The Thing (2011)
It pains me to say that The Thing, John Carpenter's 1982 sci-fi horror classic, may not hold up too well. I base this observation on watching the DVD with a friend, a self-proclaimed fan of gory horror movies. She didn't find it scary. She laughed during the blood test scene; well, specifically, at the three guys freaking out over being tied next to a Thing. She did not appear to like it much. And perhaps I was just picking up on her vibe, but it wasn't really working on me either (I hadn't watched it in years). For one thing, most of the suspense is based on not knowing which character is a Thing - and when they're going to start Thinging out - so any viewing after the first loses this. For another, despite extensive fan speculation over the years and even a video analysis, the plot is really quite obtuse. Having committed cinematic blasphemy, TMBF now turned to the new prequel movie, wondering if it could update the premise, setting, intense paranoia and pants-wetting body horror for today's audiences.
It didn't do too bad a job. But it also highlighted how the original* is still a better movie, in many ways.
Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a paleontologist who is invited to join an Antarctic expedition by Dr. Sander Halvorsen (Ulrich Thomsen) and his assistant Adam (Eric Christian Olsen). A team of Norwegian scientists there have discovered a 100,000-year-old alien ship under the ice, along with the frozen corpse of a creature that crawled out of it. They cut the corpse out of the ice and bring it back to their base - and as they're celebrating their discovery, the ice thaws, and the creature comes back to life. Kate soon discovers that the alien creature has the ability to mimic any living thing, and that it may have already "assimilated" any member of the team - including helicopter pilots Carter (Joel Edgerton) and Jameson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) - disguising its true form as a monstrous, shapeless, writhing mass of limbs, claws, tentacles and jaws.
Yup, this is gonna be another one of my "it's good, but here are all the bad things about it" reviews. So let's start with the good stuff first. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is terrific, once you get past how young and cute she is to be a paleontologist (and why can't paleontologists be young and cute?). She makes a believably smart and tough heroine, and may she get plenty more such roles in her career. The CGI creature effects are neat and seamless; they're nicely complemented with plenty of practical effects too, and you won't be able to tell the two apart. The premise of a monster that could disguise itself perfectly as another human being, with whom you are trapped in an isolated base in the middle of the Antarctic, still works like gangbusters. The movie executes it quite effectively, and it is overall a reasonably scary - and gross - sci-fi horror film. And yes, my friend, who was born 5 years after the original, would probably like it better, as would most people of her generation.
But there are "buts" to all of the above. Winstead is great, but her Kate Lloyd is about the only interesting character here. Now, the characters in Carpenter's film weren't particularly three-dimensional either, but some neatly subtle writing and acting managed to give them all distinct personalities. A fan could probably still name them - MacReady, Childs, Blair, Copper, Norris, Palmer, etc. The one thing they weren't was interchangeable, which is what the folks in this prequel are. Aside from the ones I named in my synopsis above, there are a bunch more blonde and bearded Norwegians whom you can barely tell apart - beside one female and one who doesn't speak English - and are there just to get Thinged. And when Sander started being the asshole scientist who cares more about his discovery than human lives, I was tempted to roll my eyes. Carpenter (and his writer Bill Lancaster) never had to resort to such heavy-handed characterization.
And while Alec Gillis' and Tom Woodruff, Jr's creature effects look a lot slicker than Rob Bottin's of almost 30 years ago, I somehow find their Thing designs somewhat less imaginative. Oh sure, they're still body-horror-tastic enough to freak out most people. But there still isn't anything here that compares to the sheer insanity of the original film's Norris-Thing (and the spider head, man), or even the Dog-Thing. I've heard a lot of carping from fans of the original, who'd be satisfied with nothing less than 100% practical effects and no CGI whatsoever - which I think is just so much fanboy carping. Its weakness is in design, not in technical ability. This becomes evident during the latter half, in which a Thing stalks the remaining members of the base in a chase scene. Which is nicely pulse-pounding, as chase scenes go, but again - this is a somewhat cheaper route to scaring the audience that Carpenter knew to eschew, in favour of a slower, more dread-filled and more sophisticated approach.
See, this prequel - that purports to explore what happened at the Norwegian base that first encountered the Thing, that the characters of Carpenter's film explored - is actually a stealth remake (premakequel?), as would quickly become clear to anyone who had watched the 1982 film recently. Too many of the plot points are too similar - even many of the characters and their functions - which raises the question: why bother calling it a prequel? If you're gonna recycle most of the plot points, why not call it a remake and be done with it? And if it's not a remake, does it not behoove you to do more than just reintroduce the concept to a 30-years-younger audience? Why not show us something new? There are some new bits; Kate thinks of a different way to test for disguised Things, which leads to a terrifically suspenseful scene. And we get to explore the interior of the alien spaceship, which is both spooky and wondrous. But the overall plot still goes through the exact same motions of the 1982 film.
This is the fourth film I've reviewed this year alone in which I've had to append the current year to its title, because its title is exactly the same as the older movie it's based on. (And don't get me started on why this supposed prequel to The Thing calls itself The Thing.) I'm actually not too bothered by Hollywood's constant recycling of ideas and material; I still go into every remake or reboot or sequel/prequel/what-have-you with an open mind and a hope that it lives up to the original. But I'd be less bothered if they'd spend as much time expanding on familiar concepts in fresh ways as they did mining for old properties they could repackage and sell. I want to see a proper sequel to The Thing: what if it infected a town? A whole city? How would a dedicated team of scientists and soldiers combat it? What would a post-Thingpocalyptic world be like? And why isn't anyone interested in these questions?
NEXT REVIEW: Paranormal Activity 3
Expectations: another prequel? Sigh
* Yes yes, I know Carpenter's film is itself a remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks-Christian Nyby film The Thing From Another World, and that they both share the same source material in John W. Campbell Jr's novella Who Goes There? Which I've read, so no ignoramus me.