“The Thing” is a prequel/remake of “The Thing”. Confused? Maybe the studio and filmmakers were, too. Is it just a soulless copy like the alien monster it features?
We are what we eat, as the saying goes. You could say it goes for what we watch, too.
Growing up, I consumed movies with a ferocious appetite. Absolutely anything and everything was fodder. I was even exposed to things a child my age really should not have. One particularly formative experience was John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic “The Thing”. As karma — and two sadistic older brothers — would have it, I was conned into watching the film (a tragic tale of gullibility I will spare you of). Needless to say, it scared the living crap outta me.
Once my poor little mind had recovered from the intense trauma of seeing nightmarish alien monsters pervert the human body into unspeakable new configurations… I was hooked. I wanted to taste even more of this visceral reaction that only horror can generate. As a kid, I could neither put my finger on it, nor could I articulate it, but instinctively I understood that Film is an artform of the emotions. We are most alive when we feel. And boy, did I feel alive after watching the movie.
That’s why “The Thing” holds a special place in my heart. It’s largely responsible for making me the film geek I am today. It’s also my all-time favourite horror movie simply because it is brilliant. The seminal work of a director at the height of his powers as a storyteller and craftsman. Any film that follows in its footsteps has a lot to live up to. Sadly, the new film by director Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr. barely lives up to it. If you are indeed what you eat, then it seems 2011’s “The Thing” has been weaned on a diet of tired, stupid monster movie stereotypes. Its intentions are good and the filmmakers clearly wanted to honour the original, but things got seriously messed up on the way to the big screen.
There’s a reason why I began this review on a personal note. The measure of this film’s worth will depend on what the viewer brings into the viewing. If you have zero (or vague) prior knowledge of “The Thing”, then your takeout will almost certainly be different from someone who is familiar with it. To a certain extent, that holds true for most films with a pre-existing history, like say, superhero movies. Watching “X-Men: First Class”, Joe Public’s enjoyment of it might be a little better than that of a fanboy, who might bitch about ultimately unimportant details like Havok being in the wrong timeline. At the end of the day, the film still works on a fundamental level.
It’s different here. With “The Thing”, not knowing how the alien creature is supposed to behave and operate will stand you in much better stead. Because as a fan, knowing what I know, the prequel is one infuriating exercise in getting the basics utterly wrong. This is not even about going into a movie with expectations. This is about the filmmakers betraying the spirit of a character. Despite being a chameleon by nature, the Thing is still very much a character in its own right, with rules of its biology and behavior clearly established in Carpenter’s film.
The Thing is an alien shape-shifter that takes on the form of its victims, right down to the cellular level. It is not a terribly fast or powerful creature, so it hides in plain sight until it has its prey alone in close quarters. Then it attacks. The Thing does not like open confrontation. But once it has been found out, its instinct for self-preservation takes over — just like any other animal. Even then, it’s not very hard to kill. I’ve always liked this aspect of the alien. By making it vulnerable and afraid, Carpenter gave the creature a degree of believability that transcended the usual far-fetched nonsense the genre was prone to. The Thing simply wanted to survive, and it was just about smart enough to do so.
First-time director van Heijningen completely ignores all that, in favour of a monster that very carelessly and noisily rampages around like Godzilla. One that is apparently unconcerned about being spotted or attacked. If van Heijningen was consciously going for a B-Movie tone, he sure misjudged the material. I’m not suggesting there’s no fun to be had in a monster movie. Just not at the expense of the monster. And not in a way that panders to the attention-deficit Multiplex generation, who must have over-the-top action coupled with loud noises in order to be entertained. This is not the Thing I remember. At all.
As if one fatal flaw wasn’t enough, fans will find that this film is a blatant copy of the original. Universal Pictures billed this as a prequel, and on the surface, it kind of functions as one. The ‘82 picture (itself a loose remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks film) tells of how an American scientific outpost in the Antarctic is infiltrated by the alien. They learn that it all began at a Norwegian base, and this movie tells the story of what happened there. The tricky thing about prequels is that you already know how it’s going to end. So the goal is to tell a compelling story that can stand alone on its own merits, while being consistent with known events.
No such luck here. For all intents and purposes, this is a straight-up remake. Except for the beginning, it has the same story structure, and the same beats. Even the titles are identical! I suspect this was an intentional move on the studio’s part, to draw on the name recognition of Carpenter’s film. Although it bombed at the box office upon release, it has now become one of the most revered works of sci-fi horror. Universal failed to understand what made it so revered in the first place.
While Carpenter was by no means shy about the blood and gore, he also knew how to employ restraint. Using the concept of a hidden enemy, he dialed up the sense of paranoia and distrust. The tension of not seeing and not knowing was actually Carpenter’s most powerful special effect. Here, van Heijningen tries to do the same, but it just rings hollow. The problem lies in the sameness of the Norwegian cast. None of them are given any proper characterisation, so it’s hard to tell them apart, let alone empathise with them. Only the two leads, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton, are written with any personality. In the original, although Kurt Russell was the star, every other character was distinct. To be fair, screenwriter Eric Heisserer (reworking Ronald D. Moore’s reputedly superior script) has tried to inject some newness here and there, like a climax set inside the alien ship. But even that is botched when it ends up in clichéd territory.
Alright, what if you’ve never watched the Carpenter original or have forgotten how it goes? Well, if you watch this as the thinly-disguised remake the studio always intended it to be, then chances are you’ll enjoy it. In fact, if I were to judge it purely as a remake, I’d be a lot more forgiving. This is a strange and somewhat unprecedented situation for any film critic to be in. To evaluate the same work based on two separate sets of considerations.
So, if I were to disregard the prequel’s pedigree, then I dare say this is a decent film. Quite good even, in some ways. The cinematography is crisp, the production values are strong, and van Heijningen’s direction is fairly focused. The most surprising success is the much-hated use of CGI. During production of “The Thing”, word got out that the practical make-up effects had been replaced by computer animation. Fans cried foul, as the original’s effects by make-up guru Rob Bottin were revolutionary, and still hold up 30 years later. Apart from a silly-looking monster during the finale, the CGI is generally impressive. It’ll never trump what Bottin did, but that’s due to the design of the creatures rather than the execution of them. The new Thing designs aren’t anywhere as crazily inventive as the detached-heads-spouting-spider-legs from the ’82 film. Still, taken as a whole, the bodily mutations on show here are horrific enough to draw wide-eyed gasps from an audience.
Also, van Heijningen has a good grasp of pacing, letting the early scenes take a little more time to unfold, then gradually speeding the story up to create more urgency. It helps to have two capable performers in Winstead and Edgerton, who imbue their respective characters with the necessary amount of fear and gritty determination. Winstead’s Kate Lloyd is supposed to be a bookish paleontologist, but she’s obviously modeled after a certain take-charge heroine from the “Alien” franchise. Which isn’t a bad thing per se, since it gives us someone likable to root for. Edgerton has the thankless job of playing Kurt Russell’s helicopter pilot role, yet he somehow manages to make the role his own. I’ll put that down to the Aussie actor’s quiet star quality. Of the supporting players, Eric Christian Olsen and Ulrich Thomsen give fine, if unremarkable performances.
Where both newcomers and fans might converge in opinion is the prequel’s distinct feeling of familiarity. Where Carpenter’s film was immediately fresh and unique, this one feels by the numbers, predictable. In the last 3 decades, a lot has happened in the world of science-fiction and horror. In order to be deemed worthy, the prequel needed to either reinvent the genre, or at least put a new spin on old conventions. Instead, it’s content to trade on past glories. Yet it doesn’t even manage to do that properly. To me, its biggest sin is in failing to be true to its central character.
For a movie that’s about perfect imitations, “The Thing” is certainly not “The Thing”. It strikes me as a film with a confused identity. It wants to improve upon the original, yet can’t help being a shameless copy. Or to use a Thing metaphor, the prequel copied the original’s features, but left out the heart and brain.
You might very well find it satisfying, but personally, this just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
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