Horror classic's tepid backstory
By Sean O'Connell
Friday, Oct 14, 2011
Here's the thing about the new "The Thing." It isn't as satisfying as the old "The Thing." And it's nowhere near as enthralling as the vintage "Thing," which inspired every other "Thing" to follow.
Let me explain.
First-time director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.'s "The Thing" acts as a prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 cult classic, also titled "The Thing," which itself drew from Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby's 1951 thriller "The Thing From Another World." All three plant their roots in John W. Campbell's 1938 science-fiction novella "Who Goes There?" but the impact diminishes with each installment, the way a photocopy fades the more you duplicate it.
This latest film largely mirrors its predecessors, with a shape-shifting alien terrorizing researchers in an isolated Antarctic base. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Kate Lloyd, an American paleontologist summoned to a frozen dig site where Dr. Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) has unearthed a 100,000-year-old spaceship and its extraterrestrial pilot, both buried beneath the ice. In a textbook act of scientific arrogance, Halvorson drills into the creature's skin seeking a tissue sample, thereby awakening the beast and setting the prequel's action in motion.
Because van Heijningen attempts to answer questions raised by Carpenter's version, it's difficult to speak of one without referencing the other. And when the films are compared side by side, the 1982 "Thing" trumps its 2011 counterpart on every level.
Carpenter wisely turned Campbell's premise into a paranoid, claustrophobic slow burn of a psychological thriller that tightened its screws with each narrative turn. The stalking extraterrestrial perfectly mimics its victims, meaning original "Thing" star Kurt Russell and his grizzled team never knew who among them had been infected by the creature. The fun came from watching these tough-as-nails men crumble beneath their doubts and fears as they waited for the parasitic alien to pick them off one by one.
Van Heijningen trades methodically established tensions for cheap, easy horror jolts, swapping the paranoia and distrust of Carpenter's version for simplistic rage and aggression. Where Carpenter carefully sliced into our deepest fears with the precision of a surgeon, Van Heijningen bluntly hacks away at our nervous systems like a maniac wielding a chain saw.
Newcomers who rent Carpenter's film to see where Van Heijningen's story begins - or, continues - might be surprised by the reliance on organic horror makeup, stop-motion animation and creature compositions. Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Stan Winston ("Aliens," "Jurassic Park") reportedly worked on Carpenter's spectacularly gory dog creature, a triumph of horror wizardry.
Alas, Van Heijningen replaces those tangible and imaginative alien inventions with shiny, empty digital effects - yet another miscalculation that undermines this "Thing" prequel.
It wasn't my intention to write as much about Carpenter's classic, but Van Heijningen has very little to add to the discussion, and he's quick to revert to "Thing" tricks we've already seen: grotesque monster transformations; slimy alien autopsies; blowtorch-wielding creature hunters; and blood tests meant to identify the lurking threat.
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer ("Final Destination 5") misses multiple opportunities to expand on the mythology of the stranded alien creature. And the bridge scenes meant to connect Van Heijningen's ending to Carpenter's shocking beginning are forced, at best.
Coincidentally, another remake of a beloved '80s property enters the marketplace alongside "The Thing" this weekend. Someone should show "Footloose" to Van Heijningen, so he can learn a "Thing" or two about how a successful remake works.
Contains strong creature violence and gore, disturbing images and language.