Thing, The (United States, 2011)October 13, 2011
The same questions accompany The Thing that accompany any revival of an '80s property, be it Conan the Barbarian, Fright Night, or Footloose (to name only a few of many, many candidates). First and foremost is "Why?" However, while it may seem unnecessary (and perhaps even foolish) to bring back the Cimmerian, the vampire, and the dancing rebel, there's a different vibe to be found in The Thing. Made by filmmakers with a reverence for the 1982 John Carpenter remake, this movie feels vital and anything but superfluous. It's a solid, entertaining monster movie that, at its best, recalls not only its three decades-old namesake but Alien as well. In fact, one could make a compelling case that Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.'s directorial style owes more to Ridley Scott than to Carpenter.
Despite having the same title as its progenitor, The Thing is a prequel, not a remake. It opens three days before the Carpenter film and moves forward so that the conclusion of this tale dovetails with the opening of the 1982 production. When an extraterrestrial vehicle is discovered deep beneath the Antarctic ice by a Norwegian science team, renowned scientist Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) is sent to investigate. He brings along with him American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), because he has been told there is "a body." The body turns out to be the frozen carcass of an extraterrestrial. The Norwegian crew excavates a block of ice containing the alien and transports it back to base camp for study. In short order, the "dead" creature is revealed to have been in hibernation and its exposure to the warmth inside the compound awakens it. Once free, it uses its imitation capabilities to gradually reduce the population of the camp, along the way foiling tests designed to reveal its identity.
When Carpenter released his interpretation of The Thing in 1982, it functioned as an antidote to the kinder, gentler alien movies of Steven Spielberg. (It came out two short weeks after E.T.) It was denounced in some circles for its gore, with Roger Ebert calling it "a geek show, a gross-out movie in which teenagers can dare one another to watch the screen." Others praised its slow, creeping sense of paranoia - an atmosphere that became almost stifling as the tension escalated along with the stakes. Although one could convincingly argue that the 2011 The Thing is significantly more grotesque than its inspiration, times have changed. Seen today, there's nothing shocking about the special effects work in the 1982 movie, nor is the prequel likely to provoke anything resembling outrage. On the other hand, while Heijningen has replicated a degree of Carpenter's overpowering tone, it's thinner and less forceful here.
Heijningen's affinity for the 1982 The Thing is evident. Common sets and elements have been constructed in such a way that they match. Fans of the Carpenter production will likely be pleased by the prequel, which does everything necessary to set up the earlier film except introduce Kurt Russell's character (contrary to some rumors, Russell does not appear in any fashion during the 2011 The Thing). There's more than a little Alien in The Thing, as well, with monstrous creatures hiding in shadows, creepy things scuttling across the floor, and even something strangely reminiscent of a face hugger. Although special effects are considerably more advanced than what was available thirty years ago, Heijningen mimics the general look and feel of creature work circa 1982. If the movie seems more gory than is the norm, that's probably because there's less CGI and more old-school fakery than we are accustomed to these days.
Perhaps the most obvious nod to Alien is the decision to make the lead a strong, ass-kicking female character. Not since Alan Grant has a paleontologist gotten involved in this many action scenes. It would be unfair to call Mary Elizabeth Winstead's Kate a watered-down Ellen Ripley, but there are similarities, not the least of which is the manner in which Kate emerges from the ensemble to seize control rather than transforming into a damsel in distress. She's a take-charge, Type A woman who shows more determination and grit than the men surrounding her. When a burly guy with a flamethrower hesitates, her shout of "Burn him!" shocks him into action. Later, when she's packing the flamethrower, she doesn't pause before torching a human-appearing creature. Winstead is the lone standout in a cast comprised of character actors and unfamiliar faces. I suppose it's possible to argue she's too attractive to be a convincing action star, but I believed her.
Perhaps the best aspect of The Thing is that it does nothing to tarnish the reputation of its predecessor. It exists as a worthy extension, not an insult to the memory of a cult classic. It offers a similar overall experience without replicating styles and situations. My biggest complaint relates to the unsatisfying nature of one character's fate - the need to dovetail the end of the 2011 prequel to the beginning of the 1982 movie leaves us hanging in one important instance. The loose threads at the end of Carpenter's film were appropriate; here, they seem sloppy. As monster movies go, however, this one is better than the drivel we are normally subjected to and, by taking itself seriously (rather than adding comedic punctuation), it allows for tension and scares.
Thing, The (United States, 2011)
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen, Eric Christian Olsen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Paul Braunstein
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, based on the short story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell Jr.
Cinematography: Michel Abramowicz
Music: Marco Beltrami
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures