***originally written 2 December 2011***
Welcome to a cave of forgotten nightmares. When news first broke a couple of years ago that there was going to be a prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing (it’s official title – and one that it’s going to be helpful to refer to it as) the initial reaction, at least on my part was instantly a) oh God why, and b) well, they better not cram it with shoddy CGI. For those unfamiliar with John Carpenter’s 1982 fucking classic science fiction monster movie, it was – among other things – a special effects marvel. It still stands up today. Still impresses. And, crucially, it was all achieved using physical effects. It is audacious, distinctive and brilliant. If you’re going to make a successful prequel, you better damned well stick to the formula.
…But why must you? Really. Why? Even if this movie was crammed with more computer-generated effects than Avatar, would it take anything away from John Carpenter’s The Thing? No. That movie would still be left standing as the landmark it is. This is part of the reason I am less inclined nowadays to write off a remake or a reboot before I’ve seen it. And, if you think about it in theatrical terms, there’s something of a massive double-standard going on in the way people have knee-jerk reactions against movie remakes and reboots, like my initial “oh God why” response. The same cries of injustice aren’t hurled at theatre production companies for launching ‘new’ versions of classic plays. Calm the fuck down. The original is still the original. This new movie is its own, ahem, thing.
But I digress. There’s a movie here to review…
Directed by Matthijs van Hejningen (who?), The Thing begins with the discovery of a spacecraft buried in the Antarctic wastes. Not long after we meet paleontologist Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead – still warming cockles with those doe-eyes that made me a fan in both Death Proof and Scott Pilgrim). She quickly signs on with immediately-suspicious Ulrich Thomsen to investigate the crash site with the help of some handily nearby Norwegians. They excavate a body from near the site, pleasingly aping the 1950s movie The Thing From Another World, and in spite of conventional scientific caution, drill into it for a sample. Chaos ensues.
Kate quickly comes to realise that the alien being is still alive, and able to imitate humans. Her fellow scientists don’t believe her, for a few minutes anyway. Then, hey presto, some freaky shit goes down and everyone’s aboard. Numbers are thinned out further by some Alien3-style fucking-yourselves-up, leaving us a nice comfortable eight characters left, and rising paranoia.
The question still hangs over the movie; how well are the ‘things’ realised? With old-school physical effects, or unconvincing CGI replacements? Well, it’s a little of both. In most instances it appears van Hejningen has lumped for a blending of the two elements, mostly to excellent effect. If you can see the flaws, you’re probably looking for them. In terms of design, there is little that matches the originality rustled up in Carpenter’s movie. Mainly, when the ‘thing’ appears, it’s in queasy variations of it’s incarnations in John Carpenter’s The Thing, which, if uninspired, at least lends the films consistency.
But Carpenter’s movie was such a success due to the tension that played out between the ‘humans’. To his credit van Hejningen approaches these levels of suspense, making this an impressive little horror, even if it’s best scene is in essence a carbon-copy of Carpenter’s best scene – simply replacing the ‘blood test’ with the, erm, ‘filling test’. There’s a nagging sense that we’re just travelling down old roads again all the way. Yet despite some questionable dialogue (one scientist to another: “you’re not here to think!”) there’s very little to fault at all… until the film actually tries something new.
A trip inside the alien’s spaceship at the film’s conclusion is dreadfully ham-fisted, leading to a rather tepid – and CGI heavy – final showdown. Not to mention the confused and rushed coda that oddly takes place during the end credits, and feels tacked on hurriedly, as if someone forgot that there was a whole movie to feed into. And, believe it or not, they also manage to make a further movie possible.
So… you’re looking at 75 great, tense, grizzly, box-ticking minutes, and 20 botched ones. Never is it on the same level as John Carpenter’s The Thing, but it’s solidly involving. That ending however, robs the movie of a whole star (or point – this font doesn’t lend itself to ‘stars’). Until the next thing…