In 1982 director John Carpenter brought horror fans The Thing, a remake of the 1951 sci-fi film The Thing From Another World. Using cutting-edge practical effects, Carpenter told the story of a group of American scientists in Antarctica whose routine is interrupted when two Norwegians chase a dog into their camp, shooting up the base as they try to destroy the animal. The Americans rescue the dog, only to discover it's actually an alien, a parasitic Thing that begins killing the scientists and taking their place.
On Friday, Universal Pictures releases a new Thing, not a remake of the modern horror classic but a prequel that explains what happened to the Norwegian team that originally discovered the extraterrestrial.
Let’s not mince words: The Carpenter Thing is better. But setting aside the fact that it's not as good as the 1982 masterpiece that helped to define a generation of suspenseful horror/thrillers -- a hard act to follow for any movie -- we have to judge the prequel not by comparing it to the ‘80s film but on its own merits.
By that measure, the new Thing is ... decent.
Set just days before the events of Carpenter’s film, The Thing begins with paleontology graduate student Kate Lloyd (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) joins her friend Adam (Eric Christian Olsen) and his boss Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) on a scientific expedition to Antarctica, where it's revealed a group of Norwegian researchers has uncovered a spaceship and its alien passenger frozen in the ice. Accompanied by a 10-person international team and American helicopter pilots Braxton Carter and Jameson (Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Kate takes over excavating the alien, and transports it in a block of ice back to the Norwegian base. They soon learn the Thing isn't as frozen as they thought. What comes next is two full acts of gore and screams as the Thing begins replacing the humans, and they in turn begin to realize that any one of them could be the Thing.
The most impressive part of The Thing is how the alien looks, and how it looks is crazy. There's no rhyme or reason to the way it incorporates its victims as arms sprout centipede legs, heads melt off necks and tentacles whip out of faces. Even looking straight at it you have a hard time describing it. Using a combination of practical effects and computer graphics, director Matthijs van Heiningen Jr. wisely only uses CG to enhance the Thing, allowing the creature to move in ways puppets just cannot manage. Even practical-effects purists will be delighted, as the movie’s biggest and coolest Thing puppet gets center stage for a large chunk of the film. The tension established by the creature is nerve-racking, a feeling that continues even when the Thing isn't on screen.
Winstead is enjoyable as Kate, a character modeled after Ellen Ripley from the Alien franchise. The best parts of the film are when the actress channels her inner Sigourney Weaver, using her wit to devise a test for discovering the Thing and her brawn tracking the monster through the station. Unlike the Alien protagonist, however, Kate at the beginning of the film is a meek and quiet scientist cowed by Sander, and as a result the transformation into a tough-as-nails heroine isn't entirely believable. Despite this, Winstead is still entertaining, especially once she embraces the more confident Kate. Hopefully this role will open the door for more Winstead action vehicles.
Norwegian actor Jorgen Langhelle is also great as Antarctic team member Lars, stealing the show as he quietly becomes one of Kate’s ardent supporters, revealing a character with more depth than his goofy exterior suggests. Joel Edgerton is equally fun as helicopter pilot Braxton Carter, another character who assists Kate in her efforts to discover the Thing. He exudes trust and competence, and his strong rapport with Winstead makes them the most interesting characters in the film.
When it comes to story, Carpenter fans will enjoy how the prequel sets up the unexplained touches in the 1982 movie, from the blood-splattered ax in the wall to the holes ripped out of the Norwegian station. It's clear everyone involved has great respect for the Carpenter film, and it's equally obvious they set out not to remake the classic but to create a companion film. Thus the 2011 Thing admirably tries to do what prequels so rarely attempt: to tell the story in such a way that it doesn't lessen what comes after it.
But when making a sequel or prequel the question has to be asked: Why? Why does this film need to exist? What does it add to the original? When it comes to contributing to the mythos of The Thing, the special effects do a great job, upping the gross factor on the monster while staying consistent to the previously established world. When it comes to story and characters, however, The Thing merely copies the Carpenter version, and does a poor job of it. Indeed, the new Thing’s biggest problem is that it never trusts itself to move out of the shadow of its predecessor.
Character-wise, the 1982 film establishes each member of the ensemble within their first lines: MacReady is set up through the chess game, you understand who the hot-headed Childs is from his first scowl, and even characters like Windows who exist solely as Thing fodder feel distinct and complete. These simple character-establishing moments are completely lacking in the new Thing. Kate is recognizable as one of the only women in the film, but everyone else blends together. In fact, the majority of the cast seems only to exist because the original movie says they do. Even the sinister Sander, who should stand out by his cliche bad-guy dialogue alone, is indistinguishable from the sinister Edvard Wolner (Trond Espen Seim). Again, Edgerton and Langhelle are the only ones who establish themselves as distinct characters, Braxton pleading with Kate for the most recent sports scores while Lars goofs around with his fellow Norwegians.
The new Thing also attempts to set up the mistrust between the humans in the same exact way the 1982 movie did, but fails to make finding the identity of the Thing suspenseful. The new alien is frightening only because the puppets are scary-looking. Every scene in which the scientists accuse each other of being the Thing is agony, not because you are on the edge of your seat trying to figure out who it is but because they're so slow and lackluster you're counting down the minutes until the puppet reappears. The film never tries to engage the audience in the dilemma -- the people who turn out to be the creature are either incredibly predictable or so completely out of left field it feels as if the movie is cheating. The greatest scare in the Carpenter version is the feeling that the Thing could be anyone, and that suspense just doesn't carry over into the prequel. As an audience member you barely know the characters outside of Kate and therefore aren't invested in whether they could be the monster. We know everyone is pretty much expendable from the get-go, so why bother?
Between unoriginal characters and unoriginal theme, The Thing also lacks an original point of view. It's simply aping the man-against-man paranoia plot of the Carpenter version, which is made worse by the fact that this Thing could have given a whole new spin on that paranoia element. As the Carpenter version mimicked Cold War fear and mistrust, this Thing could have looked to our current terrorism paranoia and given us a fresh take on the subject. Even the music apes the original as the orchestral score by Marco Beltrami slowly incorporates larger and larger chunks of the Ennio Morricone score until by the end it's actually the same as the 1982 film. The Thing should be judged on its own merits, but when it tries so hard to copy the exact message and plot as the Carpenter film it flings open the door to those unflattering comparisons.
The best parts of The Thing are when it can get away from the Carpenter movie and focus on its Ripley heroine and the alien actively hunting down the humans. Unfortunately it's never able to stand on its own or convince the audience this was a story worth telling. Ultimately, if you want a great horror movie to freak out over this Halloween, watch John Carpenter’s The Thing on Netflix. But if your Internet connection goes down, this film is a decent substitute.
The Thing opens Friday nationwide.