Matthijs van Heijningen | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Canada / English, Norwegian & Danish | 15 / R
At some point during the process of remaking John Carpenter’s seminal 1982 sci-fi/horror The Thing, someone clearly realised they were on to a hiding for nothing. (Why more remake producers don’t realise this is a whole other issue.) Fortunately for those that still wanted to make some money by exploiting a cult classic, the original film includes an in-built idea for a follow-up, and some wise (well, wise-ish) soul realised that was the perfect way in. And so the 2011 remake of The Thing is not a remake at all, but rather a prequel, depicting the events that occurred at the Norwegian base, seen only as a corpse-strewn burnt-out shell in the ’82 film. You’d best hope the remake-makers have some good ideas, because we all know how this Thing ends…
So our scene is set in the winter of 1982, when the crew of the aforementioned base stumble across a spaceship buried in the Antarctic ice. Nearby, they find a frozen alien lifeform, and excavation expert Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is flown in to help retrieve it. Once back at base, however, the thing wakes up, escapes, and all hell breaks loose.
As discussed, The Thing 2011-variety is not a remake of The Thing 1982-variety because, primarily, it takes place before The Thing ’82, and also because of drastic changes like making the lead character female and having some of the cast speak Norwegian sometimes. Other than that, what unfolds is just a variation on a theme. While it isn’t a scene-for-scene type of remake, it’s near enough to the ’82 version — including sequences that directly emulate similar counterparts from the previous film — that, were it not for the whole “it’s a prequel” aspect, you could be forgiven for thinking it was just a post-millennium-styled do-over; a “reimagining”, to use Tim Burton’s fun phrase.
Of course, it isn’t as good. There are many reasons for this, one of which is the fact that, because they haven’t just remade the other film, every homage/rip-off they come up with is inferior. So the blood testing scene from the ’82 film is replaced by shining a torch in someone’s mouth to see if they have fillings. God help you if you’ve taken care of your dental hygiene. The climax is typically overblown — this isn’t a spoiler, I’m preparing you if you’ve not seen it: the survivors venture into the alien’s spacecraft to stop it taking off. Some people get a kick out of getting to see inside the ship, and I suppose you could say that at least the remake-makers are trying to offer something new. Unfortunately, new is exactly what it’s not. The Thing is a bizarre creature, growing and morphing and warping in disgusting ways — what strange kind of spaceship would it call home? A bog-standard metal-corridors kind of one, apparently. The lack of imagination is staggering.
But hey, at least the remake-makers committed themselves to replicating the ’82 film’s notorious practical effects — after all, that film is one of the pinnacles of effects filmmaking, the sacred text of the creature maker, and so its methods should be honoured. The Blu-ray special features talk about how they wanted to make full use of effects technology, combining practical and digital effects to get the best of both. The featurettes even show off the incredible animatronics that were built, the level of skill and detail, how well they performed on set… and completely ignore the fact that those animatronics were, infamously, all ‘painted’ over with CGI. To rub it in, as any film fan would expect (but as every movie producer seems utterly oblivious to), most of the animatronic models do look better than the CGI in the finished film.
The other element the making-of material is keen to underline is just how much effort was put in to make sure this ties back to its predecessor. Essentially, they looked at what was revealed about the Norwegian base in Carpenter’s film and used that to reverse engineer the events that had to occur in this film. However, the final result could’ve made some of these connections more explicit. For example, we don’t see when the guy who slit his throat performs that act. The moment is actually included among the disc’s deleted scenes, but why did they cut it?! The movie’s final scene, which directly links the two films, is intercut with the end credits — why?! It comes across as apologetic, like they’d rather it wasn’t there but feel it has to be. Either put the scene in the film proper, or put it as an after-credits easter egg for die hard fans; the halfway-house used in the final cut is just messy. If someone’s argument was, “casual viewers will find those linking scenes meaningless”, then watch your own movie! The helicopter being away for refuelling is referenced earlier in the film; Joel Edgerton’s character says they didn’t kill Lars but never says what they did do with him; and the last time we see Colin he’s alive (until a single shot of his frozen corpse, that is). To put it another way: they’ve done a bang-up job of making those things matter within the film itself, as well as in the context of linking up to the ’82 film, so why were they deleted or included only as an embarrassed afterthought?
But hey, odd choices abound. I mean, they only kept the same title because they couldn’t think of a subtitle that sounded good. Once again, it displays a lack of imagination that made a rod for their own back: many people thought this would be a straight-up remake, which turned them against it from the start; but if it had always been clear it was a prequel, designed to complement the original, maybe (some) viewers would’ve been kinder.
Or maybe they wouldn’t, because The Thing 2011 is a lesser film than the original. It does still offer some suitably gross effects work, albeit lessened by it being obvious CGI rather than gruesomely physical constructions, but there are still some resultantly tense sequences. Heck, it’s the first film in I-don’t-know-how-long that actually made me jump, once. Some viewers complain that there’s no “who might be an alien?”-type tension because the characters aren’t well-drawn enough, but I had that problem with Carpenter’s film too.
Ironically, considering it’s the lesser of the two productions, I think this Thing might fare better if viewed in a double-bill immediately followed by its predecessor: all those thoroughly-considered links would pay off clearly, and you’d get the better film second, to end on a high note. Viewed by itself, at least The Thing 2011 isn’t that bad; a somewhat entertaining hour-and-a-half-or-so offering passable thrills.