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Non-Review Review: The Thing (2011)

The reflexive reaction to a film like the 2011 version of The Thing is one of scepticism. There’s something very strange about seeing a movie that had been relatively unloved on initial release garnering the remake/prequel treatment, an attempt to cash in on its cult success by turning it into a franchise. And, to be fair, a lot of that cynicism is justified by The Thing. There are times when it seems like – despite the obvious affection for the original horror master piece held by the writers and the director – that nobody really has any idea why John Carpenter’s The Thing has become such an iconic piece of cinematic horror.

There are some nice touches here, and it seems like director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. is genuine in his love of the classic body horror. Unfortunately, it feels like the finished product is more the result of mechanical number-crunching than honest enthusiasm.

All fired up...

All fired up…

The Thing is a weird film. It’s part remake to the classic film, in that it’s pretty much the exact same story. Joel Edgerton seems to be playing the same sort of scruffy grizzly archetype that we associate with Kurt Russell. It is also part prequel, in that the film follows the events at the Norwegian camp depicted briefly in The Thing. Indeed, this film makes a conscious effort to tie directly into that movie, with a lot of the film’s moments playing off the viewer’s knowledge of the 1982 original.

I’m not inherently against the idea of prequels. There is a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to prequels as a waste of time. It’s a logical argument. After all, we already know how the story is going to end, so suspense is very hard to maintain. There’s also the sheer numbers argument – the question of how many prequels can be successfully measured against their predecessors? I can understand these arguments, even if I’m not entirely convinced.

Alien autopsy...

Alien autopsy…

While knowing the ending to a movie undermines suspense, it can also allow a greater sense of tragedy in watching the story play out. As for the success ratio of such films, all of cinema is a numbers game. How many truly wonderful movies do we see each year, as compared to the thousands released? No matter how you break it down, it’s a numbers game. By genre, by type, by the talent involved. There’s no right way to produce a great film, and I’m not convinced that a film is doomed just because it is a prequel.

And, to be fair to The Thing, it’s clear that the script and the director are on-board with that idea. We get a lovingly detailed explanation for the chaos found at the Norwegian camp near the start of Carpenter’s epic, right down to an origin for the “two-headed thing” that was one of the original film’s iconic visuals. There’s a lot of careful work that went into lining up everything so that the flow makes a decent amount of sense.

Up their usual ice-scapades...

Up their usual ice-scapades…

I actually quite enjoyed the way that Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. crafted the first twenty minutes as a decidedly archetypal horror story. Lots of set up, lots of familiar character types. A mystery, and the sense that the movie is clicking towards something. It’s not bold or innovative, but it does feel – for those twenty minutes – like van Heijningen is making a consciously old-school movie. All the ingredients are there. The strange fossil, Dr. Sander Halvorson’s hubris, that wonderful lingering shot of the narrow drill boring into the ice. The film even teases that its one black character might be the first to die.

And then, as they say, things go to pot. The eponymous creature arrives, and we get our first real sense that those working behind the scenes completely misunderstood the appeal of John Carpenter’s classic. Carpenter crafted the creature entirely out of practical effects – puppets, stop motion, animatronics. It never looks entirely real, or even like it’s approximating something real, which is what makes it so incredibly creepy. It shouldn’t exist, because it couldn’t exist.

The base is close to boiling point...

The base is close to boiling point…

This prequel does use some animatronics, but it enhances them with computer-generated imagery. This means that the movements of the creature are more elaborate and dynamic, but they are also more fluid and more conventional. There’s less of the innate “wrong-ness” of it all. It isn’t just that the eyes of the audience have been acclimatised to CGI, and so we know that all of this is old-hat. It’s also that it doesn’t feel wrong that a mess of pixels can crawl or leap or bounce.

There are several sequences in the film where I imagined how unnerving they might be if rendered using puppetry or motors or stop-motion. The scene of two hands crawling a wall and bonding with one another would be grotesque and disturbing, perhaps freaky. Although the puppets would look like human hands, there’s be no way to shoot the scene so that they’d move entirely like them. Due to practical concerns, there’d be something off about the movements, something that is somehow even more disturbing that the tendrils lashing out from the CGI creations.

What an ice surprise...

What an ice surprise…

There’s another point, later in the film, where it seems like the writers and the director have somehow missed the appeal of The Thing. The truly scary thing about that monster film is how alien it is. Not that it’s just from another world, as the first film version of the story assured us in its title, but how foreign and how inexplicable it was. It was just this strange cosmic horror that a bunch of people happened to stumble across.

While Carpenter’s film featured the space ship that must have housed the creature, it didn’t dwell on it. The monster had fallen to Earth, but we had no context or meaning. All we knew is that it could potentially destroy our world. Unfortunately, the climax of this film doesn’t quite grasp that aspect of the existential horror. The space ship, fleetingly visited in the original, becomes an important set piece here. Things glow, lights go on, impressive CGI is rendered. It makes it all just a little bit less alien, just a little bit less unknown or unknowable.

Opening up to new possibilities...

Opening up to new possibilities…

Incidentally, apparently the film planned to delve into the creature’s origins a bit more – suggesting it was a biological experiment gone wrong. While I think the second-half of the film is far too generic an alien action movie, I’m a little happy that the specifics of the creatures origins remain obscured, even if we get way too much focus on the science-fiction trappings that were simply used to provide back story in the original.

There are more fundamental problems, though. For one thing, the film never really commits wholeheartedly to the “prequel” thing. It’s more than just lining up dead bodies, it’s a broader aesthetic thing. For some reason, despite the fact it is set on a Norwegian base, the primary characters wind up being American – even when played by Australians and Britons. The Norwegians themselves are pushed to the background, with the most developed role given to a Scandavian character is the archetypal “arrogant and impatient scientist” role fulfilled by Sander Halvorson.

Bringing more evidence to light...

Bringing more evidence to light…

It feels just a little bit cynical. Given the conventions of Hollywood films (most people speak English even when it doesn’t make sense), why not just cast Joel Edgerton and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Norwegian characters? Although, again, I’m entirely not sure we even need non-Norwegian actors. I find it interesting that Winstead or Edgerton would have provided a more compelling marketing hook than the title of the film.

Although, to be fair, Winstead does a solid job here. Kate Lloyd isn’t an especially well-developed character, but Winstead helps make sure that she doesn’t become another generic damsel in distress. Winstead looks incredibly young, but she carries the weight of the movie well, and while Lloyd never feels like a fully-formed character, Winstead convinces us that she’s relatively tough. Winstead has a habit of doing fairly solid working in unforgiving roles, and it’s a shame that the young actress hasn’t broken out of that niche.

Too hot to handle...

Too hot to handle…

As a side note, there are times when The Thing seems to skirt around its more successful predecessor. Most notably, the movie’s soundtrack seems like it’s not entirely comfortable with the original. Carpenter’s scores are hardly the most conventionally Hollywood horror soundtracks, but that’s what makes them unique, what gives them flavour. This version of The Thing opens and closes with a few notes from Carpenter’s score, but the bulk of the soundtrack feels like safe and generic horror movie music, as if the film is afraid to completely embrace the aesthetic of its predecessor.

This is perhaps the biggest problem with this iteration The Thing, and you get a sense of it as the movie eschews psychological horror for gory action. The movie is almost afraid to work with the quirky attributes of the original – the niche aspects. There’s a reason for that, of course. The original didn’t do well at the box office, after all. However, if you’re going to make a tie-in, respect for your inspiration is probably one thing that you should never be ambiguous about.

3 Responses

  1. Good review Darren. This one wasn’t as terrible as I expected it to be, but still didn’t really bring anything new or original to the table like I had imagined.

    • I second the “not as terrible as I expected” bit of that. There was actually some good stuff here. I just felt like it was very compromised and very generic, and not as willing to be as “out there” as its predecessor. It’s a problem with a lot of the sequels/prequels/remakes of cult films. The reason the cult film typically attracted such a devoted following is down to the fact that it wasn’t crafted to appeal to a broad base. So sequeling/prequeling/remaking for the express purpose of attracting that larger audience seems counter-intuitive. If you paint a horse to look like a cow, what you end up with doesn’t look like either a horse or a cow. If you try to rework a cult narrative for a mainstream audience, you generally wind up disappointing both.

  2. Good review! I hold JC’s film in high regard and this entry, though flawed, was a pretty decent stand alone creature feature. I agree with you on the music and the film dodging and sidestepping around the themes that made Carpenter’s movie unique. Good call.

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