Those words from RJ MacReady (Kurt Russell) ran through my mind when I sat down to watch Matthijs van Heijingen Jr.’s 2011 The Thing, a prequel to John Carpenter’s seminal 1982 film of the same name. I’ll admit it was hard to trust that anyone could do justice to Carpenter’s horror classic (itself a sort of remake of another classic, producer Howard Hawks and director Christian Nyby’s The Thing from Another World, all based on John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?”), especially not a first time director with only one short and one video to his credit. But I tried to be optimistic and focus on what I saw as positive signs. They had hired effects artists Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. (Aliens, Pumpkinhead and Alien 3, among many other films) who noted in many interviews that they wanted to concentrate mainly on practical effects. The trailer quoted the famous Ennio Morricone score from the original, which can be heard briefly over the end credits. It could have been good. Sadly, what I got was a bloated, overblown mess riddled with cheap-looking CGI, throwing out everything that made the Carpenter film so excellent and unsettling to this day. Trust is tough to come by, indeed.
Set up as a prequel to Carpenter’s film, this movie is also set in 1982 (and does take the time to keep the 80s look alive), and centers on paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) as she travels to a Norwegian research base in Antarctica to help with a mind-blowing discovery of a new life form. However, the life form turns out to be a deadly parasite that can perfectly imitate anyone. Soon Kate and helicopter pilot Braxton Cater (Joel Edgerton, Warrior) must try and figure out who’s human and who has become an alternate life form before the alien escapes the base and heads for civilization.
As I watched the movie, one of the things I kept repeating to myself was “too much”. Everything in the film was just too much. In the Carpenter version, one of the words I think describes the film well is “austere”, and I mean this in a good way. Carpenter spent time making the audience feel the sparseness, the giant isolation of the Antarctic. Even the interiors seemed lonely, with long tracking shots of empty hallways and dingy rooms. When the monster makes an appearance (and it’s about a good 45 minutes into the movie before there’s any overt creature action), you were already feeling lost and alone out in the snow. The 2011 version needed this feeling of isolation, but you’re never really given any time to get into that mood, or any mood for that matter. Setting a mood takes time, and this movie spends more of its time throwing monsters in your face than thinking about actually making the monsters scary.
The cast members do the best they can with the material they’re given. I feel bad for Edgerton, who’s so clearly meant to be this film’s MacReady that they might as well have stitched it on his jacket. He has Kurt Russell-esque features and his pal (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is a tall bald man who looks an awful lot like Keith David (Childs in the original). Neither man can live up to their predecessor. Winstead seems to be trying hard, but I never really believed her character had the guts to pick up a flamethrower and kick some ass. I don’t know if this is a flaw in casting or scripting, but either way, it didn’t help the film at all. Most believable are the members of the Norwegian science team, who seem the most natural and look the least like Hollywood actors. They have a few endearing scenes (especially a raucous celebration in the first third of the film), but you don’t get to know them like you do the team in the original. I kind of wish they had just done a story about them instead of shoe-horning some Americans into the narrative. Points for keeping a good third of the dialogue subtitled, and not just having all the actors change over to English once our heroes arrived.
There are hints from the start that this movie is going to have problems. From the opening shot, Marco Beltrami’s score is heavy handed and overbearing, pretty much doing the exact opposite of Morricone’s subtle, creepy score from the Carpenter film. Carpenter also kept many of his scenes without score or source music, which adds to the realism. The first encounter with the 2011 monster is somewhat promising, with it dragging one of the team under a building, allowing us to only see parts of the creature, forcing us to imagine the rest. The accompanying autopsy scene is the strongest as far as the monster effects are concerned, because this seems to be the only place where practical effects were used. Like Carpenter’s movie (the 2011 scene is clearly an homage), the autopsy reveals information about the monster through some burnt remains, with scientists digging through them to find the true nature of the creature. Gillis and Woodruff Jr. go above and beyond here, creating a gooey, creepy monster hiding some secrets inside. If only they had been used more often. The concept of the creature not being able to assimilate certain materials is new and interesting, and proves to be one of the few creative moments in the movie.
After that one bright spot, it’s all downhill. Most damningly, the scares just aren’t scary. Any of them. To set the mood, the director uses jump scares and loud noises, but they don’t equal fear, even though the film is chock full of both. Between the subpar CGI (it becomes almost laughable by the climactic showdown), the loud music stings and the obvious telegraphing of the monster’s attacks, you’ve got nothing left to use to actually scare your audience. In general, I’m okay with CGI when it’s used well (and usually when it’s used to enhance practical effects), but this CGI seems not only cheap but lazy. It’s incredibly disappointing to see so much CGI so poorly used, especially given that Carpenter’s film was a triumph of practical effects (thanks to the mad SPX genius Rob Bottin).
The monster itself is also a problem, aside from its cruddy rendering. The Thing is revealed way too soon (in the first third of the movie), never allowing tension to build to any kind of big moment. Originally, the Thing ostensibly operated through deception and subtlety. It was trying to find a host to get itself secretly out of Antarctica, and only acted overtly when there was no other choice. Not so much in this new movie, where the monster attacks almost at random, often not even waiting to be alone with someone where it would have the advantage of secrecy. The director also ascribes human emotions to this alien creature, making it openly malicious in several scenes instead of inscrutable and blank. This is in direct contrast to the way the creature was portrayed in John Carpenter’s version.
The film also cribs shamelessly from not just Carpenter’s movie (the blood test scene especially, but there are a few other “borrowed” moments in there), but from other popular films, including the bee venting scene from X-Files: Fight the Future and a kitchen stalker scene right out of Jurassic Park. It doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be a prequel or a remake, so it becomes neither.
In the end, aside from not doing any kind of justice to the film that inspired it, the 2011 The Thing isn’t scary, tense or exciting on its own merits. The best thing it could do would be to bring new fans to Carpenter’s and Nyby’s films. Ultimately, it’s just another knockoff.
The Thing opens in Philadelphia-area theaters today.