal solace that grounds and comforts her, providing a momentary distraction from the internal discord the city produces within her.

Although Charlotte has a relationship with her husband that provides a sense of comfort, another character offsets her feelings of stability within her marriage. A particular scene begins with a medium shot of Charlotte and her husband embracing as they walk down a hallway. They are very affectionate, fondling each other in a public display that conveys their attraction to each other; however, the couple stumbles across a blonde woman named Kelly, who is revealed to be an acquaintance of Charlotte’s husband (as well as a famous starlet). Kelly is immediately contrasted with Charlotte through costuming; Charlotte wears a frumpy grey sweater whereas Kelly wears a revealing, fire engine red top that aligns her as an object of sexual desire for Charlotte’s husband. As a conversation strikes up between the two, Charlotte is positioned in the middle instead of on the same side as her husband, whom has taken an intense interest in Kelly that renders him completely indifferent to his wife’s frustrated expression now that she is no longer the center of attention. Charlotte has become an afterthought instead of the object of desire for her husband, whom is completely wrapped up in the bubbly Kelly’s outward display of vapidity and stereotypical “dumb blonde” hilarity that is undermined by her prominently-displayed bosom. As the conversation ends and the “real” couple walk away, a long shot views their departure from the hallway as separate entities devoid of interpersonal affectation. The couple entered as one and leave as two, separated by the husband’s obvious attraction to Kelly which upsets Charlotte and sets forth an imbalance in her internal state that is further facilitated by his announcement that he is leaving for a few days to complete an on-location shoot. For the first time since the audience has been introduced to her, Charlotte will be without a companion in an environment that overwhelms her.

The most important interpersonal connection in the film is that between Charlotte and Bob. The two eventually begin their relationship after exchanging casual glances in a bar they mutually frequent. Charlotte sees something in Bob that he also sees in her; a magnetism exists between the two thanks to the paralleled comparisons and motifs the film has been building between them (being alone, nocturnal restlessness, observing the city through windows, etc.). Their comfort with each other is reflected in a scene that relies on calculated mise en scene and sound elements to cement their relationship as one of mutual comfort. Bob and Charlotte, alone and with nothing better to do, go out to a bar only a few days after initially meeting. The bar provides a much-needed, dimly-lit escape that facilitates a recreational release both desperately needed. As the pair mentally unwind and become comforted by the other’s presence, the camera movements drastically alter, shifting from static to hand-held. The scene also utilizes lighting to characterize their increasing comfort with each other and their surroundings, seeing as a medium shot of Bob shows him standing in front of a screen projecting fireworks onto a wall for decoration; the projection now resides on Bob’s face, for once allowing him to finally blend in with his surroundings and not become overwhelmed by them. The sounds of the bar increase in volume as the night progresses, allowing both Bob and Charlotte’s voices to blend in with the crowd, sharing a sense of “fitting in”, if only for a night. As the sequence of their night out progresses, a graphic match recalls the aforementioned scene in which Bob observes Tokyo through a car window for the first time; however, instead of Bob looking out the car window it is now Charlotte who observes the city, her face framed in a close up that conveys a sense of wonderment and amazement with the city she has rarely experienced before, almost as if being with Bob inspires a fresh perspective on life for her. These feelings contrast with how the audience has seen both Bob and Charlotte interacting with their surroundings in previous scenes; a feeling of isolation and loneliness no longer exists so long as Bob and Charlotte share the same diegetic space.

Bob and Charlotte are established as a connected pair through various shots that proceed their initial night of bonding at the bar. Their discussions come to revolve around topics of love, life, and the pressures of marriage and family. As Bob and Charlotte become increasingly entangled within each other’s similar dissatisfaction with life, their relationship becomes deeper. A particular scene towards the end of the film characterizes their relationship through cinematography as well as its mise en scene. Bob and Charlotte are framed in a high-angle medium long shot as they lay on a bed. A medium shot of a window shows their reflection in the glass cast over the illuminated nocturnal skyline of Tokyo, indicating that this is a friendship formed by, within, and facilitated by the city and the feelings of alienation it evokes (which ultimately brings them together). Charlotte’s voice punctuates the somber image as she informs Bob that their friendship would never be the same if they returned to the city under any other circumstances, reaffirming what the image implies; their relationship is given a context and becomes immortalized within the city. A cut to the aforementioned long shot endures throughout the scene, only shifting to shot-reverse close up shots towards the climax of the conversation as their discussion becomes more intimate. Proceeding the shot-reverse close up shots, a cut returns the audience’s perspective to a high angle above the bed where the couple lays. Bob awkwardly reaches out to stroke Charlotte’s foot as it just barely touches Bob’s side. The couple is not positioned to suggest sexual attraction, but rather to suggest their comfort with their newfound friendship and the strength it inspires within them, seeing as they both fall asleep amidst shots towards the beginning of the film that suggest they could not fall asleep on their own.  As Bob and Charlotte’s relationship progresses into a deep friendship, the film works to “correct” these previously-established motifs that characterize their feelings of loneliness and isolation. Another example would be a scene that sees Charlotte visiting the spiritual center of Kyoto where she observes a Japanese couple being married in a traditional ceremony. The sequence recalls an earlier scene in which Charlotte views Buddhist monks chanting and praying that she proclaims to have felt no emotion while observing. As Charlotte observes the wedding ceremony, close up shots convey her perspective to the audience; as the ceremony goes on, Charlotte begins noticing smaller and smaller details (close ups show the couple holding hands, exchanging glances, etc.). This suggests that she is finally “feeling” something after meeting Bob as opposed to feeling “nothing” as she observed the Buddhist monks before she met Bob.

The conclusion of the film sees Bob whispering something into Charlotte’s ear. What is said is unheard by the audience, seeing as it is drowned out by the intentional increase in volume of the surrounding noises of the city. The exchange functions as a pseudo consummation of their fleeting relationship. Through various aesthetic techniques the film has established this relationship as a positive one for both parties. From the “correction” of certain negative motifs to the paralleling of Bob and Charlotte with other inferior (at least from an audience perspective) characters previously throughout the narrative, the film enunciates its point clearly enough; while the audience may not be privileged enough to hear these intimate words between close friends, the film has spent enough time aesthetically establishing their relationship as one that made each of their feelings of loneliness altogether more bearable.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Two Eras of Terror: Comparing “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Thing”


The term “genre” (when used to describe a certain type of film) is usually intended to encompass many different filmic aspects into a singular descriptor. Immediate recollections of spaceships and alien life forms come to mind when referencing a film of the science fiction genre, whereas supernatural happenings and grotesque images of monsters have evolved into stereotypical signifiers of horror films. But these two genres encompass far more than such superficial (and sometimes altogether unsubstantiated) elements most audiences have come to associate with them would suggest. Throughout the different periods of Hollywood film production, both of these genres have produced films that extend into thematic and/or aesthetic territory commonly associated with the other. The science fiction/horror hybrid films The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Thing (1982)reflect various aesthetic and thematic elements which set them apart from their contemporaneous genre brethren; however, both films ultimately rely on classical components to craft linear narratives for their respective audience.

The narrative of 1956’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers initially functions as an ominous mystery. The residents of the fictional town of Santa Mira begin to notice minute, intangible disruptions in their relationships with friends and family; a young boy begins to violently oppose contact with his parents while a young woman claims that the uncle she has been living with for years is simply (and unexplainably) not the same man any more. Each of the townsfolk confide within the local doctor, Miles Burnell, who initially seems to think little of the strange wave of paranoia sweeping the population. As the film unfolds it is revealed that pods from outer space have taken up residence alongside the inhabitants of Santa Mira, craft physical duplicates of the townspeople, replace their “real” bodies as they sleep, and ultimately create a new breed of humanlike beings which feel no emotion.

The film displays various elements of both the horror and science fiction genres, yet neither characteristic identifies the film as a generic whole. Cited within Steve Neale’s Genre and Hollywood, Christine Gledhill describes the horror film as (at its basic core) rooted in the filmmakers’ attempt to essentially horrify the audience, and various aesthetic elements of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers lend the film to that notion (93). Purely from a visceral standpoint, the film creates an unsettling mood through its use of lighting and non-diegetic music to characterize any given narrative action as ominous or threatening, allowing such scenes to become externally horrifying on the basis of audience perception alone. For example, many scenes within the film involving the discovery of human replicants within the pods are accompanied by subdued lighting which casts long shadows, shrouds corners in darkness, and ultimately creates a frightening tone that correlates with the narrative action (Hantke 193). The primary characteristic of the horror film remains the idea that its reception is intended to be a frightening one, and while The Invasion of the Body Snatchers does provide ample subject matter that can be viewed as frightening (death and alien invasion) the film more predominantly displays characteristics of the science fiction genre (Hantke viii).

Vivian Sobchack asserts that the science fiction film generally depicts “society and its institutions in conflict with each other or with some alien other” and that the conflict generally takes place inside a community with a large populace (30). The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is explicitly about an invasion of earth by, as one character states, an alien form of life. The film depicts the conflict that arises between the humans and the alien-made replicants, which lends the film to one of the most common characteristics of science fiction narrative. The interesting thing about The Invasion of the Body Snatchers becomes its reliance on the fact that the invaders of the planet essentially look exactly the same as the humans they are replacing, allowing the film to become much more implicit (and socio-politically critical) in terms of its depiction of the “monstrous other” classically represented in science fiction film (Neale 102).

In terms outside of genre-specific classification, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers fits in with various tropes of post-classical Hollywood cinema while at the same time retaining its hold on classic form in narrative and through its representation of 1950s society. Thomas Schatz outlines the classical Hollywood film as being comprised of the “exposition, complication, and resolution [which] provide the basis for classical ‘three-act’ construction” (47). The Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ narrative unfolds in such fashion that reflects the classical style; a peaceful town exists in harmony, is plagued by mysterious happenings which prompt the protagonists’ curiosity, and ultimately succumbs to the invading alien force. The characters in the film can also be viewed as byproducts of classical script construction in the sense that they are what Schatz would describe as “static narrative agents who activate and finally are subordinate to the workings of the plot” seeing as their development as characters (aside from a subplot involving romance between the two) never takes precedence over the invasion (62). The conclusion of the picture also adheres to classical narrative form, yet can also be viewed as inconsistent with classical style due to its violation of the “happy ending” rule. The classical “happy ending” provides a sense of closure for the film’s narrative, tying up loose ends in a manner that leaves nothing unclear for the audience (Schatz 64). The Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ ending provides a diegetic result as opposed to concrete closure for the audience. The ending involves mass amounts of pods being driven in truckloads to other cities, a direct address to the audience (McCarthy points into the lens and screams “You’re next!”), and overall implications that the invaders will succeed in world domination, giving the words “The End” that appear over the last shot dual meaning for the audience (the film is over) and the characters (their world is now over). The ending provides closure in the sense that it depicts a clear enough distinction between which characters have trumped the other. In this case the “bad guys” are implied as superior in opposition to the “happy ending” result which would most likely have involved the real humans defeating the invaders.

The film presents the diegetic world as one in which only two types of characters exist; those who are human (and therefore inherently “good”) and those who are inhuman (therefore inherently “evil”). Similarly, the sense of morality displayed by the characters is not situational; it is universal seeing as certain people can “feel” the difference in the replicants since they are implicitly of sound mind and heart.

The world of the classical Hollywood narrative must also (in some sense) correspond to the audience within which the world inhabits, and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers adheres to various social norms throughout its course while subverting certain attitudes as well (Schatz 62). The film’s representation of women is, in the most general sense possible, an unfavorable one; various female characters are seen as panicky, paranoid, over-emotional (particularly Teddy), weak, and literally bogged down by feminine materials (particularly Becky, who decides to run through the hills of Los Angeles wearing high heels and a sun dress, exhaustedly collapsing every ten steps or so). The societal role of women is apparent simply through examination of various other scenes, including one in which Dr. Bennell’s secretary (Sally) picks him up from the train station. Both characters retreat back to a car that Sally undoubtedly drove to the station in order to pick Dr. Bennell up, yet before he can even reach the car Sally opens the passenger door and climbs in; her place as a passive female is therefore assumed by her as well as the audience.

Although such representations of women are superficially unflattering, Errol Vieth describes women in science fiction pictures as vessels to convey certain traditional opinions that “clearly [indicate] the values of the status quo regarding marriage and the position of women” (143). Becky also represents a variation of the traditional woman as represented by Hollywood in the sense that she is not traditionally married nor is she single; she is twice divorced. Seeing as portions of the Production Code barred filmmakers from including any immoral acts (as defined by conservatives, some of the Catholic Church), the inclusion of a divorced woman as the heroine in a film violates certain traditional standards (Pramaggiore and Willis 316).

In similar opposition to classical Hollywood, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers works as a postclassical social metaphor, in this case interpreted alongside the contemporaneous communist scare that swept the United States through the 1950s (Sherman 103). The film is essentially about a threat to the public that is unseen or in the very least sense unintelligible from stranger to stranger on the street, which reflects its Cold War undertones concerning communists as seemingly “normal” people infiltrating American traditions and values just like the invaders in the film (Schatz 88).

26 Years after the release of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, John Carpenter released The Thing, his filmic adaptation of Who Goes There?, a literary workby John W. Campbell. Carpenter’s film similarly combines various aspects of the horror and science fiction genres within a narrative that depicts a team of researchers in the Antarctic battling an alien creature that has invaded their camp. Similar to the invaders in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the creature in The Thing replicates life forms on earth. Instead of replacing living things with replications, the creature in Carpenter’s film violently ingests its prey and genetically alters itself to resemble what it has consumed.

Like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Carpenter’s film utilizes certain aspects of the horror genre (including the aforementioned tropes of viscerally frightening imagery, dramatic lighting, etc.) and fuses them with aforementioned elements of science fiction (such as the invasion of an alien “other”, amongst other things). The end result is a film which draws on traditional elements of classic science fiction and horror films like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers yet also displays postmodern flair in the fact that it is a “splatter film”.


Postmodern American “splatter films” generally utilize graphic depictions of violence and gore (as The Thing undoubtedly does) in order to elicit a visceral response to the imagery; therefore, through various depictions of grotesque images (primarily involving a monstrously contorted alien creature) The Thing harkens back to 1950s monster movies that exploited similarly repulsive subjects (Arnzen, vol. 21). Within Postmodern Hollywood, M. Keith Booker discusses a primary characteristic of postmodernism which involves the use of nostalgic aesthetic elements (such as music, imagery, and setting) to connect the film with time periods of years past, particularly the 1950s (47-49). An example of this within The Thing comes in the form of a scene in which the alien invader attempts to ingest one of the researchers’ dismembered heads, fuses it with its own genetics, and morphs into a spider-like monstrosity that still bears resemblance to its human prey. The scene elicits a visceral reaction to the transformation at once because of its explicitly violent content as well as its depiction of a subject that is meant to be feared despite its clear retention of physical human qualities. This notion lends itself to Thomas Schatz’s observations concerning a string of classical 1950s science fiction films (including The Invasion of the Body Snatchers) within which a trend of the genre emerged; the fear of the “other” ultimately translates into fear of humanity itself through antagonistic invaders taking on physical human form (154). The film therefore nostalgically adheres to certain postclassical representations of “the growing indistinguishability [sic] of the monstrous from the human” within science fiction and horror films of the 1950s (Cumbow 113).

The overall sense of morality created within the diegetic world of Carpenter’s The Thing reflects a rejection of the classical moral homogeneity of something like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a film within which the “good” (humans) are clearly represented as the only alternative to the “bad” (the alien invaders). The Thing undoubtedly presents the audience with a monstrous alien “other” meant to be viewed as an intrusive (and grotesque) opposition to human beings, yet by the end of the film the humanity (or lack thereof) displayed by the protagonists calls the audience to question the characters’ moral stature. The film establishes the group of researchers as members of a group that coexist yet share little interpersonal connection aside from their shared geographical location. The alien invader functions as a catalyst for their feelings of isolation and disconnect to manifest (complimented by the mise en scene involving an isolated Antarctic location). Robert Cumbow observes that “the creature is a metaphor for the already deteriorated condition of human interaction: deception, dishonesty, [and] distrust…Carpenter’s The Thing is about the ineluctable isolation of the individual” (114). The men must come to terms with their own instincts of self-preservation amidst a group of others who could possibly be the alternative to what they physically represent; since the alien invader can take the form of the human body, paranoia becomes a byproduct of the men’s desire to survive. Each of the scenes proceeding the revelation of the alien’s shape-shifting capabilities is tinged with paranoid undertones, particularly one which involves the “testing” of each man’s blood. The test involves placing a hot wire into a Petri dish of extracted blood. Since the alien’s blood will supposedly disperse in an attempt to protect itself from harm (it is apparently comprised of self-preserving organisms) the test will reveal who amongst the group is literally the alien “other”. The sense of anti-classical morality is therefore situationally-based on the diegetic occurrences. If one member of the group fails the blood test, he is killed. If a member of the group acts suspiciously, he is treated as an “other” despite no proof that he has done anything wrong. The sense of paranoia within the group provides a basis for their situational judgments, essentially eliminating classical clear-cut depictions of diegetic homogeneity, morality, and black-and-white binary oppositions.

Despite these non-classical elements, the film is ultimately structured in a classical format. The aforementioned classical three-act structure ties the film together through causal organization of events; the film establishes the research base, establishes the problem through the intrusion of the alien, and resolves it through the death of the intruder. Invisible editing also dominates the film’s narrative, providing a concise and unobtrusive viewing experience for the audience. The film’s ending, similar to the ending of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, provides a result of action in favor of narrative closure; the alien invader has been killed (although it is not confirmed, rather it is implied) but the act of killing it requires a complete destruction of the research base, leaving the two surviving protagonists without shelter from the harsh Antarctic weather. The ending, also similar to that of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, plays on the aforementioned classical “happy ending” in the sense that it provides an action which should constitute as “happy” (the implied death of the alien) but is marred by the impending doom which surely awaits the protagonists.

While The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing share similarities in terms of aesthetic and thematic characteristics of postclassical and postmodern styles respectively, both films differ from each other in various ways as well. For example, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a film which strays from the depiction of overt violence whereas The Thing largely fits in with the aforementioned “splatter film” through its repeated use of explicitly violent subject matter.

The most glaring difference between the two, however, is each film’s contrasting mise en scene (particularly setting) and its complimentary narrative function. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers diegetic world consists of a densely-populated suburban California landscape. The Thing presents its narrative within the confines of an isolated, remote Antarctic research station completely disconnected from the rest of humanity. Each film uses its setting highlight its respective representation of the shared subject of alien invasion. Both films seek to alienate their protagonists from the world around them. Dr. Bennell and Becky in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers are isolated from the population around them due to their willing rejection of the invaders’ dominance whereas the researchers within The Thing have already been separated from a human populace. The researchers are, however, confined within close proximity to each other and (eventually) the alien. They are not subject to the expansive threat that the outside world of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers presents in terms of other people; rather their anxieties result from the confined, paranoia-inducing settings of their claustrophobic, monotonous interior space. The Thing contains cinematography which emphasizes the vast emptiness of the world around the researchers and juxtaposes such shots with those reflecting the confined living space for which they inhabit. Close ups and medium shots are favored during the interior spaces whereas long shots and extreme long shots dominate the exterior scenes. This characterizes the external setting as one of hopeless isolation and internally as stifling to interpersonal connections. The Thing works largely on this basis alone, and if placed within the setting of something like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers would not work in a thematic sense. The Thing draws on its tones of isolation to create a fear of helplessness whereas The Invasion of the Body Snatchers uses the mentality of a mass population pursuing the protagonists to create a sense of forced conformity at the hands of the overwhelming majority.

Both The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing are examples of horror/science fiction hybrid films which display various elements of stylistic ideals in their respective right. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers combines contemporaneous political undertones with alternative representations of 1950s societal traditions to create a narrative tinged with postclassical highlights. The Thing utilizes the shocking exploitation tactics of the “splatter” film to nostalgically connect itself with classic monster movies of the 1950s in a postmodern fashion. Both films, however, are ultimately tied to classical aesthetic principles concerning clarity of narrative including invisible editing, causality, and the three act structure.


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