Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on The New Portable.
When I first heard that there was going to be something like a remake of John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing, I wasn’t much interested. Remakes tend to be problematic in the sense that most of them try desperately to capitalize off the success of the original without keeping a great deal of the heart that made the original great. When I heard that it was going to be more of a prequel than a remake, essentially the story of what happened in the Norwegian camp before the creature made it to the American outpost, I was mildly more interested, but not enough to watch the film until now.
With the story of this film being what it is, it shouldn’t need a great deal of set-up. If you haven’t seen Carpenter’s film, you shouldn’t be reading this review; you should be locating that and watching it, since it’s one of the truly great horror/science fiction films in movie history. That’s not hyperbole. That being the case, this would need to be a truly exceptional film to match it. That would be even more extraordinary in what was the director’s first (and to date, only) feature-length film. It will not be a surprise when I tell you that it’s not that.
So, what we have is the discovery of the alien spacecraft upon which our eponymous thing once traveled. American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is recruited to come to the site, knowing nothing except that a discovery has been made. At this point, you should know what is going to happen; again, if you haven’t seen Carpenter’s film, you should go watch that immediately. Of course the creature that has been discovered in the ice is still alive. And, as with the previous film, it has the ability to infect people and perfectly mimic their cell structure, essentially becoming the original person, albeit after a very messy and bloody moment of cellular duplication.
While The Thing styles itself as a prequel to the earlier film, it wants desperately to be a remake in many ways. Carpenter’s film (and I’m sorry about the constant comparison, but I’m not the idiot who decided to pee on the legacy of one of horror’s truly great movies) has moments that are iconic in the genre, scenes that are very clearly orchestrated to produce a particular effect in the viewer. The blood test scene is perhaps the best and best-known. There isn’t a direct attempt at duplication here, but it comes close. Rather than testing blood, it comes down to whether or not people have fillings in their teeth, but when we do get a sudden appearance of the monster, we get a serious attempt at recreating parts of that scene—the head that sprouts legs instead becomes a torso that sprouts legs. We also get a misfiring flamethrower, and a suddenly vigorous creature killing the people standing around gawking at it.
I want to be clear on this: in a lot of instances, this would be a good scene. However, the vast majority of people watching this movie are going to be fans of (or at least familiar with) Carpenter’s film. It feels like a direct steal from a much superior film and does not come across as the homage it was almost certainly intended to be. It struck me as a “what are the odds?” moment. What are the odds that in two separate Antarctic camps, two separate groups of people would have identical flamethrower problems while fighting a creature from outer space? The minute I had that thought, I was pulled out of the scene, not enjoying the clear reference to the earlier film but annoyed that this one thought it had the chops to go there.
The biggest difference, though, is the lack of good practical effects. The 1982 movie was (and still is) lauded for some of the best practical effect work in the genre in history. There were evidently some practical effect tests made for this one, but ultimately the decision was made to go with CGI, and it looks like bad CGI. While CGI certainly has its uses, it tends to be worthless in horror movies. It never looks right and it never has the sort of visceral quality that a good practical effect does. It’s so clearly fake that it simply doesn’t scare, and while the incarnations of the creature here are inventive and appropriately gooey and Lovecraftian, they just don’t have that real feeling to them that they need to be successful.
The only thing I really appreciated about this was the fact that it desperately tries to set up the 1982 film. What this means is that we have a moment where the multi-body, face dividing itself mass discovered in the original film. We even get a mid-credit sequence of two men in a helicopter tracking down the escaping dog. I appreciate that it went there, but it sometimes goes out of its way to where it wants to go. The effort is good, but it’s simply not enough to make this anything more than a shadow of a far superior movie.
Why to watch The Thing (2011): It tries very hard to set up Carpenter’s 1982 film.
Why not to watch: Practical effects > CGI.