In 1982, “E.T.” phoned home. Steven Spielberg’s genial view of intergalactic life suggested a kinder, gentler universe. The aliens would embrace us. The future looked bright.
Then John Carpenter had to fuck everything up.
“The Thing” forced us to stare into a vaginal Venus flytrap poised to spring every manner of smelly surprise: crustacean claws, phallic earthworms, and a set of compact, razor-toothed choppers tucked efficiently inside a mucus-coated labial maw. This glistening goo-bag was Forrest Gump’s worst nightmare: a cruel, shape-shifting organism that could replicate any life form. Truly, you never knew what you were going to get. Was your buddy still human, or chomping at the bit to absorb your flesh and bones?
I’m still astounded that “The Thing” ever made it into wide release. Remember: we’re talking early eighties, when major motion pictures weren’t supposed to blindside us with the wholesale slaughter of sled dogs via tentacled, slime-slick blobs. Chests exploding into bear-trap teeth? Not kosher. And it certainly wasn’t polite for severed heads to sprout Alaskan king crab-legs and sprint across floors. The whole ghoulish affair was akin to poking one’s head inside a cesarean section.
There were “Exorcist” caliber walk-outs. Roger Ebert dismissively dubbed it “the barf bag of the summer.” His response was echoed during an opening-night screening I attended, where several nauseated viewers bailed and blew chunks well before the closing credits.
Needless to say, I loved “The Thing.” And although the film bombed during its initial theatrical run, it has since earned respect as a big, fat, mucous-coated middle finger aimed squarely at a movie industry grown soft and squishy.
Flash forward to the present, an age in which it would appear that most filmmakers have, in fact, been body-snatched. Creative gusto has been reduced to lazy CGI. Shock has been franchised into filmic french-fries, and gore reduced to flat soda pop to wash it all down. And a new “Thing” has slithered into town. It still has the tentacles and slime, but no balls. The creature is still angry and pissed off. But having seen the film, I’m even ANGRIER, and MORE pissed off. I feel robbed, and so should John Carpenter.
In Carpenter’s film, a ragtag crew of scientists unknowingly welcomes the title creature into their snow-covered camp. In ever more creatively perverse ways, The Thing ransacks their bodies, cribs their identities, and infects them with paranoia. Along the way, the crew discovers a charred Norwegian archeology station housing various frozen corpses and a suspicious block of hollow ice. Stumbling upon a nearby space-ship estimated to be lying dormant for tens of thousands of years, the doomed discoverers quickly catch on that their camp invader is an unforgiving extraterrestrial being, intent on taking over the entire planet.
Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s new version is allegedly a “prequel” to Carpenter’s film, but it’s essentially the exact same story. This time, we’re bounced back in time three days prior to the earlier movie’s opening scenes. We keep company with the Norwegians, which is a lousy strategy on the part of the filmmakers. We know what eventually happens – that the group awaits dismemberment and incineration.
We also know that before the slaughter, these victimized archaeologists will discover said space-ship, and find one of its alien inhabitants frozen nearby. The team will haul its ice-encased trophy back to camp, where all hell will break loose. So much for jaw-dropping revelations and twisty surprises.
We meet a cluster of bloodless, cardboard characters. Young American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is hired to extract the ice-encased alien being. She’s tentative about the whole process, which irks team leader Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen). He impatiently demands that the specimen be removed immediately. Right away, we know there’s something up with this guy, whose demeanor is as cold as the arctic terrain. Cookie-cutter supporting characters, including a cuddly, bearded Zack Galifianakis-type, a grizzled, stoic hero-type, and a younger, snowboarder-type, may or may not be sucked into gooey orifices and churned back out as nasty replicants.
I’m not going to waste much time laying out the details. Suffice to say, the alien gets pissed off when part of its carcass is drilled into, soon bursting from the frozen holding cell to morph, maim, and mangle. Victims are melted together like something from Josef Mengele’s Nazi experimentation clinic. Human centipedes, indeed.
But we’ve seen all of this before. Watching “The Thing,” I was absolutely stunned by its complete and utter lack of creativity. Remember the ingenious blood test used in the first film to discern who was infected? A slightly altered variation is cribbed for this new version. Recall Carpenter’s eerie outdoor scene, where the cast circled a campfire of burned bodies and pondered the notion that some among them might be less than human? You’ll see it again this time around. Even Ennio Morricone’s pulsating, blip-blip score has been lifted from Carpenter’s classic.
Watching this sleepy, stillborn film, I was reminded of just how haunting and original its predecessor truly was. While characterization wasn’t its strong suite, the actors conjured up a true sense of dread. Playing reluctant hero R.J. MacReady, Kurt Russell’s eyes convincingly conveyed the fear of a man forced to gaze upon something that truly should not be. Dark shadows cast onto blinding white landscapes, suggesting a cosmic wrestling match between Heaven and Hell.
As for the creature effects… yeah, CGI offers the means for a more elaborate freak. But there’s a joy-less sterility to the whole spectacle. In Carpenter’s film, you felt the mischievous spirit of monster-makers pushing the envelope by any means necessary. It was a brave, new level of depraved genius.
As for the much-ballyhooed presence of a female hero…. I’m sorry, but the dull Winstead is no Sigourney Weaver. And let’s face it, “The Thing” exists in a testosterone orbit – a macho, meat ‘n potatoes world of grizzled alcoholics and weathered working-men. Winstead’s presence is strictly a calculated move to expand the film’s demographic appeal.
Carpenter’s astonishing trailblazer of a terror film remains something to be seen. Meanwhile, let’s practice truth in advertising and brand the new misfire with a more apt title: “Nothing.”