There’s a lot to like in The Thing, which has been marketed as a remake of the 1982 John Carpenter film (itself a remake of the 1951 Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks film), but is in fact a nicely thought-out prequel that pays its respects to its predecessor. It’s not perfect – not by a longshot – but it’s a surprisingly decent effort in the wake of all the recent 1980s horror remakes.
Unfortunately, when you’re taking the title of two of the most revered and suspenseful horror films of all time, decent isn’t quite good enough.
The two earlier features were notable for their icy, isolated Antarctic research outpost setting, and the incredible amount of tension they were able to build: the Nyby/Hawks film with that beeping device that indicated when the monster was getting closer (later approximated by Ridley Scott in Alien), and the Carpenter film with the Invasion of the Body Snatchers who-among-us-is-the-Thing premise (as originally detailed in the John W. Campbell Jr. short story Who Goes There?, which all three films – and a number of others – are based upon.)
2011’s The Thing gets about halfway there; it’s got the same setting, though director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. doesn’t mine the atmosphere as well as the earlier films did, and climactic scenes aboard the alien craft feel particularly conventional. And it’s got some good suspense, though the who-is-the-Thing element is mostly confined to a 30-minute window in the midsection.
The star of the 1982 film was a bushy-bearded Kurt Russell, in his most manly role this side of Snake Plissken. Here, we have Mary Elizabeth Winstead as paleontologist Kate Lloyd, who is recruited to a Norwegian outpost in Antarctica that has discovered…something. I didn’t have much hope for Winstead, who seems out of her depth in early scenes, but she ultimately proves herself as a strong and determined presence in the lead.
The Norwegians, led by Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), have found a massive alien spacecraft buried in the ice – and also a frozen life form, which they transport back to the outpost. Against Kate’s advice, Halvorson takes a sample from the alien, and soon there are aliens that can absorb and imitate living creatures running around the station.
In the earlier film, the alien blood reacted to electricity, which led to a memorably intense blood testing scene (that also played on the AIDS fears of the era). Here, the research doesn’t get quite that far, but Kate notices that the Thing can only replicate organic parts of the body; this leads to a suspenseful scene where the group is separated by who does and doesn’t have fillings in their teeth – those without fillings may be Things, or they may just take good care of their teeth (and yes – there is a British character in no fillings group).
After a shaky start, I was pretty impressed with this version of The Thing. Up until the climax, at least: by this point, the story has (quite pointlessly) devolved into formula stuff. The ultimate ending, however – which begins as the credits start to roll – tie in this prequel to the Carpenter film quite nicely, complete with the classic Ennio Morricone score.
Held up against the earlier films, though, this one falls short in almost every regard. Most disappointing is the CGI effects work: the 1982 film featured some of the most advanced practical effects work ever seen, effects that had a real physical presence; we see similar-looking creatures here, but they’ve become animated versions of what they once were.
You can say the same about the CGI, the film, and the Thing itself: “superior” technology has been used to create an unconvincing replica of classic originals.