If ever there was a poisoned chalice amongst the glut of films scheduled for a 2011 release then it was this prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 classic 'The Thing'. Helmed by Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr, this is a movie that always had its work cut out if it was to live up to the slow build tensions and stomach churning excesses of Carpenter’s film. Judging by some of the more hysterical critical responses to it, you might have been led to believe that not only does van Heijningen succeed in taking a huge fruit and fibre fuelled dump on the original but actually goes so far as to ritually sacrifice John Carpenter himself during the final act, before tap dancing all over his still twitching corpse.
The truth of the matter is far more mundane because what I saw in 'The Thing' 2011 was a competently executed, often entertaining horror that features some effective set pieces, some minor irritations and some variable CGI. It’s far from perfect and, perhaps inevitably, it doesn't reach the heights of 'The Thing' 1982. But then, you didn't really expect it to, did you? No, the main reason fans of the ’82 vintage will want to watch this is to revisit something they already love, while taking the opportunity to witness events hinted at in Carpenter's film.
Its basic premise is that a team of Norwegian scientists have stumbled upon something hidden deep within a glacier in the Antarctic, soon discovering that it is a huge alien space craft. Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomson), his assistant Adam Finch (Eric Christian Olsen) and palaeontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) are then recruited in order to assist the Norwegians in extracting the creature they have found buried within the ice not too far from the craft. This is of course a very bad idea. Before you know it, the creature has burst out of the ice and is on the loose, with panic and paranoia taking hold amongst the scientists as one by one they are killed and replicated by the rampaging monster.
A fundamental problem for any sequel or prequel to ‘The Thing’ is how do you do things differently? Given the restrictions of the setting in this film, which are identical to those of the Kurt Russell vehicle, it’s very difficult to come up with anything that fans of the first movie won’t have seen before. Once the central group of characters know the nature of the beast they're dealing with you’re into a scenario where everybody suspects everybody else of being the creature. Therefore, given that we’ve been here before, what’s needed to make this interesting are original set pieces, strong characterisation and new permutations of the alien body-melding that made the original so memorable. In each of these aspects ‘The Thing’ is partially successful.
One of its strongest moments pays homage to the blood test in the original but this time it involves checking the fillings of everyone under suspicion (the creature can’t replicate inorganic matter). It’s tense stuff even if it doesn’t have the pay off that Carpenter’s scene did with those under suspicion tied to their chairs when the mayhem kicked off. There’s also a high octane encounter on board the ship of the alien when it attempts to make its escape, a scene that evokes strong memories of ‘Aliens’ with its one woman against the odds scenario, as well as providing something different to Carpenter’s film while generating an explanation for some of the aftermath we see in his movie.
However, although the acting is fine we don’t really get to know many of these characters, the script concentrating mainly on Winstead’s heroine and Joel Edgerton as Sam Carter, an American helicopter pilot who runs supplies to the base and someone who will always reach for the flamethrower before the microscope. Although both are engaging enough it’s a shame we don’t get to know some of the Norwegian characters better, as their horrendously gruesome deaths would have had considerably more emotional pay off if we had.
As for the effects, they’re a combination of animatronics and CGI and work best when the former are brought to the fore. The CGI isn’t awful but van Heijningen does keep his camera on it for too long, especially towards the latter stages of the film, when he would have been best advised to stick with the quick cuts and clever model work that was so successful early on. Still, it was good to be able to finally glimpse The Thing in its original form and there are some worthy additions to the gallery of alien grotesques, including the severed arm where the severed part becomes the alien’s gaping teeth-filled maw, and the lightning quick biped that peels back one character’s rib cage to make room for a mouth, leaving her upper torso hanging upside down like a flipped lid.
Some criticisms have been made of the creature’s supposed lack of intelligence and although I wouldn’t presume to second guess a parasitic alien entity that had been buried in the frozen tundra of Antarctica for 100,000 years, the creature does have a tendency to reveal itself when perhaps it might be best advised to sit tight. But then that is a criticism that could equally apply to Carpenter’s film. Why reveal itself as the dog at the beginning for instance when it could just as easily have gone quietly from person to person, replicating them one at a time before merrily piloting a helicopter out of there to civilisation and its all you can eat buffet? Well, it’s simply because that wouldn’t have made much of a film would it (although there is a moment in this film where it very nearly manages to achieve exactly that before it is rumbled in the nick of time).
Also, a minor annoyance are those moments where characters behave inconsistently (moments after agreeing no one should be left alone with anybody else, Kate happily follows one of the Norwegians to a darkened part of a shed) but again, characters were prone to similar daftness in the ’82 version and the 1951 Howard Hawks production, going off to investigate ominous trails of blood alone for example.
But none of this film’s flaws were sufficient to stop me experiencing an enjoyable and entertaining hour and 50 minutes, mainly because what I was experiencing looked like a Thing movie, felt like a Thing movie and sounded like a Thing movie. It’s atmospheric, tense and enjoyably gruesome and finally provides an opportunity to confirm everything that we guessed must have happened at the Norwegian site, with one or two extra bits of back story thrown in. It won’t be a film that I’ll revisit as often as Carpenter’s and there are times, especially when it falls short, that it reminds you of just how damn fine the original is. But perhaps the fact that this film ends precisely where Carpenter’s begins will lead many who have not seen it to seek it out and, unlike the terrifying creature that both films feature, that would be no bad Thing.
As a huge fan of the 1982 film I was a tad apprehensive about seeing this but ended up pleasantly surprised. It’s a decent enough companion piece to Carpenter’s film that takes a slightly more action oriented approach but is nonetheless tense, atmospheric and above all, fun.