Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
I’m going to tell you all something right now, and I know it may shock many of you, and many of you may simply refuse to believe what I’m about to say, but I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway: last year’s release of The Thing was not very good. I know what you’re all saying right now: “But Cade, it’s a remake of a beloved horror movie masquerading as a prequel while still confusingly keeping the same title! It takes all the brilliant puppetry and chilling suspense of the original and replaces it with less-effective CGI technology and modern horror pacing and structure devoid of any true suspense! How can it possibly be anything less than INCREDIBLE?!?!? You must just be a big idiot.” Well, I can’t deny the possibility that I am, in fact, a big idiot, but that doesn’t change the reality of the situation. The Thing is simply nowhere near as good as The Thing, or for that matter, The Thing From Another World. The prequel/remake/premaquel tells the story of what happened to the abandoned Norwegian arctic station discovered in John Carpenter’s film. American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is recruited by Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) to help investigate the discovery of a flying saucer buried in the ice as well as a creature found frozen in the ice nearby. The creature is taken, still trapped in ice, to the station, where it subsequently busts out and starts killing the inhabitants of the station one by one, using its ability to copy the physiological form of its victims to infiltrate and annihilate the humans.
Let me start with the positive: if you’re a big fan of Carpenter’s The Thing, then you’ll enjoy the callbacks to that original film and the strange discoveries made at the wrecked station, recreated in careful detail. If you haven’t seen the original film however, you won’t be able to play “spot the reference”, so that aspect of the film will offer nothing to you, and in fact may hinder your enjoyment. On the other hand, if you’re new to the story, then your take on the film may benefit from not being seen in light of the original. It’s usually good when watching remakes/sequels/prequels/whateverquels not to let your opinion of the original negatively influence the newer film, but with The Thing, it’s really hard not to do so. For one, the film is so slavishly devoted to the details of the original and in recreating the atmosphere of the original that it’s impossible not to make mental connections between the two. That’s an unfortunate strategy, however, because this version of The Thing pales in comparison. Firstly, there’s the old-fogey reaction to the use of CGI instead of the impressive puppets and animatronics of the original (apparently the filmmakers shot with puppets for proper actor reactions but then overlaid CGI over the puppets in post), a problem mainly because recognizing that what you’re seeing is CGI, and obviously so, undercuts the suspension of disbelief in a way that puppets do not, as they are physically present in the same environment as the characters and thus more acceptable as part of their world, even if still clearly fake (if you don’t understand the distinction, imagine how different it would be if the Muppets on Sesame Street were all replaced by CGI).
Secondly, the film lacks the suspense of the original. In Carpenter’s film, you genuinely have no idea where the “thing” is at any time, who it could be occupying or when it will show itself, so that even in scenes when you know something is going to happen, i.e. the blood test scene, the scares are still surprising and highly effective. That’s just not the case with this new version. That could be partly based on expectations from the first movie, an understanding of how the “thing” works, but to me it seems the real problem is that it’s really easy to figure out who is the “thing” as the film goes on as long as you’re paying attention, and it’s also easy to figure out based on the music and camera work exactly when an attack is about to take place. Another major problem is the blandness of the characters. Kurt Russell’s MacReady is one of the best and most memorable anti-heroes in the horror genre, a roughneck, no-nonsense guy with no qualms about killing somebody if it means killing the alien and ensuring his own survival, rendering him both ruggedly likable and yet not entirely sympathetic, allowing you to still question whether he is still really MacReady at certain points. Even beyond his lead role, the rest of the film’s characters, no matter how relatively minor, still have personalities to distinguish them from one another and to make each death mean something. That’s not at all the case here. Almost all The Norwegians in the film are completely devoid of individuality, which speaks to the frustrating requirement to use American protagonists for the film, as if we couldn’t possibly relate to Norwegians, but even the American leads offer nothing for the audiences to latch onto. Kate is reportedly modeled on Ripley from the Alien series, but her character has nothing going on with her personality or background to truly intrigue the audience. She’s American, she’s tough under pressure, she’s smart enough to be a doctor…and that’s about all you get for her character. It’s nice that they added a female protagonist who is capable of fending for herself, but what good does it do if the audience doesn’t actually care about her? Same problems apply to the obvious MacReady-clone played by Joel Edgerton and all the other prominent roles. They’re all poorly developed. This may be why Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance seems so flat (or maybe her acting is too flat to develop the character’s personality? The chicken or the egg?), although it doesn’t explain why her deliveries often sound forced. I was really disappointed in her after being so won over by her in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Edgerton and the other actors come off better, but without actual characters to play, their performances amount to nothing.
If you haven’t seen Carpenter’s The Thing, it is entirely possible that these flaws won’t bother you as much as they would a fan of the original film like myself. But even if that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine anybody being truly impressed by this film. The need to placate modern mainstream audiences by magnifying the scope and size of the effects and by making more extreme scares and shocks more akin to what today’s horror films deliver all rings hollow, and I don’t think that’s simply because I’ve seen the original. I can think of one specific moment that I found impressive, which references the two-faced creature found by MacReady in the original film, but even then it seems some of the credit belongs to Carpenter and his team for coming up with the idea that the new film was able to capitalize on. I’ll admit that it’s still a fun film to watch, and for viewers unaware of the first film, maybe even a perfectly fine film, no worse than any of the other misguided remakes of ’80s horror classics, but it’s definitely weak in comparison to the original and even simply compared to other horror films. Devoid of the suspense of Carpenter’s film and failing to make good on his underlying themes of survival at any cost and mistrust of those we consider “other” than us even if they look and act normal, particularly between men (with undertones of gay panic in traditional male circles and the fear of AIDS), 2011’s The Thing seems more or less pointless. Heck, even The Thing From Another World has more going for it in terms of entertainment value and thematic purpose, despite being entirely different from both The Thing movies and being in several ways decidedly dated. At least it’s still remembered as a classic fifty years later. I doubt anyone will say the same of this version of The Thing fifty years from now, unless everybody in the future turns out to be really dumb.
Two out of five suns