The Thing (2011) ***
Director: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
Runtime: 1h 43m
Remaking a beloved classic is a dangerous trap for filmmakers. By recreating someone’s favorite film you’re inviting critics to hold your new film to mercilessly high standards. Carrie (2013) was a tolerable if somewhat dull film, but alongside a masterpiece like Carrie (1976) it looks like utter shit. Why create that kind of competition for yourself? Wouldn’t you, as a filmmaker, be much happier vying with Oculus (2013) and World War Z (2013) instead? What’s more, no fully sane filmgoer expects every movie they see to be completely original, so there’s nothing stopping a filmmaker from grabbing all the best bits from the original and working them into a new story. This was what happened when director Darren Aronofsky failed to get the rights for a live action remake of Perfect Blue (1997), and instead took elements of the original anime and worked them into Black Swan (2010), one of the most impressive and original horror movies of the 21st century. What we have in today’s movie is the perfect counter-example to Black Swan’s success, a pretty good sci-fi/horror film that was a critical and commercial flop because it invited comparison to a 1980s masterpiece. The Thing is double-fucked too, because it has not just one brilliant precursor, but two (granted there isn’t much of the 1951 Howard Hawks production in here, we see the monsters constantly and barely any dialogue is delivered concurrently). So it will draw the ire of fans of both. Admittedly, it tries to sidestep this by branding itself as a prequel to The Thing (1982) instead of a direct remake. Only problem is that the events that immediately preceded The Thing (1982) are conspicuously similar to the events of The Thing (1982), and the prequel gambit isn’t fooling anybody. Had this movie been an original film that was merely inspired by the John Carpenter classic, it doubtlessly would have gotten higher praise and made more money. I feel bad for the film and its filmmakers, because it’s not a bad movie by any means. It’s a nice little B-grade sci-fi movie that was set up to fail because of circumstances beyond its control.
The Thing begins with a trio of Norwegian surveyors driving through the Antarctic wastes telling each other bawdy jokes and looking for a good place to take a core sample of the ice. The first scare hits admirably fast, when the ground gives way beneath their snow cat and they go tumbling headlong into a crevice several hundred feet deep. Fortunately the ice narrows enough for the snow cat to slid to a halt, leaving the trio dangling in mid-air. Further down in the depths they can see a massive and obviously unnatural structure. Disappointingly, the movie doesn’t trouble itself with how the trio of surveyors gets themselves out of this sticky situation. Instead, the film jumps immediately to the scientists back in civilization that are summoned to investigate whatever the hell it is that the Norwegians have found in the ice. The point man among them is Dr. Sander Halvorson a paleontologist who brings along his assistant Adam Finch and colleague Kate Lloyd (selected presumably for her complete ignorance of Norwegian, so this movie can do without subtitles) to assist his investigation. They are flown to Thule Station (named for a semi-mythical island at the edge of the world that possibly refers to Iceland) by a helicopter team consisting of a trio of Americans named Carter, Griggs and Derek. At the station they join far too many bearded Norwegian men, who I am not going to even try to keep straight, and one un-bearded Norwegian woman, Juliette. Goodness, that’s a lot of characters. Fortunately this is a horror movie, so there’s a good chance that not all of them will make it to the end credits.
The team quickly discovers that the object in the ice is some kind of alien space ship and that the pilot of said ship is lying frozen in the ice not far away. Halvorson’s team pulls it out of the ice in short order and transports it back to base. With plenty of time left before a big storm is set to blow in and bury the whole station in snow, the team gets drunk and starts singing cheerful Norwegian songs. It’s here that The Thing demonstrates an admirable commitment not mucking about, because almost as soon as the alien monster is back at base it has broken out of its icy prison dramatically killed a sled dog off camera and is eating one of the interchangeable Norwegian surveyors. Nor does the nameless abomination have a monopoly on the initiative, within five minutes of its escape the humans have divided up into patrols armed with flamethrowers to hunt it down and destroy it. Indeed, they manage to corner the monster midway through eating one of the surveyors and burn the whole shed its in down around it. There’s barely a moment of filler in the whole exposition sequence!
Sandor is understandably disappointed that his ground breaking alien specimen has gone from mint condition to charbroiled, but he proceeds with the autopsy anyway. They find the half-digested body of the poor surveyor that got devoured inside the alien monster, but there’s a funny thing: The man had a titanium bar put into his shoulder as the result of injury some years back, and now that same prosthetic is floating around outside the man’s body. When Kate and Adam examine the man’s cells, they see alien cells attacking and imitating human cells. Adam is unwilling to draw the obvious conclusion from this, that the alien monster is capable of imitating a human being, but Kate has fewer reservations. Only problem is nobody is willing to listen to her until she finds four bloody fillings in the bathroom and deduces that The Thing has replicated another human, but couldn’t absorb their dental work. The notion that The Thing can’t replicate inorganic material is a nice addition in that it flows naturally from the original remake’s (ahh the difficulties of reviewing a film with three iterations) premise but was not considered previously. Still, even with the filings in hand the rest of the team remains skeptical, at least those that are still human. The Thing realizes that at least Kate is on to it, and seeing as the young scientist is the biggest threat to it makes her its priority target.
The high point of The Thing is the monster designs, which are all at the very least hideously grotesque and in a few cases genuinely disturbing. The monster spends most of its time disguised as the various human beings around the camp, but whenever it’s discovered it immediately morphs into a twisted abomination with a few vestigial human features. Indeed, it’s these scant human characteristics that make the monsters all the more unsettling, a twisted pile of cartilage and teeth may be frightening, but its made doubly so by the now useless human head dangling behind it with eyes fixed in an unblinking stare. That’s not even the worse example, which comes when one semi-human abomination fuses at the head with a human victim. If that particular bit of body horror fails to get the chills going up and down your spine than I don’t know what will. All this is accomplished through CGI, which allows the filmmakers greater flexibility of monster design and animation than the original-remake, but comes at the cost of the raw visceral feeling of the original-remake’s special effects. Still though, the effects seem far more impressive than more recent horror CGI, though this is probably due to the fact that films like It (2017) being so intent on pulling punches with the audience.
While I dislike that so much obvious talent and energy has been shackled to an unnecessary remake/prequel, in the Thing’s defense it shows an admirable commitment to inter-film continuity. In the film’s penultimate sequence we see every detail of the ruined Norwegian station in the original-remake recreated perfectly: The frozen suicide victim, the charred two-headed corpse, even the fire axe lodged in the corridor wall. Indeed, the film’s sets seem to have been assembled after a close examination of this brief sequence, as they all look almost exactly alike. The room where the thing’s ice block was left is a particularly strong example. All this shows a level of care and attention to detail that goes far beyond what is necessary; indeed I would have not appreciated it at all had I not followed up this film almost immediately with a screening of the original remake.
It’s in the area of characters that The Thing suffers in comparison to its more illustrious forerunners. The most compelling characters (such as Carter) are direct rip-offs from figures in the original-remake. In Sandor, we see a figure that bears a passing resemblance to Carrington in the Howard Hawks original, but he’s far too muted to make much of impression. Kate Lloyd is the only original character that stands out at all, but seems more a product of lazy writing that anything else. Kate solves all the issues, comes up with all the plot critical revelations and deals with nearly all of the physical threats. In sort, she’ more of a walking plot advancer than she is a character in her own right. As for the rest of the crew, they are little more than cannon fodder, serving no purpose in the film other than to provide the viewer with the base for more ghastly alien abominations. Given that The Thing is aiming for body horror, where which derives much of the dread from the ease fully realized human beings are transformed into weeping piles of meat, this is a very significant shortcoming.