My Thing About The “Thing” Movies
A geometric puzzle based on the Thing movies
James Arness was not a scientist, but was an actor who is best known for having played Marshall Dillon in the long-running TV series “Gunsmoke.” This series had a 20-year run, unheard of nowadays for scripted shows with actors that are animate, as opposed to animated.
Today I wish to raise a puzzle about an earlier movie that he starred in called The Thing.
The full title of the movie is: The Thing from Another World. Arness played a creature who was discovered by scientists at the North Pole embedded in the ice. It is one of the great science-fiction movies of all times, in my opinion. It is filled with wonderful dialogue and scary scenes. The leader of the scientific group is Dr. Arthur Carrington, who at one point says:
There are no enemies in science, only phenomena to be studied.
Not sure I agree with this statement, especially when the phenomenon is an eight foot creature who is really frosted about being defrosted. Okay maybe this is too much, but anyway Arness’s creature is pretty upset.
Later there were two further Thing movies, both directed by John Carpenter and both named “The Thing.” As part of Hollywood’s approach to originality these movies take place at the south pole. One stars Kurt Russell, and the other stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and the latter is the prequel to Russell’s movie. Let’s use the terminology Thing I for the original, Thing II for Kurt Russell’s movie, and Thing III for the most recent movie.
Goofs and Setups
As with many movies there are errors, goofs, and continuity mistakes in these movies. See this for a list of them for the movie Thing I. Here is one:
At the end, the co-pilot throws his tool to force the thing up on the walkway, but immediately after electrocuting the monster the co-pilot is seen holding the same instrument.
My problem is not a simple error or goof. What I am puzzled about in the Thing movies, all three of them, is more fundamental. It is part of the setup of the whole story.
It comes down to a geometric problem, and I am terrible at geometry. So my hope is that you will be able to explain how do they get the creature out of the ice? Let’s get started explaining the situation.
The Ice Puzzle
Long before there were refrigerators there were ice boxes. People collected ice from rivers or frozen lakes during the winter—harvested it—and then stored it for the summer months. Cutting out the blocks of ice is straightforward: drill a hole through the ice, which was usually a foot or two thick, then use a saw to cut out a block. Since ice floats the block does not sink and it can be pulled out of the river or harvested. There was a whole industry based on harvesting ice in this way. Here is a quote to further explain how the procedure worked:
Ice harvesting generally involved waiting until approximately a foot of ice had built up on the water surface in the winter. The ice would then be cut with either a handsaw or a powered saw blade into long continuous strips and then cut into large individual blocks for transport by wagon back to the icehouse.
My puzzle is based on cutting out blocks of ice in very different situation. In Thing I and Thing III the scientists discover a creature that is just below the surface of the ice. They can see through the ice a vague outline of the creature, and see that it is frozen in solid ice. The size of the creature is large, so it is about 4 by 4 by 8 feet in dimensions. In both movies they decide to remove the creature encased in the ice. In a later scene we see the huge block of ice—an almost perfect rectangular block—placed on a table somewhere back at their base. Of course there is the small issue that the block would weigh about six thousand pounds, but that is not what I am puzzled about.
What I am puzzled about is, how did they cut out the block? The problem is the ice where the creature is has essentially infinite depth. It is not frozen over a riverr—no, the ice extends down at least hundreds of feet. So removing the block is quite different than removing a block of ice from a river. The issue to me is a geometric one: I see how they can cut down the sides of the block with saws or some other tools. What I do not see is how can they cut the bottom out? In the river case there is no need to cut the bottom, since the bottom is bounded by the unfrozen river water. There is no such interface in this case. So how in the world can they cut out the bottom of the block?
I am puzzled. How can they do this?
The Ice Puzzle: More Details
Let me try and make the puzzle into a more precise math problem. Here is the block of ice that you want to remove:
You can cut from the surface down with a saw. So you can make this into:
where the black arrows are cuts your saw can make. The problem is how do you get a cut that goes in the horizontal direction? I see in real life that one could dig up a huge trench around the whole area and then proceed to cut out the block. That would be extremely time consuming and certainly there seems to be no way that could be done in the Thing I and probably not in Thing III.
Is there a trick I am missing? The best I can see is to do the following:
Dig down the extra on each side and remove the two triangular pieces L and R, then one could get down to cut across. Is this how they did it? It is, however, awfully difficult to cut at an angle.
A Way Out, and Some Problems?
Ken suggests that perhaps the monster was encased in a glacier flowing down at an angle. Then a cut at an angle to the glacier can be made by a Pendulum saw, also called a “swing saw.” Pendulum saws use gravity to guide the blade, and are used to cut ice from rivers even today. This helps if we also suppose that the other methods can be used to make cuts that are normal to the glacier’s surface.
Another possibility is that there were fault planes beneath the ice, say parallel to the surface. Then we only need four normal cuts that intersect with the hidden plane, whose presence we have detected perhaps by ultrasound. If this were the idea, would it be worth five seconds of movie time to show it?
This last idea suggests some computational problems. You are given a known arrangement of bounded fault planes beneath the surface, at various depths or maybe even all at the same depth. How many blocks of ice, or how much volume of ice, can you obtain with cuts that are normal to the surface? Can such a problem be NP-hard?
So how did they get the creature out of the frozen ice? Or is it just movie magic that should not be looked at too carefully?