Director: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. Writer: Eric Heisserer Cinematography: Michel Abramowicz
Music: Marco Beltrami Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen, Eric Christian Olsen
Out Now in wide release.
In the interest of fair play, blah blah blah SPOILERS blah blah.
It’s heading towards 12:30 in the morning here as I start to write this, and it’s been roughly half an hour since the credits rolled on my late night screening of The Thing - the new Universal production based upon events hinted at, but never fully revealed, in the 1982 John Carpenter film of the same name. Living in the city I have no car, and thus enjoyed a leisurely walk back from the theater with two friends, sharing a few social cigarettes and taking measure of what we had just witnessed as we went. We had all been bright-eyed and hopeful as we shuffled into the theater, but we had emerged beaten, heart broken. As I said my goodbyes and entered my apartment lobby I knew I had to start writing, and soon. What’s more, I knew this was to be no ordinary review piece. It was to be an exorcism.
John C. Campbell’s serialized 1938 novella Who Goes There?, a frightfully original tale of alien paranoia in the cold wastes of Antarctica, has led a charmed life with regards to its cinematic legacy – one that rivals that of Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers, itself adapted successfully, and numerous times to boot. Famed Hollywood producer and director Howard Hawks did his friend and sometimes editor Christopher Nyby a favor in granting him the role of director on Who Goes There?‘s first screen adaptation, 1951′s The Thing From Another World. One of the most successful genre productions of its time in terms of craftsmanship and entertainment value, The Thing From Another World nevertheless altered much of the substance of the source story and, frankly, bares little direct relation Universal’s newest iteration. It’s still a fantastic film, and anyone reading this article owes it to themselves to track it down.
Tenuous as its relationship to the 2011 film may be, The Thing From Another World cements its place in the paternal heritage of it by virtue of its influence on one man – John Carpenter, who for his first major Hollywood production was given the green light to craft Who Goes There?‘s second cinematic interpretation. Rather than source from the 1951 screenplay, though several of its points are homaged, Carpenter’s screenwriter Bill Lancaster sought inspiration directly from the Campbell novella. The results were phenomenal in their own right, a gruesome exercise in paranoia and body horror whose disgustingly imaginative creature effects put Rob Bottin on the map. Carpenter’s The Thing replicates Campbell’s original shape-shifting alien menace with genuinely disturbing results, horrifying its audience through a palpable sense of isolation and by concealing its terrors beneath ordinary human skin. Who can the audience trust when the cast of the film can’t trust itself, and anyone might be a “thing”?
It may seem strange to spend such a goodly part of an article purportedly devoted to a new release by praising its predecessors, but this new The Thing positively demands such comparison by virtue of its existence alone. Directed by feature newcomer Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. and penned by Eric Heisserer (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 and Final Destination 5) this new The Thing foregoes any attempts at further adapting the Campbell story (though it is credited) and instead takes the Carpenter film as its jumping off point, choosing to relate events that occurred prior to that film’s narrative start but whose aftermath is shown therein. As such The Thing 2011 exists as a willful companion piece to the 1982 film, even going so far as to repeat some of the footage from that film in its final reel, and doesn’t so much invite as necessitate comparisons between itself and its selfsame predecessor / successor.
Things become more complicated when one tries to classify just what this The Thing actually is. In terms of its timeline it is clearly a prequel, a film that takes place before the narrative of an earlier film. Simple enough, right? Unfortunately screenwriter Heisserer lacked the imagination necessary to craft any sort of original story from the key points of the 1982 The Thing - a creepy cremated inhuman corpse, a helicopter chasing a dog, an unearthed spaceship and a shack full of dead Norwegians – that it insists upon following. The result is a prequel that repurposes so much of the narrative arc of the film that it purportedly precedes, going so far as to replicate not just events but whole groups of characters, that it actually becomes a remake of it as well. And so this The Thing comes full circle, becoming an allegory for itself – a hollow cinematic monstrosity that tries very hard to convince audiences it’s something that it isn’t.
To anyone at all familiar with the 1982 The Thing a relation of the plot here is mostly pointless, as only the trappings are different. Paleontologist Mary Elizabeth Winstead and her disposable mop-haired associate are contracted by a Norwegian scientist to travel to an isolated Antarctic geological research site and dig up the thing of the title. Along the way they meet up with two American helicopter pilots – one channeling Keith David, the other Kurt Russel. Once there the thing, the survivor of a gigantic crashed flying saucer, is quickly dug out of the ice and moved to a Norwegian camp full of disposable bearded men of dubious purpose. A bit of brazen stupidity on the part of the team’s resident baddie, an egotistical scientist of something or other who wants to ride his discovery all the way to a Nobel prize, results in the thing getting loose, leading to the expected monster antics but little else. Winstead eventually discovers the thing’s devilish shape-shifting secret and quickly sets about checking the fillings in everyone’s teeth (the thing is evidently incapable of growing and too stupid to fake inorganic features), though she needn’t have bothered – it takes every opportunity to spoil the fun and pop out of its warm and people-y hiding places.
On that note let’s talk special effects, and why the “anything is possible” promise of computer animation has let this particular vehicle down so badly. Contrary to what many unflinching adherents to the old ways may think, my problem here is not one of methods, and as such I’ll not argue that Rob Bottin’s traditional latex and karo syrup techniques are any more acceptable than the CGI that gluts the market today. The problem here is with frequency, and the “anything is possible” tendency to whip up any batshit idea that comes to mind regardless of whether or not it serves the story. Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing is a certifiable gross-out affair, but a sparing one, and its limited number of outrageous effects set-pieces are both appropriate for the titular menace (which only emerges in defense of itself or in secret) and allow the film to build and at times subvert audience expectations. In one famous bit the head of a human impostor, in a show of mad self preservation, creeps off a medical table and propels itself about a room by its tongue before sprouting a set of slender insectine legs and skittering towards freedom. It’s an effect that still prompts an ick reaction from this jaded viewer.
There are attempts at similar occurrences in The Thing 2011, with a multitude of people’s arms sloughing off (I’m honestly not sure where all the arms come from) and becoming skittery lobster monsters, but the film insists upon repeating them until they are devoid of even the minimal impact they had to start with. The joy of the 1982 The Thing is that the creature’s form is all together unpredictable – each appearance is different from the last, with the beast’s true nature, if any, remaining obscure. What’s more, the creature’s more monstrous forms are granted a purpose - self preservation in the face of certain annihilation. The Thing 2011 can’t be bothered with such silliness as that and instead shows its monsters early and often and with little rhyme or reason. Muscular and be-tentacled torsos and heads careen from one end of the Norwegian camp to the other with much growling and gnashing of teeth, but it’s all so obvious. Of what possible evolutionary benefit is shape-shifting if the creature keeps exposing itself to that from which it is attempting to hide? Don’t ask The Thing 2011, as it doesn’t have a clue.
Similarly clueless are The Thing 2011′s multitude of under-developed sub-characters, who wander off alone and in pairs even after the alien’s penchant for hiding in people skins is made abundantly clear (if you know a shape-shifting alien is afoot and someone asks you to wander off with them for some dubious purpose, don’t do it – you will be killed). Heisserer’s scripting seems mostly to blame, though one might well ask how such bunk was ever green lit in the first place. It’s difficult to gauge the level of proficiency of the cast, as even Winstead is given little to do but state the obvious and look stern. The various Norwegians grumble a lot and shout a bit, but mostly just die. Of some note is Heisserer’s odd fixation on birth-related horrors, which is reflected in the special effects production – an autopsy of an alien creature reveals a “womb”, and man after man is engulfed by toothy vaginal whatsits. It’s the sort of thing that might make for an interesting article if The Thing 2011 could be bothered to make the viewer care. As such it’s just so much trapping.
The Thing 2011 eventually devolves into a standard chase scenario, with Winstead pursuing the last inhuman holdout across the ice and into the alien ship for an action sequence of inept proportions. I was hoping for one last gasp of originality, perhaps a whole ship-load of anomolous alien monstrosities, but no dice. As the credits cranked up the beginning of the 1982 film began to roll, complete with Ennio Morricone’s sparse and haunting score – their tarnished memories were a final insult. For Heijningen, Heisserer, and all of the producers who had a say in this The Thing coming to pass I had but a single parting thought: