The Thing (2011,USA)
Director: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen
Warning: This review assumes you have seen Jonh Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing. If you have not there will be spoilers for both that film and the 2011 prequel.
Sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots – the world of the movies seems clogged up at the moment with a glut of recycled ideas and revamped classics that would imply there are no original ideas left. Of course it doesn’t take long to dispel the notion that this is a tragic, modern phenomenon as the history of cinema is a fertile ground of recycled and reimagined ideas, many of which are perfectly good and can even prove to be an improvement or at least be complimentary to the original inspiration. John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of Howard Hawk’s 1951 B-movie The Thing From Another World is a case in point, a film that kept the spirit of the original source material whilst cranking up the horror factor, coupling the story to spectacular special effects and becoming a cult classic in the process. It’s little wonder then that almost thirty years later a filmmaker has come along who wants to get in on the action.
Taking advantage of the fact the ’82 film opens in the middle of a narrative, Heijningen has made a prequel to Carpenter’s film. In ’82 Carpenter told the tale of an American research station in the Antarctic that finds itself caught up in the aftermath of a nearby Norwegian team’s decision to excavate an ancient, crashed spacecraft and it’s lone occupant from the polar ice. When the alien thaws out it proves to be not only vicious but possessed of abilities to change shape and disguise itself as any living creature it wants, including people. The ’11 version takes us back to the build up to these events. Paleontologist Kate (Winstead) is invited by an esteemed Norwegian scientist Dr Sander Halvorson (Thomsen) to accompany him on an expedition to explore a unique and interesting find in the Antarctic. From here on in the blanks are filled in from the ’82 story and together with the Norwegian exploration team and an American helicopter crew, Kate is pitted against the thawed out thing from another world as it duplicates, mutilates and murders the team one by one in its bid to escape it’s icy prison.
It was always going to be a tough sell for me. I maintain that the ’82 film is its own prequel. As the last Norwegians perish in a bid to prevent the (as yet unrevealed) thing, disguised as a dog, from escaping we are plunged into the middle of a mystery right along with the crew of the American base which as it unfolds tells the story of precisely what happened to the Norwegians. For me this is one of the main points of the film, showing how the shapeshifting thing exploits mankind’s weaknesses, our natural distrust and paranoia of each other and our intentions and how no person is immune from these psychological terrors be the Norwegian or American or anybody else. The backstory is told perfectly without recourse to flashbacks or explicit description. We see the ruins of the Norwegian station, the twisted remains of its inhabitants echoing the horrors experienced by the Americans. A prequel therefore is rendered completely redundant.
Putting that fact aside is difficult but possible, although it doesn’t for me improve the film very much. The 2011 The Thing is a typical example for me of any classic horror movie ‘rebooted’ in the last ten years. The thought process seems to have been “how can we up the ante on Carepenter?” and the various solutions seem to have been arrived at along the lines of bigger, faster, bloodier, rather than really focusing on what made the ’82 version work. Let’s have more people in the base so we can have more gross effects shots! Let’s use CGI to increase the scale of the threat! Let’s include lots of Americans so that nobody gets alienated by the focus on Norwegians! In 1982 Carpenter captured the tension of a small group of people, thrown together by work and forced to spend all their time together and who, already strung out by their forced proximity are given an explicit reason to suspect each other of dark, treasonous intent. The 2011 version lacks this tension somewhat, a loose attempt being made at an international divide between the Americans and the Norwegians but there are so damn many of them there’s no opportunity for it to ever feel really personal and it becomes clear early on that most of the characters are pretty much cannon fodder, destined to be mutilated by a computer generated special effect.
Sure, the fan boy elements you would expect are present. They set up the destruction of the Norwegian base and the last moments of the team in order to match the details established by Carpenter (a task that requires no particular skill), the final shots of the film connecting it directly to the Carpenter one with the hunt for the thing/dog that leads trouble to Kurt Russell’s door. To be honest I think this is part of the problem. Like a lot of cover songs, the film has been made by someone who clearly loves the Carpenter version and clearly wishes he had been involved in making it. As a consequence it often feels like more of a remake than a prequel. I can’t help but wonder if this similarity to the source material is what has driven the overblown creature effects, after all this is pretty much the only area in which the film can really mark out any difference from the eighties version. Somewhere along the line Heijningen has made the fatal error of confusing bigger with scarier and the elaborately grand creature design, whilst being an example of actually quite respectable CGI, feels a little spiritually bereft. I have trouble with a film that has an I.T. department with almost as many names in the credits as the mechanical effects team.
While Heijningen and chums no doubt had fun paying homage to a film they clearly loved, there is nothing here that really needed to be said. The story had already been told and it’s difficult to shake off the odd remake elements (like Joel Edgerton’s Kurt Russell impersonation or the ubiquitous flamethrowers). I suppose it’s enjoyable enough on a superficial level and some of the sfx moments are satisfying but really, honestly I think the question has to be asked – what was the point?