And Another Thing...
So, my friend and I decided to go to the cinema together – for the first time, I believe, since 2007's The Invasion, which we saw at the Serialkillerplex in Chiba. Protracted to-doings about seats and tickets concluded, we took our positions in the auditorium expectantly.
'What do we do now?' my friend asked.
'Why don't we just wait here for a little while... see what happens,' I suggested.
Yes, we were there for the latest incarnation of John W Campbell's immortal tale of extraterrestrial polar nastiness, best known these days simply as The Thing. I am a big fan of the 1951 adaptation (hereafter 'the Nyby version') and a recent convert to the 1982 take on the story (hereafter 'the Carpenter version') and so 2011's offering, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. (hereafter 'the new version', mainly as that's easier to spell), was a movie I was rather looking forward to. Is it a remake of or a prequel to John Carpenter's cult shocker? I'm not sure – let's just call it a preremaquel and leave it at that.
Winter, 1982 (again), and a Norwegian expedition carrying out research in Antarctica makes an astounding discovery: a huge alien ship buried under the ice there, and what appear to be the deep-frozen remains of an occupant. Primarily to avoid the entire movie being conducted in subtitled Norwegian, comely American palaentologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is recruited to help with the extraction of the carcass.
However, as is practically a truism by now, 'frozen alien' is not the same thing as 'dead alien' and the entity in the ice takes advantage of its new situation to bust out of its frozen prison and run amok around the camp. Casualties ensue before it is burned to death by American chopper pilot Carter (Joel Edgerton).
But an analysis of the creature's biology reveals something unexpected: the alien has the ability to absorb and then perfectly mimic any other life-form it comes into contact with. If the Thing can make it out of the barren wastes of Antarctica, there will be nothing to stop it assimilating the entire biosphere of the planet – and there are signs that prior to its demise, the original Thing was able to replicate at least one of the people at the base. But who...?
Well, the first thing to say about the new Thing is that this is such a good scenario for a story that it would take a very special film-maker to completely faff it up (and luckily Paul W.S. Anderson was busy elsewhere). This is by no means a dreadful film or even a merely bad one: it's never less than polished and competent in virtually every department. Unfortunately, it never goes much beyond this level of achievement, either.
This movie is being marketed very much on the strength of its connections with the Carpenter version, but something which slightly surprised me about it was the degree to which it draws on the Nyby version, too – rather more than Carpenter did. The chief Norwegian scientist (Ulrich Thomsen) is very reminiscent of the Thing-sympathising boffin played by Robert Cornthwaite in 1951, but there's more to it than this. The biggest difference between the two previous versions is that Nyby's is an it's-out-there-somewhere! movie and Carpenter's is an it's-secretly-one-of-us! movie. You would expect the preremaquel to follow Carpenter, but it doesn't: the Thing here spends much more time rampaging around in the open, spewing spiked intestines in all directions and chasing people about. Basically, the Thing here comes across as rather more stupid and less subtle than it was previously (or, given the nature of the narrative, it will be in future).
One could argue that this is a result of advances in special effects, making the realisation of the Thing much easier than it was in 1982. Well, maybe, but seeing more of the monster doesn't necessarily help the movie. The startling effects sequences in the Carpenter version (described in the IMDB as 'one of the most vile and scary movies ever') work so well because a) they're strictly rationed and b) they're wildly varied and immensely inventive. And that movie works as well as it does because of what happens between the splatter – the tension and the atmosphere that is relentlessly built up.
In the Carpenter version the Thing doesn't start doing its thing willy-nilly – but in the new one it does, as I mentioned up the page: people start splitting open and spewing viscera about, not quite at the drop of a hat, but certainly at times when it doesn't strictly seem necessary from the entity's point of view. And the CGI Things, while appropriately disgusting to look at, just don't have the 'eeuuuurgghhhh'-factor of Rob Bottin's 1982 puppet and animatronic creations – they even get a bit samey-samey after a while, which is absolutely not how Things should be.
Nevertheless, the new version is deeply invested in its connection to the Carpenter version: and to some extent its achievement in this area is highly impressive. So far as I can tell, the two movies dovetail almost seamlessly, to the point where the last shot of this film is essentially the first of Carpenter's – even down to the soundtrack. (Although I don't quite see how the Norwegian videos in the Carpenter version fit into the story told here.) I was dubious as to how this would play, as it would surely mean depriving this film of a proper ending. That isn't quite how it works out, but making the lead-in to Carpenter not much more than a coda really means it feels like an afterthought.
The new version's status as a preremaquel doesn't always work to its advantage, either – in order to stay credible this means that it can't repeat too many scenes or ideas from the Carpenter version. The new ideas it comes up with are too often substandard – Kate's plan to see who could possibly be a Thing and who's still human is scientifically based, which is good – but the discipline in question is dentistry, which I thought came dangerously close to bathos. (Certainly, at the screening I attended, people were openly sniggering.) A lengthy sequence aboard the Thing's own vessel also feels like it's taking the drama too far out of a recognisable world, too.
The great thing about the Nyby and Carpenter versions is that neither of them is exactly overflowing with reverence for their predecessor – Nyby's film does a major number on Campbell's short story, while Carpenter in turn doesn't try to imitate Nyby (though he does go back to Campbell in a lot of ways). I would have been interested to see a brand-new version of The Thing that didn't try so hard to mimic Carpenter – then again, mimicry's the name of the game where this beastie's concerned.
But, having said that, this is not a replication that the Thing itself would be proud of. One of the defining qualities of the Carpenter version is that it's so resolutely true to a very idiosyncratic and rather uncompromising vision. It's a relentlessly bleak and downbeat movie that makes very few concessions to the audience – for instance, Carpenter didn't put any women in his film as he didn't see how it would help the story. Here, on the other hand, we have hitherto-unsuspected Brits and Americans at the Norwegian camp, for the reasons previously mentioned, and a gutsy-but-cute female lead very much in the Sigourney Weaver mould. It's exactly what you would expect in a by-the-numbers SF-horror movie (just as happened in Alien vs Predator, itself a distant cousin to the Thing lineage), but given the history of The Thing, by-the-numbers doesn't cut it. This is a perfectly average, perfectly acceptable piece of forgettable entertainment – but when it comes to a new take on The Thing, just being acceptable is not acceptable at all.