The warmest place to hide is in the shadow of a better film
It is only appropriate that The Thing, Matthijs van Heijningen Jr’s tribute to the 1982 John Carpenter film of the same name, resembles the monster at the center of the film. Just as The Thing‘s alien intruder, prone to stalking Antarctic research stations, is an ever-changing, constantly evolving mess of a monster with an appearance born from the genetic coding of a multitude of alien species, the film itself is strung together like a human centipede of good intentions gone wrong.
The filmmakers behind The Thing did not set out to make a bad movie — they just didn’t have the courage to make a great one that stood on its own two feet instead of finding sanctuary in the shadow of Carpenter’s masterpiece. Their film has a few awesome set pieces and an urgency to its pacing that is appreciated in a fall that has seen some truly boring horror films but taken in the context of Carpenter’s movie, The Thing is damned by its simplistic approach to storytelling.
The Thing is movie that walks like a prequel, talks like a remake and thinks like a sequel and — frustratingly enough — it’s also oh-so-tantalizingly exciting at times. The trouble with the sporadically enveloping film is that it fails to strike its own identity — choosing to take a page from its title creature and clumsily replicate something else when it should be blazing a new trail for a generation of kids who’ve not grown up with John Carpenter’s film.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as Kate Lloyd, a slightly unbelievable paleontologist who impulsively agrees to fly to Antarctica to help supervise the extraction of an alien creature found frozen in the ice. Discovered adjacent to a downed UFO by a team of Norwegian scientists, the alien is carved out from a glacier as if it was the biggest novelty ice cube available from the Spencer’s gift catalog and taken to the Norwegians’ surprisingly well-lit and cozy research station. As expected, it doesn’t take long for the alien to bust free from the icy prison its been sitting in for the last few thousand years and begin replicating unsuspecting humans.
While it’s no Tara Reid putting on eyeglasses to play a scientist, Winstead’s casting as a paleontologist-turned-action-star is a bit hard to swallow at times. It’s not that audiences can’t buy Winstead as a scientist. Or even as an ass kicker of aliens. Instead, the problem with the character of Kate Lloyd is that there is no character to speak of. The role is a Ripley-sized hole in the script — meant to evoke images of Sigourney Weaver facing down Alien Queens but without the back-story or believable character development to support it. Winstead does the best with what she is given but in the end her character is just one of a multitude of human targets — designed to be alien food fodder and little else.
That said, The Thing‘s biggest crime is not its shallow characters or dull script. The film suffers from the fact that it follows too many of the same beats as Carpenter’s version. A prequel by definition, the film feels way too much like a remake. Maybe it was the filmmakers’ desire to drizzle on the homages as if they were a thick coating of protective paint designed to help the film weather the storm of fanboy backlash. Maybe it was just because there is a real dearth of original ideas out there in Hollywood. Either way, The Thing never succeeds in proving that it isn’t just an adrenaline-charged remake of Carpenter’s film. In fact, the film actually feels more like a sequel than a prequel. So many aspects of the film are either glossed over or left unexplained — presumably because the filmmakers just assumed people had already seen Carpenter’s film.
In fact, if the filmmakers had just gone forward and made a straight-up remake, the movie would actually have been more of a success. It’s one thing to forgive a remake for being too faithful to its source material. It’s a lot harder to forgive the sins of repetition in a serialized story. As it is now, the film as a prequel invites the scrutiny of continuity-obsessed film geeks — hoping to find a breaking or bending of the rules set forth by Carpenter’s film. It is in this harsh light of fanboy scrutiny that the prequel withers up and dies.
Speaking of withering up and dying, the film’s heavy abundance of computer-generated effects don’t live up to the artistic craftsmanship of Carpenter’s film — whose practical effects still stun and shock to this day. While only a few of the CGI effects are dodgy and some scenes — such as the origin of the conjoined burnt corpse discovered in Carpenter’s film — are downright badass in their execution, the freedom that using CGI gave the prequel’s filmmakers caused them to create a creature that moves and acts completely different than Carpenter’s monster.
While in John Carpenter’s The Thing the alien monster practically lived and breathed in subterfuge — going out of its way to hide its identity and avoid detection even to the point of creating false evidence to implicate others — in the prequel the alien seems almost giddy in showing off its awesome claws and belly fangs. It runs down hallways and jumps through windows. It is willing to crash a helicopter — its best chance of escaping Antarctica and infecting the world — just to show off how badass it looks when a man’s face splits open to reveal a vagina monster.
This is a monster that is young and reckless and oh, so stupid. So yes, in that way, it actually makes sense in the continuity of the films. The Thing learns its mistakes in its approach with dealing with humans and, by the time it encounters the American crew in Carpenter’s film, it’s a much more pensive, thoughtful Thing that realizes there’s more to life (and a horror movie) than chewing on people’s heads. Sometimes a little paranoia is fun.
What the prequel does great is replicating some of that paranoia and ambiguity. In fact, the movie has several instances that show that the filmmakers knew and understood what made Carpenter’s film so successful. There is an intelligence pulsing through the prequel that stands in sharp contrast to the movie’s amateurish execution.
It’s obvious that The Thing (2011) was made by filmmakers deeply infatuated with Carpenter’s film and their impenetrable love for that film caused them to think twice before trying to make something remarkably different than what Carpenter had filmed. They wanted to recapture the magic Carpenter had struck but in the process came up with a New Coke to Carpenter’s Coca-Cola Classic. The look and feel is there but there’s something off about the taste.
Director: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. Notable Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton and Ulrich Thomsen Writer(s): Eric Heisserer based on the short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr.
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.