It’s been 28 years since John Carpenter stood on the refrigerated Los Angeles set and gave directions on The Thing, his remake of the 1951 black and white sci-fi red scare classic film. When Carpenter made his version of The Thing, he had several great people contributing to what I and many horror fans consider one of the greatest monster movies of cinema: great source material in the form of John W. Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?”; comic book giants like Mike Ploog and Bernie Wrightson contributing the conceptual artwork of the creature design; a minimal but infinitely moody atmospheric score by Ennio Morricone; a talented group of actors making up the doomed men of U.S. Outpost 31; and finally what I consider the most important element of the film, the sheer genius of a then 21-year-old make-up effects artist by the name of Rick Bottin. For anyone that has ever watched Carpenter’s movie and marvelled at its amazing practical effects – which still hold up to this day and under the all-seeing presence of computer generated digital effects – Bottin’s benchmark work in the film truly brought the deadly Thing to life.
Universal Pictures, the owners of The Thing, tried to make a four-hour sequel that would have aired on the Sci-Fi Channel. Unfortunately, that event was never realized. But like any studio executive worth their weight, the Universal people know that they have a mandate to make a new Thing movie. Maybe some of the reason to mine the Thing IP has to do with copyright renewal reasons but there’s also the fact that of all the major movie studios, Universal is known as the house that the monsters built. There’s a reason why the studio is where Guillermo del Toro brought Hellboy to after the collapse of Revolution Studios; Universal is the home of the monsters.
So here we stand, with a new Thing movie a guarantee at this point. It’s filming right now under the direction of Dutch filmmaker Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. from a script by Ronald D. Moore, the guy that gave us some of the better episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, one-half of two lousy Star Trek and Mission: Impossible movies and the way-better-than-anyone-believed-could-be-possible reimagining of Battlestar Galactica.
I wonder, what the creative thought process was on Moore’s Thing screenplay? Was he mandated by Universal to make his story serve as a prequel to the Carpenter film? Was the idea of telling the story of what happened to the men and women of the Norwegian arctic base his alone? How many other writers and their ideas did the Universal creative exec in charge of this project meet with and pass by? I don’t have any answers to these questions but I can tell you this: if I was asked by my agent if I wanted to go to the Black Tower and pitch a second Thing movie I don’t think that I would take that meeting. Three decades have passed by and it would take a skillful wordsmith to find a path out of that corner that Carpenter painted us in.
But even with my high expectations for what a Thing movie should to be – prequel, sequel or reimagining – I come not to damn Ron Moore’s Thing nor am I hear to place laurels of commendation and praise upon it either; this is the director’s movie to make or break. I believe that Moore fulfilled both the official (Universal) and unofficial (the fans) expectations that have been placed on him. He was charged with finding a way to resurrect the franchise and make it appear to people that have no expectations while also not alienating those that appreciate the Carpenter movie. I went in expecting to hate what Moore did. By the end I was surprised to discover that I had no qualms with the screenplay. Does that mean I’m stoked by what I read? No, because I still believe that David Leslie Johnson’s aborted Return of the Thing mini-series would be the purest sequel that I and fans would want to see. That said, Moore’s Thing has more commercial viability for resurrecting the franchise than Johnson’s, so from a business point-of-view I can understand why this is the road Universal decided to take.
All of this is preamble but it’s necessary to the fans out there that need to know where the 2011 Thing movie is coming from. It’s not the enemy but like I said, this is a movie that is going to be made or broken by its director and how he chooses to execute the material. One of those decisions will be in how van Heijningen had chosen to realize the creature effects (Amalgamated Dynamics are making the monster effects, and they’re hit and miss for me based on their past work.)
For those of you wondering if the 2011 Thing makes reference to Carpenter’s at all, it does. Although it’s never specifically stated when the action takes place, there are things like Rubik’s Cube and people watching VHS tapes that place the setting in the early 1980s, just as Carpenter’s 1982 movie. There’s a nice moment where we might get to see MacReady, Kurt Russell’s helicopter pilot character, referenced in a plausible and comedic way. We know that the Norwegian base will ultimately be destroyed, and that the Thing-dog will make its way to MacCready’s Outpost #31 camp. Moore doesn’t retcon the story anchors in the ’82 Thing. We will get to see how The Thing rampaged through the Norwegian base. We also get to find out other easter eggs that Thing fans will recall, such as why someone at the Norwegian base slit their wrists sitting in a chair, or why the melted two-face Thing body was laying out in the snow for MacReady and Doc Copper to find, or how the two Norg men in the helicopter came to chase the Thing-dog to the American base. In this regard Moore’s Thing story is water-tight with the events depicted in Carpenter’s film.
By now you’ll note that for this script review I’m really doing my best to stay away from spoilers. If you’re reading this hoping that I will tell you who turns out to be a Thing and what happens at the end of the film, sorry to disappoint. I think that the bigger question that fans of The Thing want to know is whether this project is a creative failure at the script level and whether there’s any reason to look ahead. That’s precisely what I’m hoping to give to you by the end of this article, not a blow-by-blow summary of the story’s plot points. If anything, you already KNOW what happens by having knowledge of the 1982 film; all that’s new is finding out the nature of how The Thing came to thaw out in the Norwegian camp and subsequently destroy it. The spectacle will be in seeing the new Thing effects and seeing if they’re worthy of standing alongside the Bottin creature effects of the original.
Rest assured that there are scenes which will show The Thing morphing its shape, attacking from its duplicates in human form. One deviation with the way Moore’s described his Thing transformations from the Johnson mini-series Thing transformations is that there aren’t any Thing metamorphosis reveals/attacks that are carbon copies from the Carpenter movie. In Johnson’s climax for Return of the Thing there were hundreds of spider-heads Things in mini-spaceships trying to flee to the outside world; in Moore’s there’s no duplicate creatures, it’s all new monster shapes. Indeed, there’s one Thing reveal that, if properly delivered, could stand alongside the Norris-chest-bursts-open moment from Carpenter’s movie. I totally didn’t see this particular Thing reveal coming (and neither did the human characters left who happened to be standing in the same room) but the way that The Thing chose to reveal itself and attack the remaining people makes a logical, if grotesque, sense. I hope that the director pulls that particular scene off well in the film because on paper it's a pretty "Goddamn that's insane!" scary moment.
I’ll add this: we’ll get to see the inside of The Thing’s saucer as well as a hint as to what it may have been doing in there. The otherworldly-ness of the saucer’s insides was described well by Moore and I hope will remain intact in the finished product.
Alas, if there’s a major flaw in Moore’s story it’s that it doesn’t add anything new. We’ve seen this same story played out in the Carpenter movie; we watch the characters discover what the threat is they’re up against and then paranoia sets in amongst them as they freak out about who’s not really human anymore. The Thing’s goals aren’t any different in the prequel than the first film, which are to get out of isolation and absorb everything on the planet. There’s flamethrowers, sticks of dynamite and a snowstorm to cut off the base from the rest of the world. Ironically, in every way Moore’s Thing movie is perfect imitation of its originator when it’s really a franchise reboot that comes looking and sounding like it’s a prequel. By not taking any risky story chances Universal is getting a second shot at making a Thing movie that could make its money back and conceivably allow for a third movie. The downside is a narrative repeat of what played out in the first film, minus not knowing which Thing 2011 characters will live and who will be Thing’ed.
Look at this from a business standpoint. This path is safe and self-contained; if the 2011 Thing movie fails the franchise could always be thawed back out again in the form of a sequel, either directly or one that takes place years after the aftermath of the events at Outpost #31. If Thing 2011 is a success, the door is open for continuing the story established here and it violates none of the Carpenter movie canon. It’s a win-win for Universal, which brings us back full circle. This is why I believe they’re making their second Thing movie this way and not as a present day sequel like Return of the Thing's premise.
While neither a great script nor a poor one, Ron Moore did his job and earned his check for a harder-than-average yet creatively uninspired assignment. Now the success or failure of 2011’s The Thing lies on the shoulders of its director, his actors and the team making the monster effects. This one could go either way.