It’s 1982, and paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is summoned to the Thule research station in Antarctica by a rather intense Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), who’s made quite the discovery. Her expertise is required early on in examining frozen remains of an alien life-form, but when Thule is threatened by this thing from another world, it’s her survivalist instinct and pyro-tendencies that save the day–for the most part. If you’re familiar with John Carpenter’s The Thing, a remake in itself, there’s nothing new here in terms of structure or story, which depending on your viewpoint is a good or bad thing; for the 2011 film, the 1982 original was formula perfected, and this formula is not only repeated in Matthijs van Heijningen’s movie, it’s updated to satisfying modernity. We have, as we did thirty years ago, a team of scientists battling a malevolent alien creature capable of shape-shifting to the image of friends and associates, and gruesomely showing off in doing so. In this film, it’s the showing off part that sells.

When a member among the crew is suspected of being an alien in disguise, that’s bad news for him. When the alien then transforms into a more lethal form as self-defense, that’s bad news for everyone else. These transformations made the John Carpenter movie iconic, and in the new film, computer generated imagery and physical creature effects work in tandem toward sickening results. With a shudder of flesh and the grinding of bones, body parts sever, split, snake–and come after you. The creature makes a mockery of the human form, contorting it to mimic aliens it must have assimilated before, where heads meld together, and massive jaws rend out of stomachs to the tune of otherworldly wails. This is something you don’t want to become, be eaten by, or even look at–it’s easy to sympathize with the crew, who often turn on each other in the face of suspicion.

The crew of John Carpenter’s movie was a close-knit bunch of blue-collar boys, but at the first sign of trouble from the icy wasteland, tension brimming just below the surface begins to poke through. In Matthijs van Heijningen’s movie, potential factions are visible from the start: Americans vs. Norwegians, scientists vs. pilots, men vs. women, newcomer Kate vs. everybody, everybody vs. sinister Sander. As the film plays out, alliances and suspects shift–the alien could be anybody, and it isn’t telling. The prevailing question through not only this movie but the original is: who goes there? Human or alien? Characters only feel safe when they’re looking over their shoulder, and the alien certainly knows that frail human necks get sore after a while; paranoia manifests in tight grips on rifles and flamethrowers, and people are put into groups, examined, quarantined.

Moviegoers in 1982, when they did, came for the alien gore, and stayed for the psychological aspect. It’s a story akin to the greats in The Twilight Zone or Stephen King’s The Mist, where gooey creatures are portals to the much darker evils of man. Unfortunately, this piece de resistance of the story is not nearly as strong in van Heijningen’s film, though it does exist. A lot of it is that sacred law of diminishing returns, but mostly it’s the characters. For the most part, they’re enough to invest in but never truly cared for, as they occupy one of two roles: background detail or lazy stereotype.

There is precious little time for characterization; same as in 1982. But screenwriter Bill Lancaster was able to draw fully-rounded characters despite the forward-moving plot, placing great significance on every line spoken by individual members of the ensemble; they’re charged with defining not only the character, but the character’s place in the situation. Hefty work done efficiently, but not quite in 2011. The cast feels much larger this time, and that’s because we never get to know most of them by the time they’re assimilated. Names of the Norwegians were elusive, and it was difficult from the outset to keep track of everybody. By the time chaos hits Thule Station, these nameless guys are running around shouting things–often in a different language–which is appropriately panicked and confusing, so it works, but the audience is lulled into a distance from the action. It’s up to Kate to engage us, and whether or not she does is somewhat inconsequential, because the film would doubtless have been improved if the supporting cast wasn’t as expendable. For evidence of this, we can look to John Carpenter’s.

The film is written by Eric Heisserer (from drafts by Ronald D. Moore), based on “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, and he turns out a competent job, keeping the tension high despite mostly pale characters. Together with fine acting, the script is brought to life and touches all prerequisite bases for fun, alien-smashing action. As it checks steps off the list–unearth the creature, figure it out, deny it, suffer attacks by creature–the cast follows through in stride. Accents are masked and changed, tempers fluctuate organically, expressions speak loudly. In horror, strong emotions reign, whether it’s fear or anger or sadness. In science-fiction, suspension of disbelief is chiefly credited to the actors, and The Thing of course straddles both genres. Not an easy task on the part of the players, but one well performed here.

Unlike other modern creature features, physical actors could interact with equally physical monsters, though they were smartly enhanced by CGI. The creature itself is where the filmmakers stood apart from John Carpenter’s, as the original monster could seem to do anything–but move. The new creature is not only mobile but fast, and its new predatory nature adds a welcome element of suspense. Critics have noted that van Heijningen must have taken influence from Alien, with chases down hallways and even in some cases, creature design. One might of course argue that this is a necessary path the film needed to take.

The issue surrounding The Thing is that most films of its kind–good science-fiction horror movies–don’t need to take paths in the first place. They don’t have to be engineered to a specific blueprint in order to please people, but in this hideous day and age, where remakes of reboots of franchises of adaptations reign, the audience is king. With The Thing, the audience was a notoriously difficult bunch to please–fans. In adapting a preexisting work with any type of fan-base, there will be complaints. The filmmaker then has forked-roads to travel, whether he stays faithful to the source material or creates something new, if modernizing it or not is the right way to go, etc. He’s beholden to this crabby audience, which typically perceives his final decision as the wrong one. Producers Marc Abraham and Eric Newman chose wrong when they decided to do a remake of a now beloved classic, and that was step one.

It’s a tragedy that The Thing was released to commercial failure in theatres, because it speaks to the greater realm of modern science-fiction film, a realm that’s slavish to the nerd kingdom. Not helping is of course that van Heijningen’s movie cannot stand on its own, where John Carpenter’s most certainly could, and felt nearly defiant, rather than adoring, in the face of its predecessor. This movie truly should have been titled Who Goes There?, but I suppose the distributors wanted to milk as much money from whatever marquee value The Thing brand name carries. Not much, as we discover. One is led to wonder exactly who was targeted to see this film. The big horror movie franchises of the day ring polar opposite to this one: Paranormal Activity, Saw, Final Destination–these days the creature feature has been displaced by the zombie flick, and those who appreciate monsters are used to the rubber or stop-motion dragons and Brundleflies of days gone by. CGI in The Thing? It was bad enough in 1982 when there was going to be animatronics and miniatures in The Thing, as opposed to only makeup effects!

So if not fans of The Thing, and if not modern horror fans, perhaps this will be The Thing to rein in a new generation of fans? Afraid not; the kids of the day would rather see ghosts and Death itself kill people, which, on a visual level, is to say nothing at all kill people. Movies (a visual medium, by the way) of that type also tend to feature kids, which is something of a selling point whether we like it or not. Compare Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character Wendy in Final Destination 3 to Kate in The Thing–there was romantic tension where now there is only survival and stern, commanding looks. While some might prefer the latter with more passion, a majority prefers the former, albeit casually. The youngsters of the day would just as quickly wonder what a Snake Plissken is as they would claim that the new Thing is a rip-off of the video-game Dead Space. Another audience not easily pandered to when sixty-year old aliens are concerned.

Additionally, and possibly most importantly, The Thing is a remake. It may technically be a prequel, but why then wasn’t it called Before the Thing, or The Thing Zero, The Thing 2, or One More Thing? Because those are all terrible titles–once again Who Goes There? was left wide open. The money-men were banking on its assets as a remake, not a prequel, and in late 2011, audiences have had their fill. Not only of remakes, but of horror remakes.

The giants in the genre have all been dried up in the last couple of years: Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Dawn of the Dead, even smaller titles like The Hills Have Eyes, Last House on the Left, Black Christmas, Fright Night, and of course, arbitrary entries in the John Carpenter canon: The Fog and Assault on Precinct 13. Maybe next year we’ll get rumblings of a Big Trouble in Little China remake, but dark. The Thing came far too late, though ironically it was just as late as John Carpenter’s was, following up Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby’s.

It may have felt like a good idea at the time, but revisiting The Thing was as fruitful as taking a tissue sample from the frozen alien specimen. It is as it’s always been–a film with a small, but significant appeal. Van Heijningen’s movie may not interest you on principle, but I’d advise you to seek it out on home video. It’s a creature feature in a league with Frank Darabont’s excellent The Mist rather than Underworld Evolution or Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and at its best moments, provides very real, very intense moments of terror that don’t merely recall the 80s days, but fill us with those same, welcomed feelings. It may not be the best sci-fi horror movie of all time, but it breaks this writer’s heart when a genuinely entertaining film is passed up because we were all expecting it to be bad. It’s the current climate–we’re done with remakes, and perhaps we could blame the victim here in saying that it shouldn’t have joined those ranks to begin with, but as the credits roll and we see how this story bridges into John Carpenter’s The Thing, I’m glad it did.

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