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

Life of Pi (2012)

2015 #107
Ang Lee | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA, Taiwan, UK, Canada & France / English, Tamil, French, Japanese, Hindi & Chinese | PG / PG

Oscar statue2013 Academy Awards
11 nominations — 4 wins

Winner: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Original Song, Best Production Design.


Life of Pi“Unfilmable” — now there’s an adjective you don’t hear tossed about so much these days. For a long time it seemed like it was all the rage to label novels “unfilmable”, but at this point too many ‘unfilmable’ novels have been filmed, and the wonders of CGI have put paid to anything ever again being unfilmable for practical or visual reasons. It may still be an apposite descriptor for works that feature very literary storytelling, though if you can render something like the subjective and unreliable narrator of Fight Club on screen — and in a movie that many regard as being superior to the novel, too — then there are few boundaries in that realm either. And someone even made On the Road, so just as soon as The Catcher in the Rye gets filmed we can probably put “unfilmable” to bed forever.

Yann Martel’s internationally-renowned Booker Prize-winner Life of Pi is one novel that used to have that adjective attached (of course it was — that would’ve been a pretty stupid introductory paragraph otherwise, wouldn’t it?) I’ve never read the novel, but I suspect it may’ve earnt the label for both of the above reasons, because it concerns, literally, the story of a boy stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger, and, figuratively, the very nature of storytelling itself — not to mention the purpose of religion and the existence of God. Never has “from the director of Hulk” seemed less pertinent.

Said director — Ang Lee, of course — did win one of this film’s four Oscars. Match that with two of its others — namely, for cinematography and visual effects — and you get an inkling of one of the film’s most praised facets. Whatever one thinks of the film’s story and themes (and I’ll come to those), it looks incredible. This is the kind of film that demands the increased resolution and colour palette of HD; it may even demand the 3D it was shot in, because watching in 2D it felt clear that wasn’t its native format — not because of the old cliché of things being thrust in the viewers’ collective face (well, only once or twice), Tiger's talebut because of almost-indefinable features of each shot’s crispness, its depth of field, even the compositions. It absolutely works in 2D, and it didn’t leave me longing for 3D in quite the same way as something like the swooping aerial sequences of How to Train Your Dragon, but, unlike with the majority of movies released in 3D, I did feel like I wasn’t seeing the director’s full vision.

Nonetheless, Claudio Miranda’s Oscar-winning cinematography proved controversial in some quarters. While the movie is indeed beautifully shot, swathes of it are also awash with CGI, so I think there’s some merit to the argument that it doesn’t count as photography. Conversely, I’d actually argue that the real-world bits look even more glorious than the digitally-rendered parts, on balance. Sure, you have the obvious spectacle of the psychedelic whale-jump, featured heavily in trailers and on the Blu-ray 3D cover, and the painterly skies and seas while in the lifeboat; but the early sequences in India, bursting with crisp, luscious colour in the zoo or at a nighttime light festival, are in some respects even more memorable.

To give with one hand and take with the other, however, I felt that the pair of aspect ratio shifts were utterly pointless and, worse, distracting. Firstly, I believe 2.35:1 was used for the flying fish scene to make the sequence feel more epic, and to allow the fish to jump further out of the screen. Well, in 2D the latter is lost entirely; and on TV (and possibly in the cinema, presuming the screen-space got thinner rather than wider), the movie suddenly feels constrained — the exact opposite effect to when films like The Dark Knight or Hunger Games 2 open out for their IMAX sequences, for instance. The book cover shotLater, the 4:3 “book cover” shot is just pure indulgence. There’s no reason not to just have empty sea to the left and right of frame, and the “it’s emulating the book cover!” reason/excuse doesn’t come close to passing muster simply because book covers aren’t 4:3. In both cases, then, what was intended to be striking or clever or innovative or in some way effective, I guess, comes across as pointless and distracting and pretentious.

And if we’re talking daft choices, don’t get me started on the meerkat-infested carnivorous island…! Maybe there’s some Deeper Meaning there — or, later, is the film deliberately lampshading the island’s total lack of meaning, when Pi tells the journalist that there doesn’t need to be meaning if it’s just what happened? Whatever — for me, it only served to make 110% sure we know (spoilers!) that Pi’s whole story is definitely BS. In that respect, the bizarre fancifulness was heavy-handed.

Ah, the story. To be honest, I liked it a little better a year later when it was called All is Lost; some people liked it better a decade earlier, when the tiger was a volleyball called Wilson. The striking imagery of a boy stranded on a boat with a tiger makes one assume that’s what the film’s About, but it’s not really About that at all. If you’re expecting a pure adventure on a life-raft, the long preamble where Pi describes his early experiences of religion must seem utterly pointless, but it all feeds back in at the end when we come to the point of Pi’s — well, Martel’s — tale.

I’m going to discuss the end while avoiding direct spoilers, but, honestly, any foreknowledge of the film’s (possible) message(s) is liable to colour your perception; so if you’ve not seen it, it may be best to skip the next paragraph until later.

TranscendentalReading around a little online, it seems that some people have interpreted the film’s message as being a defence of/justification for/persuasion towards religious faith, and hate it for that. This interests me, because I — coming, I suspect, from a similar perspective on religion — read it as a subtle condemnation of religious stories. Actually, not a condemnation, but a tacit acceptance of the fact that such stories are a nice fairytale, but not the truth. To put it another way, I took the message to be (more or less) that religion is an obvious fiction which people choose to believe because it’s a nicer story than the more plausible alternative, neither of which are provable. I think some focus on the point that the journalist hearing Pi’s story is told it will make him believe in God, and, at the end, the journalist seems to accept that it does. I don’t think that’s the film’s contention, though; I think the film is, in a way, explaining why people believe in God. Or maybe there are just no easy answers.

Seeking those answers, Rafe Spall is very good in what amounts to a tiny supporting role… but then, I have a fondness for him as an actor (his excellent, just-the-right-side-of-OTT turn as a gangster’s unhinged psychopathic son is the only real reason to watch The Shadow Line), so I may be biased. One must also single out Suraj Sharma, an unknown cast almost by accident when he accompanied his brother to the auditions, but who gives a good turn even when mostly performing opposite a CG tiger, a CG sea, CG fish, more CG…

Living the Pi lifeI found Life of Pi to be a little bit of a mixed bag, on the whole, where moments of transcendent wonder-of-cinema beauty rub up against instances of thumb-twiddling; where insightful or emotional revelations rub shoulders with pretentious longueurs. There is much to admire, but there are also parts to endure. The balance of reception lies in its favour, but while some love it unequivocally, a fair number seem to despise it with near-equal fervour. Either way, it’s definitely a film worth watching, and in the best possible quality you can manage, too. It also made me want to read the book, which for a movie I wasn’t even sure how much I liked is certainly an unusual, but positive, accomplishment.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Life of Pi is on Channel 4 (and 4HD) tonight at 9pm.