At The Movies: The Thing
(Long Island, N.Y.) In 1982, Director John Carpenter created what I consider to be one of the few absolutely perfect movies ever made and possibly my favorite film of all time: The Thing, a masterpiece of sci-fi/horror, blending paranoia and an unrelenting sense of dread while introducing moviegoers to one of the most horrifying monsters ever captured on camera.
Functioning as both a remake of the 1951 film The Thing from Another World and as a more faithful adaptation of the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr., upon which the 1951 film was based, Carpenter's The Thing is the tale of an isolated American Antarctic research station infiltrated by an ill-tempered alien organism which is capable of absorbing and, in turn, perfectly imitating any living creature it comes into contact with. Soon the researchers are at each other's throats, as no one knows who's human and who's...THE THING.
In addition to an amazingly talented ensemble cast including Kurt Russell and Wilford "Diabeetus" Brimley, one of the things that made The Thing work so well was the eponymous Thing itself (the word "thing" will obviously be liberally used in this review). Created by special effects wizard Rob Bottin, the twisted alien menace took on progressively more disturbing and insane forms each and every time it was discovered and forced to reveal its true form, resulting in some freaky transformation sequences using only good, old-fashioned physical and practical effects that hit with a force that most CG could never hope to replicate.
While flopping at the box office back in the day (I guess audiences circa 1982 were dullards), The Thing went on to become a cult classic and revered as one of the raddest movies ever made. Of course, with Hollywood being the creative black hole it is these days, rumors of a remake have been floating around for years (yes, I know Carpenter's version was itself a remake, but A) it actually brought something different to the table, and B) back in '82 remakes were much rarer), which infuriated me to no end. I mean, remaking generic crap horror movie #12 is meaningless, but The Thing? It's pointless, as it's impossible to improve on it. Of course, the whole modern "remake everything" attitude isn't about improving anything, it's about cashing in on nostalgia, so Hollywood "improving" Carpenter's flick is a moot point, anyway.
Well, rumors of a new Thing film turned out to be true after all, but in this instance, it actually turned out to be a prequel as opposed to a remake, the story centering on a Norwegian camp that first discovers the alien Thing frozen in ice before it escapes, runs amok, and eventually finds its way to the American base where it must contend with the mighty beard of Kurt Russell.
Directed by newcomer Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., this prequel (also called The Thing, which is a confusing and stupid naming decision) deals with a group of Norwegians and Americans who discover a crashed spaceship buried in the Antarctic snow for 100,000 years. Finding the seemingly dead and frozen pilot and returning to base with it, the crew is busy patting themselves on their collective backs regarding their future Nobel Prizes when the alien decides to wake up and start eating and imitating them, one by one. What follows, while technically a prequel, is really more of a remake than anything else, actually lifting several scenes almost directly from the Carpenter movie.
However, that's not to say that it doesn't do what it does very well. While most of the characters are blank slates compared to the great collection of personalities in the 1982 version, the main characters of the 2011 film manage to be fairly well developed, at least for a horror movie. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays an American paleontologist flown in to help with the excavation of the alien ship, Ulrich Thomsen plays a slimy scientist and the "Burke" of the movie, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (AKA Oz's Adebisi) and Joel Edgerton pop up as American helicopter pilots. Backing them up is a cast of Norwegian actors, many of whom seem like nice, jovial fellows, but none of whom are given the chance to develop at all.
Also, the prequel is briskly-paced and contains some very creepy atmosphere and very genuine, well-placed scares. When taken on its own and not in comparison with the almighty Carpenter movie, it's actually among the better horror offerings to hit the cinemas in recent years.
Despite aping the original a little too closely, the filmmakers still found a few novel little ways of being different, such as how the characters discovered a way of testing people to see if they were a Thing or not. I thought the method they came up with made perfect sense, and it thankfully prevented them from ripping off the blood test from Carpenter's flick. For a movie that made very little attempt to do anything different whatsoever from the '82 version, it was one of the few things that set it apart. And while there are some nice little touches that tie the prequel directly into the '82 film, there are also some continuity errors, but I'll leave all that for the obsessive geeks out there (guilty!) to discover on their own.
One major thing I think they missed the boat on was playing up the language barrier (between the Norwegian and American characters) in regards to the paranoia aspect of the plot. They could have really done something cool with that...imagine not just being unable to trust your fellow man, but not even understanding what the hell they were saying. And Norwegian just sounds scary enough on its own, considering that the majority of Death Metal bands come out of Norway. The filmmakers touched on the language barrier, but only barely; it could have been a million times more effective in the hands of a better director/writer.
Also, on the creature designs: they were solid, and some even approached the brilliance (and insanity) of the original (that Thing in the chopper...YIKES!), but they all kept going back to the "big toothed maw/tentacles" motif. In the original, every Thing looked different and got progressively freakier, while all the Things in this movie looked pretty much the same. The CG used to bring the Things in this move to life ranged from solid to impressive, but Rob Bottin's practical 1982 effects still trump them, and this is nearly 30 years later.
The ending (which was the only ending it could have been), was cool, but at the same time handled poorly. It felt really rushed and tacked-on as an afterthought, as opposed to an organic extension of the ongoing storyline. Oh, well.
Overall, The Thing is a very good horror movie and a solid prequel, but in the end it can't even touch Carpenter's brilliant original. But what movie ever could?
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