When the Powers That Be suggested John Carpenter’s “The Thing (1982)” for the next big remake, there must have been some folks in the room who understood that there is no substitute for the horror masterpiece. Yet, they couldn’t leave well enough alone (have you met Hollywood?). Instead, they decided to disguise their remake as a prequel. I suppose one could argue that “The Thing (1982)” began in the middle of a larger story, after the creature had already decimated one camp. But the Thing has one modus aperandi: impersonate the inhabitants of Antarctic research camps and kill them off one by one. All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again. In essence, “The Thing (2011)” is a big old pile of redundancy, wrapped up in flames and topped with a Ripley-shaped bow.
Predictably, the film begins with a sweeping overhead shot of barren tundra. Amid the vast, white landscape, a teeny tiny vehicle trucks along to nowhere. And it is right in the middle of nowhere that the Norwegian scientists inside the vehicle locate the source of a mysterious beacon. Their subsequent discovery of a spaceship and the ice-encased body of the ship’s pilot is a surprise only to the characters in the movie. Lead asshole scientist, Dr. Sander Halvorson, (apparently deeming his large Norwegian team insufficient) quickly brings in some Americans to help him score that Nobel. One of them is Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a shrewd paleontologist who wears the hell out of a form-fitting sweater. She’s wary from the get-go, and suggests that they don’t rush into anything. But Dr. Halvorson meets her warnings with condescension and misogyny, explaining that he didn’t bring her there to do the thinky kind of science. After long, the Thing escapes the melting ice block. Thus, kicking off the murderous, shape-shifting rampage we’ve all come to expect.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s an exciting rampage. Even though the plot is a foregone conclusion, the Thing is a really cool monster that mutilates and fuses with people in all kinds of fun ways. It’s also nice to see some ladies around the lab. Winstead is a substantial, engaging heroine who looks quite natural holding a flamethrower. When it seemed like they were about to launch into a copycat blood test scene, they took an original left turn, coming up with another way to tell who was human and who wasn’t. Van Heijningen also does a great job maintaining the tone of “The Thing (1982)” and his look is very reminiscent of that film.
While he mostly maintains creature continuity, there is one major discrepancy in the way it behaves. In Carpenter’s film, there was the impression that shape shifting was something of a defense mechanism for an alien in unfamiliar surroundings. At times, it even seemed a little frightened. Van Heijningen’s Thing is all predator, taking a balls-out approach, rather than trying to stay under the radar.
Not knowing exactly where or who the Thing was really contributed to the overwhelming sense of suspicion and dread that made the 1982 release so scary. “Show, don’t tell” is a tried and true rule for movies, unless you’re dealing with the horror genre. We saw tendrils and claws as the creature transformed from one guy into another, but we had no idea what it looked like when it wasn’t stalking research scientists. “The Thing (2011)” is all about showing. As soon as van Heijningen shines a spotlight on the creature, the unspeakable horror the audience was imagining fades into the best mass of slime, teeth and claws the effects guy could muster. By the end, we have a pretty clear picture of what the population of Planet Thing looks like. It’s still kind of scary. But, at the end of the day, it’s just another monster with a vagina dentata for a mouth.
Some might say that comparing and contrasting “The Thing (2011)” with “The Thing (1982)” is unfair. But hey, if you want your film to be judged as a standalone piece, don’t do a remake. If you want people to believe that it’s a prequel, not a remake, certainly don’t give it the same goddamn title. Maybe don’t rehash the plot so much either. Sure it’s the same creature, and it stands to reason that it would behave the same way in a different camp. But if that’s the case, why did we have to see it again? Any intelligent person who saw the 1982 film can fill in the blanks that the Norwegian camp left. Maybe we wouldn’t have pictured a beautiful American paleontologist, or that specific collection of guff, bearded men. But we got the idea. As thrilling and faithful as the new story is, it still feels so tremendously superfluous.
The biggest misstep in “The Thing (2011)” is that they couldn’t resist giving us more of everything: more firepower (and actual fire), more dismembered bits of the Thing skittering around and infecting people, more infected people at one time and more of the Thing itself. We see inside the Thing as it’s mid-transformation and you’d better believe we get to see the inside of that spaceship as well as an idea of how it works.
“The Thing (2011)” isn’t exactly terrible. Fans of the original should see it, if only to revisit that universe from a more James Cameron-esque angle. But it is, by no means, an essential addendum to what is now canon. Ultimately, if you hate surprises and mystery, or love to smugly point out ironic foreshadowing, then this is the movie for you.