The Thing review

the thing review posterIt’s always hard not to judge a sequel or reboot against the material it is taken from, but with prequels it is impossible not to hold them against the film they are connected to. And when that film is made by a different set of filmmakers that weren’t involved with the original, that scrutiny just increases.

The Thing was a somewhat dangerous film to make. The original is hailed by many as a classic, it is nearly thirty years old, and the current filmmakers are trying to create an original story that is utterly beholden to a film that they know nothing more about than fans who have seen it. Not having been there for the making of the original means that they weren’t part of what made it work, and yet they are attempting to recreate it—and let’s be honest–even surpass it. A reboot would have been a safer and easier task.

The Thing (henceforth known as New Thing) is partially successful. It manages to work within the confines of the original film and cleverly manages to leave things in place that are continued in the 1982 original. Remember that bloody axe in the Norweigian camp seen in Carpenter film? New Thing explains how it got there. Things like that all sync up well with the 1982 version, and as a companion piece, it is an interesting take for fans that loved Carpenter’s version and want to know more. But while the plots mesh well together, the tone and setting are way, way off.

New Thing attempts to recreate the feeling of suspense that Carpenter’s classic did so well, but it never comes close. There are a few reasons why, including the overuse of CGI and odd decision to not really use the weather as a threat–the sense of isolation and paranoia that led to desperation in the 1982 version is just not there. The screenplay is not at fault, and the leads Joel Edgerton and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are both good, but the film lacks the magic of its chronological predecessor. It feels uninspired. It is a technically proficient movie, but it lacks any soul, and in the end it adds nothing to the film it is supposed to honor.

The Thing 3: The Thingening

If you know the property, then you probably know that this is actually the third film inspired by John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, and the first movie adaptation was filmed in 1951 under the name The Thing From Another World. If you weren’t aware of that one, you now are one step closer to total trivia domination.

the thing review 2011  04

The original film took a few of the concepts of the novella, but whitewashed it a bit. It would have been a hard sell in the 50s to make a film where Douglas Spencer was killed and then eaten. But the original novella introduced that idea, and then in 1982 John Carpenter brought it to life.

The concept was simple: an alien with the ability to mimic humans and animals after eating them is loose in an isolated Antarctic base. Hijinks ensue.

The body count was high, and the blood flowed freely. But while that film is considered a horror classic, it may be more fair to call it a suspense film. The blood and fear factor were there, but the mood is what set The Thing apart from other slasher films and the like. The monster itself was a constant and deadly threat, but it was rarely seen outside of a human form, and Carpenter was very good at shocking you, rather than just startling you.

Knowing the plot of the 1982 The Thing is essential to the New Thing. You don’t technically need to watch it any more than you need to watch the original Star Wars films to understand the prequels, but as with with Star Wars, the originals are where it’s at and the prequels are essentially just supplemental stories. The same is true with The Thing.

Connecting the dots

The New Thing fills in the blanks left in Carpenter’s film regarding how the alien was found, and what happened to the Norwegians that found it. In Carpenter’s film, the American researchers examine the Norwegian base and discover that it has been destroyed and that something terrible happened there. They also discover a spaceship buried in the ice, as well as a block of ice that something seemed to have escaped from.

the thing reviewThe new Thing begins when a Norwegian team stumbles upon what they first assume to be a structure of some kind. They also discover a body buried in the ice. To that end, at the behest of his assistant Adam (Eric Christian Olsen), the project leader, Dr. Sander Halversen (Ulrich Thomsen), recruits an American paleonthologist named Dr. Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to come to Antarctica and help with the examination.

Once there, the Norwegian crew reveals that they have discovered an alien craft that has been there at least 100,000 years, as well as what they assume to be the pilot of the ship. They then take the pilot back to their camp to begin an examination. It is still very much alive, escapes the ice, and all hell breaks loose.

The plot of the New Thing is very similar to Carpenter’s plot. The alien escapes and takes the identity of members of the party. Suspicion and paranoia then grip the base, as the body count grows.

It quickly becomes about survival rather than any specific driving plot. The screenplay by Eric Heisserer and Ronald D. Moore is actually fairly solid, and it integrates itself into the 1982 film well. Fans of Carpenter’s movie will probably appreciate the way things play out if nothing else.

The first casualty is tension

While the plot does what it sets out to do, the problems are with the tone and the mood. Dutch filmmaker Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. has a good technical ability (this is his full-length directorial debut) , but the movie lacks anything beyond that. The setting of Antarctica is not exploited, and it doesn’t even seem like it is very cold, which is odd. There is just very little sense of tension either, even once the cast all know what is going on and the alien is in their midst. Even before the bloodletting begins, the Nowegians and company just aren’t very emotional. Life seems to be good in the Antarctic and the discovery of an alien is pretty cool, but it’s all in a day’s work. Even after discovering the alien, the expedition team leave the thing in a block of ice, turn the lights out and go have a few drinks. Despite the world shattering discovery, everyone is pretty non-plussed about it. When people start dying, you almost want to root for the alien just to shake up the apathy. 

Part of the problem is that the characters are dull and lifeless, with a couple exceptions: Winstead and Joel Endgerton (Warrior, Animal Kingdom). Winstead’s character is the only one who suspects that something is off, and when she is proven right, she does not become an immediate action hero, but rather a survivor that is tough and determined. Edgerton is also a good fit for the role of Sam Carter, but the only problem is that he is basically Kurt Russell’s R.J. MacReady 2.0. They are both bearded, terse helicopter pilots with an inherent knack for survival. It feels as if the filmmakers told him that the the movie was a remake and he was taking Russell’s spot, then at the last minute they called an audible. Still, he manages to show a bit of personality, which stands out in the seas of what are essentially Star Trek red shirts eagerly running towards death like morons with scissors.

the thing review

The biggest issue with the film is that Heijningen doesn’t know what movie he wants to make. There are plenty of gory moments, but it is never really a horror movie. There are also far too many CGI-filled scenes of the Thing, which deflates a lot of the fear and mystery around it. When you see it running down a hall after someone, it becomes much less frightening. Sure it wants to kill and eat people and it is grotesque, but take away the creepy look and it isn’t any scarier than lions running after people.

The heavy reliance on showing the creature utterly kills the suspense and paranoia, and once the alien has been revealed in its inhuman form, the movie just falls flat. It is not scary enough to frighten people, and it is not suspenseful enough to keep people on the edge of their seats. Heijningen knows the original film well, and that is obvious from the story, but he doesn’t seem to have understood what made it great in the first place. The 1982 version had a much smaller budget, and by the standards of a big studio film like this Thing, it was somewhat primitive in terms of technology–and yet it is far, far superior to Heijningen’s.

Conclusion

While hardcore fans may be interested in seeing more backstory to John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing, they will likely be more interested than engrossed. If the film were standalone and Carpenter’s original never existed, the modern version would just be somewhat dull at best.

The tools for a great suspense movie were there. The Antarctica location is the ultimate isolated setting on Earth. The creature may be anyone or any organic thing. It can kill easily, if the environment doesn’t do that first. There’s so much to work with, but instead, bland and interchangeable characters with little to no personality make the tension seem pointless, and the overexposure of the monster means people are too busy running from it to really be paranoid, which is what the Carpenter film was all about.

There just isn’t much of a point to this movie. Nothing new is revealed, and it ends up being just a pale imitation of the 1982 version with a few connections that are little more than Easter Eggs for fans of the original. The ending is also uninspired and tries to honor Carpenter’s without but comes off as forgettable instead.

The 2011 version of The Thing doesn’t hurt the legacy of the 1982 version, but it certainly doesn’t help it either.

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