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Let me begin by stating the obvious: following in the footsteps of John Carpenter’s The Thing isn’t an easy thing to do – pun intended. Although Carptenter’s movie bombed when it first came out in the summer of 1982 when E.T.: The Extraterrestrial was America’s outer space visitor of choice, VHS and cable brought The Thing to a wider and appreciative audience.
The Thing is not just one of Carpenter’s best movies, it’s also the benchmark for creature effects. Rob Bottin created all of the phantasmagorical transformations of the Thing ten years before James Cameron would pull off the T-1000 effects, and more than a decade from Steven Spielberg’s rampaging dinosaurs from Jurassic Park. Making a new Thing movie with CG effects seems almost blasphemous.
If you go in expecting that same level of intensity and greatness as is found in the ’82 Thing, you’ll be disappointed with ‘11’s The Thing. Director Matthijs van Heijningen tries hard to make his movie live up to its progenitor but ultimately it’s not of the same pedigree as Carpenter’s. To use a Thing analogy, the new Thing isn’t a perfect imitation, though it also tries hard to be one.
Filling in the role of Kurt Russell’s MacReady is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as paleontologist Kate Lloyd. Subbing for the doomed American Antarctic research station’s crew are a team of Norwegians and a handful of Americans called upon to dig up the scary extraterrestrial from its frozen slumber. Heijningen’s Thing film chronicles what befell that Norwegian camp, serving as a direct prequel to Carpenter’s movie but at the same time rejuvenating The Thing franchise in an attempt to make it a sequel spawning series.
I’ll give credit to credited screenwriter Eric Heisserer and uncredited Ron Moore for going the prequel route and telling the tale of what happened before Mac and his guys ran into the beastie from another world. As remakes/resuscitations of movie franchises go, The Thing 2011 isn’t a bad one. It’s not dumbed down as other prequels/reboots/sequels of well-known franchises have been. The writers and director don’t rewrite the rules for how The Thing assimilates its prey, nor do they take liberties with what was established as happening at the Norwegian camp in the 1982 movie. Deep fans of Carpenter’s movie might be quick to pronounce judgement on Heijningen’s movie as an inferior Xerox, and I think that’s unfair. This is a companion piece to Carpenter’s work but not its equal, but nor is it dismissible either.
Winstead is fine in her role but also comes across as rather vanilla. Unlike Russell’s MacCready, the film’s creators don’t give her a moment with humor; she’s always on the job or, when the shit does hit the fan, doing her best imitation of Ripley giving orders to the space marines. More moments showing her humanity would have added to the believability of her character.
The supporting cast fares better than Winstead. As Carter, one of the chopper pilots, Joel Edgerton emerges as a more sympathetic hero with vulnerability. Ulrich Thomsen plays the Norwegian version of Commander Gary; Lost’s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is nearly invisible as Carter’s chopper buddy; but it was Jørgen Langhelle that stood out the most from the secondary cast. Even though Lars was the one of the group that doesn’t speak any English, Langhelle gave enough to his performance that he became more believable than many of the other Norg guys. When introducing Outpost 31’s secondary characters, Carpenter showed us their creature comforts or peculiarities; with Thule Station’s supporting cast, they don’t get that opportunity and the movie is weakened slightly because of it.
Now, the part you really care about: The Thing itself. It could have been easy for Heijningen to show us a clear view of the Thing frozen in its block of ice, or use all CG to show it during attacks. Neither approach happens. CG is used, but it’s done consistent with the look of Bottin’s original Thing transformations and the CG FX is very well rendered (with most of the heavy lifting done by Image Engine, the guys that did the prawns for District 9.) Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. handle the practical Thing creature effects, and they also don’t deviate from the source material. I was happy to see that neither the practical team nor the CG team chose to repeat any of the original Thing’s monsters, like the spider head or mouth stomach. Several of the new Thing forms are sufficiently gross and chilling enough to give me the heebie-jeebies, especially one where a Thing form gets a little too close to a guy’s head.
I liked that we see explanations for all the carnage observed at the Norwegian camp in Carpenter’s movie. I enjoy knowing how that axe got buried in that wall over there, or what final horror made that guy we saw who slashed his wrists. I even liked the explanation for how the American guys found the Thing’s saucer in the ice.
But there is weakness here. Some of it comes in the form of not giving Winstead’s character those early moments to establish her as one of the guys, and also not better firming up who’s who of the supporting cast, but some of it also comes from small conceits that make the Thing more of a common monster. The creature we saw in the 1982 movie had more subtlety to its method whereas the 2011 version is more direct in its instinct to survive, even if it would be smarter to remain hidden for longer. Maybe that was intentional since this is supposed to be a younger version of it without as much time spent assimilating humans, or maybe that’s just the producers shaping The Thing to be more in line with today’s expectations of shock value.
Overall, I liked the new Thing and I’d recommend it as a decent scary movie with some great moments of disturbing creature effects. Stack it up against John Carpenter’s version and it looks less shiny, but let’s face it, if you’re that kind of Thing fan you’re going to go see the new movie anyway. Try and judge today’s Thing on its own merits.
Review Score: 65 / 100
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