Review: Universal's 'The Thing' is a Loud Imitation That Doesn't Work
by Jeremy Kirk
October 14, 2011
Cheap imitations should all be burned in an icy wasteland. Even expensive looking but soulless knockoffs should feel the flames wrapping around them deep in the Arctic circle. That's precisely what the new version of The Thing is, a flashy retread that looks and feels like a film we've seen before, but it's not. Something is missing. Actually a lot is missing in the movement from John Carpenter's 1982 film - itself an adaptation of John W. Campbell Jr's short story "Who Goes There?" which was adapted once before in 1951 - to this one, a prequel in essence, but one with a new car smell of a big budget remake. What is absent here is swept under a blanket of slick CGI in hopes that the audience, more specifically fans of Carpenter's film, won't notice. Sadly, The Thing 2011, your tentacles and body teeth are showing.
The film begins with a discovery in the Antarctic. Members of a Norwegian research facility have found a space craft crashed long ago and buried under an abundance of ice and a lone, alien figure buried just under the ice nearby. American paleontologist Kate Lloyd, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is brought in to help identify and analyze what exactly the people at the facility have found. But soon after recovering the alien creature out of the ice and bringing it back to the facility, it wakes up, and the team realizes it has the power to absorb and imitate the lifeforms it comes in contact with.
What strikes first about The Thing is how wholly unnecessary it all is. A prequel, the film shows us what exactly happened at the Norwegian station that the team from Carpenter's film investigate after they are first attacked by the alien creature. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer and director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. start from there, take the events and what is seen in the 1982 film, and reverse engineer it to show how it all came to be. It could be interesting if Heisserer and van Heijningen decided to show us something, anything, we didn't already know. Unfortunately, they don't. They run through it all like a check-list, carefully plotting to ensure it all fits in nicely, and to their credit, it does. This film matches flush with the 1982 film to the point that you could watch them one right after the other for one, continuous story.
But that seems only beneficial to anyone who hasn't seen Carpenter's film. If you have, everything that plays out in this version is just a game of catch-up. You know where the story is headed, you're just waiting for the film to catch up to you as it explains elements from the 1982 version that didn't need explaining. It can't even do that in interesting or fresh ways or give us a scary movie with believably effective monster effects. Instead, the alien creature, one that has traveled to many worlds and can take the form of any number of alien beings its come in contact with, is achieved using obvious CG imagery. The designs are there. Creature designer Michael Broom likes his tentacles and oddly asymmetrical outlines, but the actual execution of this creature, the way it looks and feels and interacts with the world and characters of van Heijningen's film, rings absolutely false.
Carpenter's film was about paranoia, about an identity with each of the characters and fear that comes from thinking someone you know isn't who they say they are. Van Heijningen attempts this, but his way of showing paranoia is anything but subtle. Subtlety is lost in the long, investigative looks the characters in his film give each other. The way in which they determine they can tell who is human and who isn't ends up being the only thing in this new Thing that comes off as slightly interesting. Heisserer and Van Heijningen attempt a version of the famous blood test scene from Carpenter's film. While the scene doesn't deliver the same, suspenseful wrenching of the earlier version, conceptually it brings with it a feeling that it's showing us something we haven't seen in this world before. It's something about the alien creature we haven't even considered but makes perfect sense given its nature.
The paranoia doesn't work in this new film, either, because aside from four or five characters, everyone in The Thing is a bearded, Norwegian man. It's difficult to tell them apart based on appearance alone, and neither Heisserer in his screenplay nor van Heijningen in his direction find a way of bringing any sense of identity to any of these characters. We know who Kate Lloyd is, because we know who Mary Elizabeth Winstead is. The same goes for the characters played by Joel Edgerton, Eric Christian Olsen, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Beyond that and maybe a few more foreground characters, those who actually do more than just stand around like extras in a bar scene, every person blends together. When your film relies on the familiarity of its actors to identify its characters, that's a problem.
It doesn't matter, though, this sense that the paranoia has been lost, because the director doesn't seem concerned with that. Instead, much of The Thing, in fact, the entire back half, relies on quick editing, fast action, and noise, lots and lots of noise that bleeds into every scene, setup, and aftermath of the film. This new version of The Thing is a noisy film, and not just in regards to the piercing, audible sounds the creature makes. From the number of characters, to the layout of the set - anything but geographically identifiable, something else failed from the 1982 version - to the crutch of CGI van Heijningen rests on from beginning to end, The Thing is busy with a discordance that permeates the theater.
We aren't allowed to feel any building suspense. We're blasted with a whiteout of clatter to the point where we want to bundle up, cover our heads, and bury ourselves under something warm and comfortable until the storm has passed. The Thing 2011 is both the storm blaring outside and the imitation of something familiar inside, and neither deliver anything fresh, scary, or appealing.
Jeremy's Rating: 3.5 out of 10