Luckily for the filmmakers, the imitation of a good movie still results in a fairly suitable (if flawed) copy.
Much like the titular alien creature, this 2011 version of The Thing purports itself to be one thing, when it is in fact something else. While it is labeled as the prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 film of the same name, in many ways - largely as a result of some derivative scriptwriting - this film is a beat-for-beat remake of Carpenter's film, only with far less imagination and a forgone outcome.
Thankfully, the combined strength of the premise and an effectively scary monster save The Thing 2011 from being a total waste.
The story takes us back to 1982 Antarctica, where paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has been recruited to help excavate the monumental discovery of an alien life form frozen within the tundra. Kate is trepidatious about messing with the fossil too much, but the team of Norwegian scientists - led by the cold Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) - want the glory and credit for making the discovery. Halvorson has his men drill into the ice to collect a tissue sample, and in doing so, awakens the long-dormant creature.
Things go from bad to worse as Kate makes a startling discovery: the alien is a mimic, able to copy its prey's cells, thereby camouflaging itself in the skin of its victims. However, by the time Kate realizes that there are impostors in their midst, fear and paranoia have already begun to run rampant amongst the team, leading to the decimation of the camp, and the beginning of the mayhem depicted in Carpenter's film.
Screenwriter Eric Heisserrer (A Nightmare on Elm Street remake) has once again managed to take a smart and rich horror movie concept and drain it of all its juiciest bits. With Elm Street, he reduced the imaginative machinations of a dream stalker to a drab and routine slasher flick; with The Thing, he manages to take a concept that worked so well as a tense, slow-burn psychological thriller, and reduce it to a frantic and clichéd horror movie formula.
At first it seems as though the movie is making the right moves: a good deal of time at the outset is spent establishing relationships between the core characters, such as the hostility between Kate and the dictatorial Dr. Halvorson, or Kate's passing attraction to helicopter pilot Braxton Carter (Joel Edgerton). However, once the creature is loose those relationships - which seemed like seeds for rich psychological horror - are totally squandered as victims are dispatched randomly and unceremoniously, leaving little for the viewer to care about or resonate with - other than the thrill of seeing the creature in its various twisted forms, or the cheaper thrill of watching the body count climb. The film also manages to muddle the entire franchise mythos by introducing expository facts which are totally contradictory to both chapters of the story - such as the alien not being able to replicate "inorganic material," while somehow being able to replicate its victims' clothing.
Former commercial director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. tries to recreate the world of Carpenter's film, and for the most part succeeds. This film has many fun Easter eggs and nods to the original, but like the script, lacks true insight into what made the concept behind the story (based on the 1938 novella 'Who Goes There?' by John W. Campbell Jr.,) so terrifying in the first place. Carpenter's film wisely used cramped set pieces, time jumps, and selective editing to create its tense mystery and head games; Heijningen adheres to the more modern preference for 'bigger and better' movie making - i.e., bigger set pieces and wider spaces. But again, spreading things out completely invalidates the strongest aspect of this concept, which is the terrifying feeling of being trapped in close quarters with something akin to a terrible virus (as Kate herself states at one point in the film).
The creature in Carpenter's film was famously brought to life by old school VFX master Rob Bottin through practical effects like puppeteering and animatronics - but thanks to an overabundance of CGI effects in this modern version, we once again have a hollow creation in place of a more believable, imaginative and original one. The most unnerving scenes of the creature are the ones where practical effects are still put to use, but these are few and far between. Still, to Heijningen's credit, there are a few well-constructed sequences (see: the dissection scene or the 'dentist' scene - both direct echoes of Carpenter's film), that manage to reclaim that great tension, if only for a few fleeting moments...
Another strong point of Carpenter's film was that you were never truly sure who to trust, because even the presumed "hero" of the film, R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), disappears and reappears and slowly starts to become as paranoid and unhinged as the rest of his crew. Kate, on the other hand, is clearly the protagonist of this horror tale, thereby limiting the delicious uncertainty and dread; she's presented as the 'cool under pressure' type, who never once seems to lose her head or succumb to the rampant paranoia. Granted, not every movie damsel need be in distress, but as one of only two women stranded in the tundra, surrounded by potential threats, you'd think Kate would be a little less composed and rational than she is throughout the film.
Another very odd choice was to make the cast of characters (except for Kate and the amusing Norwegian workers) almost direct echoes of the characters in Carpenter's film. Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje are almost carbon-copies of Kurt Russell and Keith David's characters from the original; Dr. Halvorson fills the creepy science guy role originally occupied by Dr. Blair; Eric Christian Olsen's character Adam is the same skinny coward as Thomas G. Waites' character, Windows; Paul Barunstein's Griggs is reminiscent of Donald Moffat as Garry - and so on... It's almost as if Heisserrer constructed the story according to that old 'If it ain't broke...' adage.
And therein lies the biggest issue with this Thing prequel: it asks us to believe that the same sequence of events could happen to two groups of similar people, all within a short time span (a few days). While the outcome was always predetermined, the filmmakers behind this new chapter missed the opportunity to put their own unique spin on how these events played into that ending. Even the end credit sequence - which directly connects this film to the opening scene of Carpenter's - feels like a heavy-handed contrivance meant to remind us (in case we forgot) that this was a prequel, and not a remake. But again, like The Thing itself, it's hard to make that distinction just by looking. Luckily for the filmmakers, the imitation of a good movie still results in a fairly suitable (if flawed) copy.
If you want to know if the film is worth your time, watch the trailer below. Also, rate the movie for yourself by voting in our poll below.
Want to talk about spoilers or the many nods to Carpenter's film that are in this movie? Head over to our Thing spoilers discussion.
The Thing is now in theaters everywhere.