The Thing (2011)

2015 #104
Matthijs van Heijningen | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Canada / English, Norwegian & Danish | 15 / R

The Thing 2011At 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.

Shining a torchOf 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.

Hot.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.

A rare practical effectOr 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.

3 out of 5

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The Thing (1982)

2015 #97
John Carpenter | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

The Thing 1982It’s just an ordinary day at the US Antarctic research base staffed by helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and his compatriots, until a helicopter buzzes overhead dropping grenades on a dog it’s pursued across the ice fields. The dog finds sanctuary in the US base; the helicopter and its crew are less fortunate. Realising it’s from a Norwegian facility an hour’s flight away, MacReady and the doctor brave inclement conditions to investigate. They find numerous corpses and the base burnt to ruins. What horrors befell the Norwegian base? And have they inadvertently brought them into their own…?

I think we all know the answer to that second question. It wouldn’t be much of a movie if the answer was, “nope, they’re good.”

Derided by some on its release for being naught but wall-to-wall gore, The Thing naturally developed a cult following among horror/sci-fi fans. The funny thing watching it today is that, while the special effects still retain the power to shock in their gross extremity, they’re limited to a handful of quick-fire sequences; indeed, those seeking out The Thing to get their blood-and-guts fix nowadays often seem to declare it “boring”.

Naturally, they’re missing the point. At its heart, John Carpenter’s film is a psychological thriller: an alien is in the group’s midst; it has taken on the form of one or more of them; who can you trust? How can you tell? It’s both a dilemma in an abstract “sci-fi concept” sense, and no doubt a parallel from an era when spying and the threat of ‘the other’ infiltrating society were still major issues. I suppose it’s a facet that’s come round again these past few years, with the increasing rise of home-grown terrorists, previously decent citizens lured and brainwashed by propaganda. The most enduring themes are always timely, I guess.

Are you MacReady for this?Even if you don’t want to get deep about it, The Thing has the “who’s human?” thrills to keep you engaged on that level. Accusations of boredom no doubt stem from the fact it’s a bit of a slow burn, the early acts building suspicion and unease as MacReady and co investigate. Even after the true nature of the threat is revealed, Carpenter paces himself, though the frequency of incidents begins to mount inexorably as we head towards the climax. Well, that’s just good structure.

If the film has one problem, it’s there are too many characters. We know MacReady: he’s Kurt Russell, and he’s singled out early on as the hero — though we come to suspect even he may not be ‘right’ as the film goes on. As for the rest, I believe there are eleven of them, and at best they are loosely sketched. At least a couple are easily conflated and therefore confused, and for the rest, there just isn’t time to get to know them properly, so we’re less invested in what happens to them. There’s a reason most “who will survive?” movies have something like five or six characters in peril, not twelve.

In spite of all that, The Thing does remain best remembered for its extraordinary effects. Even though you know it’s rubber and silicon and corn syrup and whatever else, and even though the intervening thirty-odd years and lashings of CGI have enabled even more, even darker imaginings to be brought before our eyes, the visceral physicality of these effects, the way they play on long-established fears, and apply those to the human body in nauseatingly contorted ways, is plenty enough to render them still effective; certainly so within the context of a film that is, as I say, really more of a thriller than a gore-fest.

These people are going to dieFor me, it’s the psychological quandaries that are gripping and exciting, rather than any enjoyed disgust at the emetic special effects. However, knowing the characters a little better — thus caring if they’d been replaced or not, and also perhaps allowing us a chance to try to guess for ourselves — would have just made it that bit superior.

4 out of 5

The Thing was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

The 2011 prequel, also titled The Thing, will be reviewed tomorrow.