Horror fans who are looking for a shot of adrenalin to revitalize their spirits now that October’s monster mazes, haunted hayrides, ghost ships, and harvest festivals are have closed their gates, could do worse than taking in THE THING, before it exists from theatres. Although neither a box office nor a critical powerhouse, the film is not nearly as bad as one might have feared, and it does have a few things going for it, including some interesting changes and surprises that prevent it from being a complete carbon copy of its predecessor, the 1982 version of THE THING, directed by John Carpenter. In fact, in some ways, the new film is even an improvement.
Technically, the current THE THING is a prequel, not a remake (THING ZERO would have been a more accurate title), but the scenario follows the blueprint of the Carpenter film in terms of tone and approach, featuring a shape-shifting alien let loose on an isolated team of researchers in Antarctica. Basically, we are seeing the story of the Norwegian camp that is referenced in the 1982 film. This allows the new script to build upon hints seen previously, creating a sense of inevitable doom as the ending moves toward a conclusion that is pre-determined (based on what we know from the older movie).
The setting is interesting, but does force the script to resort to some obvious contrivances. Not wanting us to read subtitles throughout the film, the screenwriters drag in an English-speaking female character – which is fine because (besides the language issue), we really don’t want to spend two hours among just men (as we did in the Carpenter film). Of course, our heroine is not just a paleontologist skilled at retrieving specimens from the ice (to justify her presence); she’s also young and pretty – because, you know, there just aren’t any middle aged men in that profession, available to fly off to Antarctica at the drop of a hat to participate in the most stupendous scientific discovery in the history of the world.
Once there, Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is soon put in her place by her male superior, suggesting some sexual politics and pop feminism that never fully play out. Winstead is not bad in the lead, but she is no Sigourney Weaver. The problem here may be that the film is playing a difficult gambit: charismatic stars would unbalance the narrative, because we don’t want familiar personas blinding us to the characters, and we’re not supposed to know quite whom to identify with, or predict who will survive, based on how high their names are on the marquee.
Dr. Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), the lead scientist of the expedition, is set up as a cold fish, devoted to pursuit of knowledge rather than the humanity of victims. There is an interesting opportunity for thematic development and dramatic conflict here, but the intriguing hints remain merely hints, as the horror movie thrills overwhelm the speculative science fiction aspects of the story.
Unlike its predecessor, this THING captures a bit more of the sense that something is at stake for the whole world; it’s not just about the expedition members surviving but about preventing the alien from reaching the rest of the world. You just wish that the characters had expressed this more fully perhaps even realizing that their lives might be expendable, considering the potential global wide consequences. (I kept waiting for someone to propose mass suicide as an unpleasant last resort – which, considering the way things turn out, might not have been a bad decision for the planet as a whole.)
Special effects are used more judiciously – as punctuation marks rather than as a series of ten major set pieces that stop the narrative at regular intervals (rather like dance numbers in an overblown musical). There is also a good combination of practical effects and computer-generated imagery, which mimic the feel of Rob Bottin’s prosthetic work on the 1982 film, while also offering some interesting new imagery.
Being a prequel, the new THING shows us elements not in Carpenter film, which in a tongue in cheek way presented itself as a sequel to THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. This THING starts earlier, showing us story material from Hawks production. We get a bit more information – or at least suppositions from the characters – about the nature of the alien menace, which is certanly one of the most intriguing screen monsters ever conceived: we all know how to defeat werewolves with silver bullets and vampires with wooden stakes, but how do you fight something that looks like your best friend and/or ally?
Still, three films into franchise, there are still too many questions about the alien.One is left wondering: Is the insectoid version the true shape of alien? With no hands to manipulate controls? Is it a shape-shifter that can take any form? Or can it only look like what it absorbs? How good an imitation does the alien manage? If it were a perfect duplicate, wouldn’t it be a clone that had lost its own power to duplicate? How does alien recognize itself in different forms?
And lastly, my personal beef: Should alien be presented as a scientifically advanced species? Wouldn’t it make more sense that such a creature would never evolve intelligence – or are we to assume it absorbed intelligence from all the other beings it has ingested before crash-landing on Earth? (I always would have preferred a scenario in which the flying saucer was piloted by some other aliens, and it crashed because The Thing – a captured specimen – had escaped and killed the crew.)
There is a nice cold blue atmosphere to THE THING, courtesy of some impressive photography, and the story moves along well enough to hold interest but not to grip you by the throat. The result mild horror, a modestly entertaining diversion – until the clever denouement, which finally brings to fruition everything that the film had hoped to achieve. I can’t really do the conclusion justice without going into spoilers, but you can probably figure out the general direction of the ending if you are family with the beginning of the 1982 film.
This time, THE THING takes us inside the alien spaceship for a protracted battle. There is some nice production design and some okay action, but this is not the most nerve-wracking conclusion, leading to a rather open-ended “final” shot of Kate in a snow tractor, alone, apparently with nowhere to go but at least triumphant over the alien. Roll Credits.
The End, right? Not quite. Intercut with the closing titles, we get an unexpected epilogue, which at first seems like a lame attempt to set up a sequel. But it’s really clever the tie-in to the 1982 film, seemlessly leading up to the predecessor’s opening sequence. The point is driven home with the relentless, doom-laden Ennio Morricone main title theme from the Carpenter film, reminding us that everything we have seen – all the characters struggles – have been futile; the escape of The Thing was always a foregone conclusion. The sense of hopeless loss – of all the effort leading to massive failure, with disaster to follow – packs more of a punch than anything else in THE THING (orin the Carpenter film for that matter). It’s one of those moments that redeems an otherwise modest film, briefly achieving a level of greatness.
The only question at this point is whether Universal Studios will leave it at that, assuming that this THING does indeed take place before – and dovetail with the beginning of – the 1982 film. (Thanks to the story’s location, the era is not visibly obvious. There are no cell phones or iPads in Antarctica, but there is a brief bit of 1980s music heard by Kate, to suggest the time period.)
I enjoy the 1982film, but unlike some people, I am not in awe of it. John Carpenter captured only some of the paranoia inherent in John W. Campbell Jr’s story. His version of THE THING is more about squishy images of a mutating monster than about whether you can trust the person next to you – who might in reality have been replaced by the morphing alien. The new version of THE THING leans a little bit father in the right direction, but it still fails to induce full-bore paranoia in the audience. You still never feel engulfed in the nightmare; we’re observers at a safe distance.
Ultimately, John Carpenter had one big advantage over his successors: his do-over of the material, which had previously been filmed by producer Howard Hawks as the 1951 classic THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, could establish a separate identify for itself, because the Hawks production had strayed so far from the source material (in 1951, the briefly glimpsed alien, played by James Arness, resembles the Frankenstein Monster and displays no shape-shifting abilities). Consequently, Hawks’ THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and Carpenter’s THE THING make good companion pieces – alternative versions that stand on their own merits, regardless of which you prefer (and I quite prefer the Hawks version).
The 2011 iteration of THE THING, however, overlaps in a way that does not allow as much originality. Despite its prequel status, this is far more of a remake than the 1982 film was. The new THING has its own virtues, but ultimately it doesn’t do enough to stand fully on its own. It’s a variation – an interesting variation – but not an original.