Written by: Eric Heisserer (screenplay), John W. Campbell (short story)
Directed by: Matthijs van Heijningen
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton and Ulrich Thomsen
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
It's not human. Yet.
For Hollywood, John Carpenter has been a safe place to hide for the past few years, as they’ve mined his filmography to mostly disappointing effect (seriously, when the ultra mediocre Assault on Precinct 13 is the best among these efforts, something is wrong). The latest target on the Tinseltown dartboard is The Thing, which was actually met with disappointment both commercially and critically when it was released. As is the case with most of his films, people eventually quit being stupid and realized the true genius that is The Thing; Universal can especially be thankful that it became a cult classic, as they now get another chance to finally make some money off of it with this latest version, which is essentially a reboot for general audiences and a masquerading prequel for fans.
Set once again in Antarctica during 1982, we begin with the ill-fated team of Norwegians that we saw (dead) at the beginning of Carpenter’s film. Here, they’ve just stumbled across a spacecraft and its alien life form, which is solidly imprisoned in a big block of ice. Apparently, removing dead specimens from big blocks of ice is the specialty of Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), so she’s recruited from Columbia University to assist the team in researching their discovery. Despite her protests (she’s as brainy as she is beautiful!), they do indeed proceed to take some samples before it finally breaks free and begins to wreak havoc on the camp, both by replicating the team and killing them off.
I think there’s a joke in here somewhere about the film's form matching its function since it’s imitating a classic film or whatnot, but I’ll leave that to funnier people. Besides, it wouldn’t be a completely accurate quip, as this version is actually feasting off of two classics: both Carpenter’s film and The Thing From Another World are targets, at least at first. All of the stuff dealing with the discovery (from the creature being kept frozen in a backroom to the scene where the crew searches for the alien when it escapes) goes back to the Hawks production. The script even tosses in the requisite moral quandaries about whether or not they should try to somehow preserve this thing instead of kill it. It’s all surface level stuff that only feels like it’s there out of obligation, which unfortunately becomes a quick trend, as The Thing is essentially a zippy, malformed take that reduces the source material into a standard monster movie.
You can especially feel this once it moves into Carpenter’s territory; even before you arrive there, you’ve already been treated to a couple of big spectacles, such as the Norwegians falling through the ice onto the spacecraft (which seemingly contradicts the first film), plus a big, loud showdown with the thing itself. The film never lets up in this respect, as it quickly deteriorates into a concert of stingers and shrieks that completely undercut any sort of tension and dread. That overbearing sense of claustrophobia and paranoia is a legendary component of Carpenter’s film, and it’s barely found here. Sure, we know that the creature walks among the cast mysteriously, which leads to the obvious tensions; the problem is that they don’t last long enough because the thing is perfectly willing to reveal itself at every turn (and often does so when it's not the least beneficial to its own needs).
Only once does the film actually draw out its intensity. It comes during one of those rehashed plot points where the crew subjects themselves to a test to see who’s who (only this time, the method seems hardly as foolproof as the one MacCready came up with). This part comprises a nice block of the film that’s legitimately gripping, even if it does give way to the predictably frantic showdown where everyone loses their cool. This was one of the few times that the film truly engaged me and recalled the icy, suffocating paranoia of the original. What’s unfortunately missing are the quietly unsettling moments and the overall feeling of apocalyptic anxiety; maybe it’s because this one literally starts with a joke (whereas Carpenter's opened with everyone on edge) and proceeds with some merriment--there’s dancing and drinking (and not the morbid, escapist drinking to get drunk that MacReady couldn’t wait to do in his shack) before everything gets all too serious.
How you’ll take all of this will depend how you approach The Thing; if you find yourself constantly comparing it to Carpenter’s, you’ll likely hate it because everything pales in comparison. Even the effects, which have nearly 30 years of innovation and millions of dollars behind them, can’t outdo its predecessor, which remains one of the best schlock effects spectacles ever made. This version’s effects also have a bunch of pixels behind them, of course; despite the insistence of the cast and crew throughout the junket circuit, the digital outweighs the practical here. At worst, it’s just distracting, obvious, and completely unnecessary because there’s nothing here that Rob Bottin couldn’t have accomplished three decades ago. Like much of the film, it’s solidly done but hardly memorable.
Likewise, the cast can be considered decent stand-ins. Winstead works in that she’s one of the few young actresses working today who I can completely buy as an intelligent paleontologist. Thankfully, the script doesn’t sell her completely short because she’s tough, resolved, and doesn’t give into any doe-eyed bullshit, even when she’s paired with Joel Edgerton, who is the other standout. Wisely, the film avoids the romance that’s subtly hinted at between the two; not so wise, however, is how Edgerton disappears for the second act, which just leaves us with Winstead and a bunch of Norwegians. If anything, the final product did stay true to Matthijs van Heijningen’s vision of featuring a mostly Norwegian cast speaking in their native tongues (although the film never once makes use of the language barrier that could lead to some natural distrust).
Perhaps that’s how you can best describe The Thing: it has chances to do some inventive, interesting things, but instead remains content to slog through the expected motions, all the while stripping away any weighty subtext. This especially reminds me of last year’s Nightmare on Elm Street remake, which Eric Heisserer also wrote; like that film, this one is ultimately a missed opportunity that coasts instead of forging its own identity. It certainly manages to be more entertaining than that effort, if only because it’s not as lifeless. Taken as an update on silly creature features, it works on the basic level of being slick and fun, though I suspect fans will cringe to see a beloved property reduced to that. At the end of the day, this just feels like the byproduct of a studio conference call that ended with an exec checking The Thing off of the “80s horror flicks we haven’t revisited yet” list.
Before that conference all ended, however, someone must have come up with the slick idea to stave off the fanboy dogs by making it as a prequel. It undoubtedly is one, even if the explicit connecting point is hastily tacked on during the closing credits; overall, it carries the usual dramatic inertia and does little to illuminate the events that follow it in the ’82 film. I guess whenever you watch Carpenter’s version, you now have faces and names to put with all those dead Norwegians (though the film even sometimes fails to do this). They’ve also tossed in a bunch of good fan-wanking stuff, such as the familiar Carpenter font and opening title sequence, plus some Morricone cues; that I enjoyed this about as much as anything probably speaks volumes. Perhaps most telling is that I couldn’t wait to get to the end in the hopes that even a few seconds of Carpenter’s original would be projected on a big screen for me to finally behold. In fact, that probably says all you need to know. Rent it!
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