Tuesday, February 07, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Thing (2011)

Earlier today, I re-posted my review of John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), a film that rose phoenix-like from the ashes of box office and critical failure to discover a second life as a horror film masterpiece.

A new prequel to Carpenter's  in The Thing, also titled The Thing (2011), is perhaps the greatest evidence that Carpenter's film is beloved and admired by a generation. 

Carpenter's iteration of the material failed rather dramatically at the box office in '82, and here we are, thirty years later, witnessing a continuation of the same material that touts, mainly, its fidelity to Carpenter's vision.   That the prequel film exists at all is a validation of Carpenter's efforts thirty years ago, and the timeless qualities his film clearly possesses.

I must admit, I have always hoped for a sequel to Carpenter's The Thing.  I would have preferred a continuation that featured Carpenter in the director's chair and Kurt Russell starring.  I'm still baffled why that film was never made.  But...whatever, Universal has given us this Thing instead, a movie that showcases the story of the (doomed) Norwegian camp which frees the Thing from its icy prison, and is promptly decimated by the hostile alien shape shifter.

For many reasons, I expected to flat-out hate this prequel to The Thing.  For one thing, why tell us a story that we are already familiar with?  After all, we know how the Norwegian story ends, don't we?  Icicles and razor blades...

For another thing, why risk mucking up the The Thing universe with inconsistencies in a pre-established story?   Finally, there's what I term the "Enterprise (2001 - 2005) Factor."  In this last regard, I refer to the Star Trek prequel.  This series established that long before Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock successfully completed the first five year mission in Starfleet, Captain Archer and his Vulcan side-kick were out there too, becoming living legends as well.  

In terms of our emotional understanding of the Star Trek franchise, Kirk was a pioneer, and so was Spock, in his own way.  Star Trek represented our "first contact" with this  particular universe, and Kirk and Spock were special, in part, because they came first, and set a standard.  Later, the Next Generation seemed to acknowledge NCC-1701's place in history, referring to adventures like "The Naked Time" in "The Naked Now" and to Starfleet/Enterprise history in "Encounter at Farpoint." 

But the entirety of Enterprise is based upon the counter-intuitive notion that an earlier Enterprise crew -- also consisting of an ice-breaking relationship between Captain and Vulcan officer -- did the same thing, before Kirk did.   Instead of adding to the Star Trek universe, Enterprise subtracted from our impression of it, making the exploits of Kirk and Company seem less special in the process.  If Captain Archer was tangling with Klingons well before Kirk did -- so much so that they had a vendetta against him -- Kirk's actions became, automatically...less unique, less extraordinary.

The new The Thing suffers most grievously from "the Enterprise Factor."  In the Carpenter version of The Thing, we met a kind of anti-heroic character, MacReady (Russell), possessed of considerable intelligence and deductive powers, who had to craft a defense against an implacable alien foe. MacReady did so with no preparation, based on speculation and a few inconclusive autopsies.  In difficult circumstances, he and his fellow Outpost 31 team members came up with a blood test to help identify the alien, and arrived at the conclusion that their base had to be quarantined, lest the Thing escape into the general population and assimilate all of mankind.  Alienated from one another, not even liking each other, these humans attempted to mount a defense.

Now, along comes The Thing (2011) from director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., and the characters here -- arriving before MacReady in terms of movie chronology if not real life chronology -- devise a blood test to help identify the alien, and arrive at the conclusion that their base must be quarantined, lest the Thing escape into the general population and assimilate mankind. 

That this Norwegian team manages the same impressive feat, ahead of MacReady, a priori subtracts from MacReady's intelligence, resourcefulness, and heroism.  Now he's just the second in line figuring all this out, and his accomplishments seem less extraordinary.  He's just coming up with ideas Kate Lloyd, this film's protagonist, came up with first.

In other words, both Enterprise and The Thing, by the very nature of their stories, take away from earlier franchise entries.  I won't say that they "shit" on earlier productions, because at least in the case of The Thing (2011) there is a strong reverence for the look and feel of the original franchise film on display.  But the Enterprise Factor is inescapable.  Seeing the same story as The Thing, taking place before the Thing, makes The Thing (1981) seem, well, rather less than special, doesn't it?

The new film features other problems as well.  The 1982 film was 100% hardcore in terms of its characters.  There were no women in the cast of John Carpenter's film unless you count the blow-up sex doll, and that fact accounted for some of the tension and feelings of isolation the original generated so ably. 

Here, the new film bows to 21st century movie demographic concerns, and gives us two women at a base just a few miles away from Outpost 31.  One of them happens to be American, and for all intents and purposes, she's Sigourney Weaver's Ripley.  Mary Elizabeth Winstead is very good as Kate Lloyd, but it's difficult to imagine that an American paleontologist, and a female one at that, would be brought in by the Norwegians.   Norwegians don't have male paleontologists in their own country?   Again, I should stress, it's not that I'm anti-woman or dislike seeing women in horror films, it's that the original film existed in a time and place and context: Antarctica in 1982.  It was unlikely, perhaps, to find women scientists serving there.  The new Thing undercuts that original context, and all in an attempt to grab a bigger audience.

The film's second and considerable mistake is to visualize the recruitment of Kate Lloyd at Columbia University, in America.  Another reason for the Carpenter film's pervasive sense of isolation and alienation was the setting.  It was impossible to escape

Outpost 31 was alone, on an alien continent, as it were. 

No help, no communication, no visits to the comfy cozy American heartland...

But here, Norwegians discover the alien spaceship and corpse, and have time to recruit Kate in America. Then they fly her down to Antarctica, where she fits in almost immediately, and has very little trouble adapting to the intense cold or the desolate, snowbound environment.   

Again, the development of isolation and paranoia in a movie audience is aided by setting in the film in one locale and remaining locked there.  Visiting America in the new Thing is a mood-breaker, an unnecessary escape valve that takes audiences away from the mood of terror and alienation.  Also, it raises questions.  If the Norwegians had time to go to America and recruit Kate (and bring her back), they also had time to notify the government of their amazing discovery.  I find it hard to believe Norway wouldn't insist on a military escort, given the mysteries involved in the discovery of an alien spaceship.  Instead, Norway leaves the investigation of an alien life form and vessel to a prissy scientist and some hulking Norwegian redneck-types.

The film's third mistake, I beieve, is the first Thing attack.  It is rendered in very fake, very two-dimensional, very photo-unreal CGI.  The scene takes place in a helicopter, and looks absolutely awful.  Now, many of the other Thing-outs in the film -- also CGI -- look significantly better than this initial one.  Generally, the effects look pretty good.  At the very least, they are effective.  But by introducing the Thing with a woefully bad effects sequence, the horrific nature of the alien is not conveyed as promptly or as effectively as it should be.  

If I had been making this film, I would have made absolutely certain that the first attack in the helicopter was staged and executed perfectly.  The resources necessary to make that happen should have been devoted to such an important moment.   Why? Movie-goers, and especially fans of the original, were waiting to see if CGI could deliver as effectively what Rob Bottin's practical effects delivered in 1982.  The effects in the new Thing, as they stand in this first scene, fail to reach that benchmark, and so disappointment ensues.  Not all the special effects in the film are this bad, but for the first "thing-out" to be a disaster bodes poorly for the remainder of the film.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that the new Thing never provides audiences a "thing-out" as memorable as Norris's chest-opening, arm-chomping, head-stretching, spider-leg-sprouting moment in Carpenter's film.  That sequence remains absolutely untopped for pure, unadulterated what-the-fuckism.  I don't know that such a moment can be topped, frankly, so perhaps this is an unfair criticism.  By the same token, we've all waited almost thirty years to see the inside of the Thing's saucer, and the depiction of it here, while undeniably competent, lacks any kind of inspiration or distinction.  Two days later, I don't remember much unique or interesting about it.  I contrast this with a film like Fire in the Sky (1993), where the interior of an alien ship was weird and unforgettable.

In general, this new Thing is also far less gory, drippy, wet and messy than Carpenter's film. We get one autopsy scene here, but relatively few bloody or gory inserts.  I mention this facet of the film because in my original review of The Thing (1982), I noted that Carpenter utilized such insert shots to broadcast the idea of the frailty or vulnerabiity of the flesh.  That idea is totally absent in the new version of The Thing.  Between the pristine, digital CGI and the general lack of blood and guts (and autopsy exams...) the new Thing is generally much less upsetting and far more mainstream in approach than the bracing 1982 film.

I find all of this disappointing, because The Thing (2011) is not some quick, cheap, or stupid knock-off.  There are actually quite a few things about the film I actually liked and appreciated. 

In some senses, this prequel does add to "Thing" lore substantially, and in interesting, thoughtful fashion. 

For instance, the blood test is devised and brough up by characters here, but never vetted.  Instead, in this Thing, humans can be detected...if they have tooth fillings.  In other words,  Kate determines that the Thing cannot reproduce inorganic matter, like tooth fillings or earrings.  A quick scan of each person's mouth can reveal whether they have fillings or not, and this particular scene -- though an obvious homage to Carpenter's classic blood-test scene -- works like gangbusters in developing tension.  In particular, you have to be very, very close to look inside someone's mouth, and the film makes the most out of that potentially dangerous proximity.

I also appreciated another scene in the film, in which Kate takes command of the Norwegian camp, and begins issuing orders about quarantining the premises.  She is met by another character, who appears sympathetic and offers to help her.  This character takes Kate to find some keys for the vehicles...into an isolated room...and is promptly revealed as The Thing. 

This is the kind of scene that must have occurred between characters at Outpost 31 in the original, but for reasons of building suspense and paranoia were not revealed on screen.  The Thing must use its advantage of looking like someone familiar to get another human alone...and then assimilate him or her.  It's rewarding and unique that this version of The Thing actually reveals how the alien attempts to ingratiate itself with another human, in hopes of replacing it.  And, of course, given her leadership role, Kate would logically be the Thing's primary target.

I also got a kick out of the way this prequel accounts for that two-faced, grimacing/smiling corpse discoverd in Carpenter's The Thing.  You remember...two creepy faces sharing an elongated, smirking mouth. 

Here, we see that creature born, and it's a nice, creepy bit of continuity.  And, finally, the new Thing reaches its apex of success and thrills as it winds around to the first shots of Carpenter's version, even reviving the Ennio Morricone score from the 1982 film.   All these moments feature a nice quality of inevitability that feels hard-to-resist, especially for a long-time fan of Carpenter's film.

But for every nice, individual, unique moment (like a spontaneous performance of a Norwegian folk song) in The Thing (2011), there's another moment that feels like a compromise to preview focus groups.  For instance, Kate's final disposition is left ambiguous (perhaps in some kind of tribute to the ending of the Carpenter film), but her continued survival doesn't seem possible given what we saw in the 1982 film.  Therefore, the film's refusal to pin down her fate feels more like an opening for a sequel than an organic narrative moment. 

Similarly, I can't claim that this new film generates the same level of anxiety and paranoia that the original did.  In part this is because of the escape valve, leaving the scene in Antarctica for Columbia University. In part this is because we have a more diverse, "friendly" cast, now including the requisite lovely females. 

In part it may be because we never get a real sense of the cold outside the base.  Here, the characters almost never don the masks or head-gear that characters in the 1982 film did.  In that case, Carpenter wanted us to wonder what might be hidden beneath a snow mask or scarf.  Here, we almost never witness any obscured faces.  Even the language barrier (Norwegian vs. American) doesn't pay off as particularly suspenseful.  An exception: I found a scene with the American pilot cornered in a store room, backed into a corner as the thing approaches, pretty effective.

These days, we're used to horror film remakes or prequels that are uniformly dreadful (Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, j'accuse).  But The Thing (2011) is not a total loss, nor a fiasco.  There are moments of interest and invention here, even if the final film falls far short of its much-admired model. 

There is an argument to be made, in fact, that The Thing (2011) is much like the titular monster.  The visuals, set-design and overall tone nicely ape John Carpenter's stellar 1982 work.

But underneath it all, we ultimately realize we're witnessing a (mildly clever) imitation...a copy.


  1. I read somewhere online from either one of the cast members or the director that they actually shot the film practical makeup effects/gore but the studio didn't like it and replaced it all with CGI. I think that says it all in a nutshell why this film is inferior to Carpenter's.

  2. Hi J.D.,

    I have read about the film's practical effects, as well, and I always wondered if the stories were a PR smokescreen to keep fans fro freaking out over CGI, at least until the movie was out...

    I can say this, the film is not a disaster, but nor is it great. It possesses reverence (for the Carpenter film) but not inspiration.

    An interesting watch once, anyway...

    Great comment, my friend.


  3. I feel that the Carpenter version is the single bet American Horror movie ever. Period. The minute that they said the main characters were going to be Americans, then I got discouraged. Sometimes you need to leave classic properties alone if you can't do them right. In a bit of trivia, there is indeed a woman amongst the Norwegians in the group shot that Blair looks at in the original.

  4. David:

    I share your high regard for Carpenter's The Thing. Even with all the competition in 1982, I count it as the best genre film that year. It's a classic, absolutely.

    You know, I did not recall seeing a woman in the Norwegian team in the original, so that changes my criticism somewhat. I can better accept, however, a Norwegian woman on the team, than the idea of flying in an American (female) paleontologist. Somehow, it just doesn't feel right. I agree with you that, really, there should be no Americans in the Norwegian camp. Certainly, MacReady or Dr. Copper, or someone at Outpost 31 would have mentioned the need to rescue Americans stationed there...

    Excellent comment.


  5. one scene i would have liked to have seen in this film is the thing changing back into a human, which it must have done but we never witness in either films.

    This is a film that may be more enjoyable to those who have not seen jc's version. by default, we know that everyone is doomed. i will agree the first thing-out scene was deplorable, cartoonish even. i went into this film, not comparing it to jc's, that would have been patently unfair, but to other current remakes, prequels. and in that case, this film was mildly entertaining. I pray that the ambiguity in the end is not an attempt at a franchise as JKW suggests. The only way i watch a 3rd film is if jc returns, (along with bottin) ala Ridley Scott and 'Prometheus'.

    CGI is a horror film killer, maybe the single worst thing to happen to horror since pg-13 and Michael Bay.

  6. Anonymous2:47 PM

    John excellent review of 2011 The Thing prequel. I absolutely agree that there should have been a sequel to the 1982 Thing. I can only hope that the powers that be will make a sequel to complete this trilogy. You are correct about the Enterprise(2001-2005)Factor and regarding that I think instead of ST:Enterprise it should have been Star Trek:Excelsior depicting Captain Sulu and his crew's adventures. Especially since the Star Trek:Voyager "Flashback" episode was like a pilot episode.


  7. John, you jogged my memory. Back when it came out, I joked with friends that somewhere I missed the line in the original where Fuchs said "They started out with 10, there would be 8 others left. Oh look, a couple of Americans are there and one is a babe! We gotta go there!"

  8. Hi folks,

    SGB: I think we feel very much the same way about The Thing prequel and Enterprise, my friend.

    and David: In the special CGI, re-edit of The Thing, that line is a must for inclusion! :)


  9. Part I

    ***SPOILER ALERT****

    After seeing this in theaters I walked away befuddled. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I didn’t hate it but I couldn’t work up a legitimate appraisal either. There were elements I liked and elements I didn’t. This was all spinning through my mind by the evening of that same day.

    After a couple of weeks I had reconsidered the film into something a bit more positive, but I still couldn’t reach a true verdict until seeing the it again for a 2nd time, at least. This past week I finally watched it again on Blu-ray.

    I like this movie, substantially more than I thought I would before seeing it and notably more having now seen twice. It does have flaws and, of course, is not as good as Carpenter’s version. But I also recognize that, quality aside, 2011’s The Thing was essentially doomed from the start. It had no chance. First, excluding certain individual reviews, including yours, and primarily concerning the general consensus:

    Everyone wanted this prequel to be, or were ready to hate for not being, an instant classic, horror masterpiece equal to John Carpenter’s original, despite the fact that his original took a number of years to gain such recognition. I’m not suggesting that the flaws of the film will somehow be magically remedied with age; no, the problem is that everyone seems to be judging it in terms of 1s and 0s. In other words, the film is either lightening in a bottle or the absolute worst piece of garbage ever made, deserving the most extreme criticisms, wanton internet trolling or altogether total dismissal with the mere wave of a hand, as if not even worth acknowledging.

    This movie is decent, if not plainly good. Better in fact than any sci-fi horror I’ve seen in some time. Best of all is that it makes for a respectable setup, lead-in or companion piece to Carpenter’s classic. The former is not necessary for the latter, but to have it there and ready is a nice option for those of us who desire a more protracted storyline from the events of the Norwegian Thule station to those of Outpost 31.

    The major blanket criticism -- the one many have used to shoot film down without even acknowledging any potential, inherent qualities -- is that it is simply a remake, just another product of creativity-deficient studio execs cashing-in on popular titles, in this case, form their own archives. Hell, maybe that really was the initial selling pitch. But studio execs only pay for movies; they don’t actually make them. They’re not the ones who sit down and write, direct or even produce hands-on the film itself. So whatever the initial intentions, the effect of the finished film in my opinion stands on its own as a genuine artistic effort, crafted by individuals who clearly loved the original and wanted to further explore its territory.

    2011’s The Thing is a prequel, plain and simple. Even then I suppose cynics will call it a remake in sheep’s clothing. I understand this sentiment, I really do. But I think the criticism that this film merely recycles Carpenter’s telling is both exaggerated and even altogether absent minded. It features the same premise coupled with the same setting and circumstances, as dictated by the first movie. So it’s not like the filmmakers had free reign to go off and write a completely new and original narrative. Their job was to fill in the gaps of the now 30 year old backstory, and with the setup and structure of that story being predetermined.

    Perhaps an easier way to think about it is to approach both installments as one big movie that’s been split down the middle into two episodes: two Antarctic research stations that fall plague to the same alien menace. One could also argue that this prequel -- the backstory -- need not be told in the first place. Perhaps. But it’s also a moot point; the movie’s been made regardless. It’s here. Of course, you don’t have to watch it or even consider it canon. But if you’re going to, if engaging the film, there’s no sense doing so without accepting the aforementioned terms of agreement.

  10. Part II

    This, John, brings me to your first objection, what you’ve termed the "Enterprise Factor". I fully understand the observation you’re making here, but it ends up being what I call and impossible criticism. It seems to me that you’re merely cataloguing your appreciation for key aspects of Carpenter’s The Thing simply because it came first and by comparison accusing aspects of this recent prequel for trivializing, and thereby depreciating, those of the original simply because they’re similar in nature. That doesn’t make any sense to me. I suppose it’s a natural audience reaction and thus, for you, the subjective response is fair. But it’s not fair towards the film. It’s an impossible criticism because it doesn’t really apply to film on its own terms.

    Logically speaking, the positive traits you’ve ascribe to the MacReady character -- his keen sense of survival when dealing with the alien menace -- are in no way undermined by the actions or behaviors of the Kate Lloyd character. Why would they be? That’s like saying two people cannot share similar qualities.
    The storytelling value of these characters is not determined by chronology, by who survives first, but is determined by how well or interestingly they individually deal with the problem when left to their own devices. It’s not like MacReady had a cheat-sheet or anything. He and his cohorts still had to come up with a clever solution having no prior instructions or experience.

    Again, given the rudiment components these films share as a whole -- twin isolated research stations inhabited with academic, or at least professional, technically minded personnel -- there is a certain basic logic and probability in the way one set of characters reckons the same alien menace situation in roughly the same manner as the following set of characters. That being said, I think this prequel has just enough scenes and set-pieces and individual moments to give it its own signature, separate from Carpenter’s film. In fact, I’ll further argue that it charts a distinctively separate thematic course.

    MacReady was heroic but only in basic terms of his ability to survive (what best he did). Sure, he vowed to stop the creature from escaping the Antarctic but I never got the sense his actions were particularly high noble or altruistic. I took it that MacReady was only being a survivalist in the fullest sense. Letting the creature escape simply meant having to deal it one way or another further down the road, only then on a global scale.

    If anything, I always felt that MacReady (along with the other men) was in some way a reject of society as a whole; burnt-out with the world and nihilistically prone, he found himself on the ice as a semi-means of seclusion, which makes it all the more ironic when putting his own life on the line to save a world from which he’s trying to avoid. But, again, he’s also just being practical about the matter: if we don’t kill it now, no one ever will. All of this is what makes him an intriguing character.

    But I find Kate Lloyd to be an intriguing character as well. Was her initial conception as a female lead a decision of the studio to placate today’s demographic? Maybe. But what counts is how her character was actually applied to the story. For starters, let’s address every cliché the filmmakers did not fall back on:

    1. At no point in the film was she (unrealistically) dolled-up or subject to any obligatory shower/nude/changing outfit scenes à la Beckinsale in Whiteout.

    2. Beyond an initial scene of brief one-sided flirtation, her character wasn't saddled with any lame romantic subplot.

    3. No routine, feminist-baiting issues were made about her being a female scientist/participant amidst an environment both physically harsh and predominately male. And thus...

    4. Her character was not glorified as some super kick-ass heroine.

  11. Part III

    To that extent, Kate is just another person tucked in a parka, no different than any of the other characters. And yet she is different because she quickly becomes the only woman amongst them. In other words, the film avoids the usual aforementioned tropes regarding this kind of female casting while genuinely exhibiting the female dynamic for what it is, for what it can be, particularly in contrast to Carpenter‘s all-male scenario.

    The fascinating conceit behind both films, behind the very premise, is the way it emphasizes human behavior by stripping down the circumstances to something as simple as: who’s holding the flamethrower? MacReady is no different from his peers. He’s just another guy, no more trusted than any of the others and treated with equal, open hostility. They even try to kill him at one point. When implementing the drug tests, the men of Outpost 31 go along with MacReady primarily because he’s the one packing heat, literally.

    Contrarily, Kate successfully enforces the metal fillings exam unarmed, and it’s interesting to consider why. One reason is because she's the woman; the other reason is because she assumes the voice of reason. It is here that the film toys with our expectations, as we take for granted that, because she's the female lead, everything Kate does is the de facto right way to handle the situation. As it plays out, there is something vaguely, indirectly disturbing about her character.

    Consider how she’s able to turn three of the men, Lars, Peder and Jonas, against the other four, Colin, Adam, Edvard and Sander, when checking their teeth. The movie is careful not presume that her theory is entirely full-proof, as even Sanders at one point objects that there are “too many variables,” and he may be right. Yet, as the scene progresses, notice how the first three men become increasingly obedient to Kate while she herself becomes aggressively dominant over everyone in the room. In his native language, Edvard, not with admiration but dread, says to Sander, “She’s clever ...and now she’s in charge.”

    Indeed, a key observation is made that Kate has attained a kind of unquestionable mother-knows-best sense of order and, regardless the merits of her rationale, has the power to decree each man friend or foe, human or monster. All at once she becomes a Columbia grad crucible of sorts. This aspect of her character reaches its apex during her final scene with Carter when she torches him for being the thing. In their commentary director Heijningen Jr. and producer Eric Newman mention an alternate version of the scene where it’s confirmed that Carter really was human but was burned alive all the same. It might have been ballsier had the filmmakers gong that route but, then again, it may also have been a little too on-the-nose. Perhaps it’s best left ambiguous that Kate was possibly presuming too much based on limited science or was downright imagining what wasn’t. Or perhaps the idea is more interesting metaphorically -- how even the voice of reason can ultimately become judge, jury and executioner.

    I like Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the roll. She certainly hasn’t Shakespeare to work with but she does manage a very sensible, attentive performance and I like how her pretty brown eyes become increasingly cold and accusing. Joel Edgerton is no Kurt Russell but is still plenty convincing in the part and has the kind of weathered mug that credibly translates a desperate state of survival. All the surrounding actors do moderately good jobs as well, each conveying believable gut fear and confusion whenever the scene calls for it.

  12. Part IV

    Others have criticized the film as well by asking why a single American scientist is recruited last-minute to a Norwegian site instead of hiring one of their own or by notifying their own government from the get-go. All of this is actually explained in the movie. Sander was initially not involved with the Thule station but was merely an old friend of its team leader, Edvard. Given that his assistant is Adam and that Adam is friends with Kate, it’s likely that Sander is working state-side when contacted by Edvard about the research team’s latest discovery.

    Therefore it is more acceptable that Sander would seek out and secretly meet in person the closest and best “vertebrae paleontologist” available with experience in ice excavations, instead of making a detour trip to all the way to Norway for someone with the same expertise simply for...national pride or whatever. Remember, Sander wants as much control as possible over the whole thing. His motive is to keep quiet about the discovery until he and the research team can better ascertain what has been found. That means not requesting full-on government aid of any kind, at least not for the time being. He hires Kate alone for her skills but also because she’ll be easier to manage at his discretion.

    I had no problem with the recruitment scene in question. I understand how Carpenter’s telling maximizes the effect of feeling isolated, but that’s simply because his was a movie largely about isolation; in and of itself a way to evoke the then lingering Cold War paranoia. This film has a slightly different aim. It’s more of a traditional science-expedition story into the remote unknown where awaits something dark and sinister. To that effect, there’s something weirdly, fittingly innocuous about Kate’s introduction.

    There are no familiar establishing shots of Columbia University, no transitional scenes of her going home to pack or boarding her overseas flight. Instead, we’re treated to a single, sterile lab setting (cleverly beginning with a cave-like camera probing of some prehistoric beast) that is almost interchangeable with the rest of the film’s indoor settings. After the characters meet and an offer is made and accepted in terse fashion, the visual segue to a helicopter flying over the vast Antarctic is so elliptic, it’s almost abstract. I actually think it sets the tone proper.

    The film achieves numerous moments that in some way accentuate larger themes. For example, there is scene early on when a sleepless Kate is looking up at the night starry sky and comments, “We’ll never look at them the same again.” It’s short and simple but goes a long way for the story. It doesn’t have to be there narratively speaking. It could have been cut altogether and the plot would still function just fine. But it’s a resonating little moment that we often don’t see in these types of films. The character is speaking as a scientist and yet there’s something almost tragic in the way she sees the stars with a sense of new possibilities, only to later face a frightening reality and, most likely, her own demise. The film touches upon the idea that discovery isn’t always a blessing.

  13. Part V

    Another scene that gives the film its own unique identity amidst the lore first set in motion by Carpenter’s original happens when Kate is venturing through the alien spacecraft. I disagree that there is no inspiration to be found here. Granted, it isn’t Richard Dreyfuss witnessing the celestial interior of mother ship in the Close Encounters rereleased Special Edition, but there is a singular moment where Kate happens upon a strange holographic display that, for me -- given my own geeky fascination for sci-fi wonders -- is actually the very reason for the movie’s existence, the very heart of its being.

    It’s a fine moment of storytelling through inference and interpretation, as there is no obvious attempt to explain any one possibility as to the purpose of the device or the nature of the ship’s original occupants. It could very well be nothing more than the homing beacon that drew the research team to the crash site in the first place, but it none-the-less visualizes the film’s thematic elements into a single moving glyph -- coded patterns, changing, emerging, mutating -- allowing the audience to engage their own imaginations instead of relying on lame monologues or expositions. I thought that was a cool, quiet moment of curiosity.

    Speaking of Kate’s demise, I saw it not as an attempt at ambiguity, but as a denouement of gloom. She’s caught up in a storm with no food, no means of navigation whatsoever and no knowledge of Outpost 31, only a snowcat with limited gas and the prospect of a Russian station...somewhere. I think it’s obvious that she dies and, in a way, her fate is even sadder than MacReady’s: he was better molded for a grim, apocalyptic end and at least he had Childs with him as a companion, or even as a potential threat to instill some basic, primal sense of alertness and purpose. But Kate begins her story as a scientist in earnest only to face death and cosmic horrors before finding herself alone in the darkness with no real chance of survival; only enough time to reflect on some potentially abject deeds. Fade to black.

    2011’s The Thing definitely has its mishaps. The scripting is a bit clichéd in some parts and appears to have been subject to studio trimming in what likely resulted with the omission of some finer character details. Carpenter’s original really doesn’t have any deeper or more insightful character development but each of the characters in that film do seem to have a stronger personalities, whereas the characters here are simply not as distinctive from one another in appearance and behavior, particularly with the bearded Norwegians who tend to blend together. Maybe Norwegian audiences might feel differently on the matter. Still, any movie with Wilford Brimley is going to have a clear advantage over any movie without.

    The CGI is fine for the most part (the digital-aided spacecraft and Antarctic setting was topnotch) but I definitely agree that our first real glimpse of the creature in morbid humanoid form was nowhere near as memorable as it should have been. The idea for that sequence, the reveal, was actually rather clever, but the technical execution was sunk by some shoddy digital work. It just looked fake, and not in any interestingly artificial way that I associate something like Speed Racer or Lucas’ Prequels.

    You’ve discussed before on your blog (at least I think it was you) how horror movie effects of this kind need to be, to feel, as real and tactile as possible, because said films deal with the psychology of flesh and bodily form. Very true. 2011’s The Thing does honor this in sequences where make-up FX and gooey alien corpse designs are applied center frame, with CGI merely filling in the peripheral blanks, or absent altogether. However, other scenes with full-on monster attacks are typically too fast and digitally busy for their own good

  14. Part VI

    Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.'s novice skills are plainly evident. Missing from this film is Carpenter’s master-class artful transparency where nearly every shot is a careful construction of character placement, perspective, mood, tension and uncertainty. Heijningen Jr. often relies on today’s default, TV-centric, handheld camerawork and likewise uses a bit too much long lensing/shallow focus for close-ups when some thought-out, spatially oriented composition would have better suited the film’s confined settings. Still, nothing he does is ever outright distracting or offensive to the sense and there is competently maintained a stable shot-flow and clear enough visual report.

    At best and most effective, Heijningen Jr.’s directorial style is stylistically spare -- workmanlike -- notably during the scene where Carter is hiding in a darkened pantry aisle with kitchen knives as his only defense. Other well executed moments include the creature exploding from its ice sarcophagus and our protagonists outrunning the spacecraft’s giant venting slats. Overall, I thought the storytelling was measured, if not a bit too deliberate, and the 2nd to 3rd act stretch genuinely peaks with a hallway stand-off and the actions/alignments that immediately follow -- a turning point that sends the remainder of the film into full swing.

    I don’t know; maybe I’m being too kind ...fuck it. I enjoyed this movie.

  15. Hi Cannon,

    I love when you write these in-depth, thoughtful comments, and I'd like to begin a response, although clearly you've given me a lot to think about, and I'd like time to process some of what you wrote as well.

    You write "I didn't hate it, but I couldn't work up a legitimate appraisal either."

    This is very much where I am after having seen the film one time. I affirm and stand by the belief that the film is not terrible, but nor is it particularly inspired.

    I also agree with you about much of what passes for Internet criticism these days. It isn't as nuanced as it should be, and so films that perhaps aren't great get instead nailed as "terrible."

    Exhibit A is "Apollo 18," which was ripped apart by critics even though it's a pretty fun horror movie.

    The prequel to The Thing is a tough case, in terms of critical assessment. If I were working on a four star system (as I do in my horror films books), I'd rate it two-and-a-half stars, right at the precipice of good, but not quite over the cliff and in the valley of the positive.

    It is in no way, shape or form a fiasco, and in fact is far better than I expected it would be.

    There are a number of moments in the film I appreciated, as I've enumerated in the review above, and a number of issues that, in some sense, hampered my enjoyment of the picture.

    I agree with your comments on Mary Winstead. I think she's good in the picture. I'm very intrigued by your reading of the sexual dynamics, and now I would definitely like to see the movie again. Your description of it rings true to what I remember, but I must confess I didn't see the significance of it until you spelled it out.

    We also agree on the first Thing-out, which was dreadful and kind of a disappointment.

    The "Enterprise Factor" comes in because the premises, locations, monster and characters are all so similar between two Things. I agree with you that if this was the story that HAD to be told, such similarities are largely unavaoidable.

    That doesn't mean this story should have been the one told, however. There are minor variations/changes between the two stories, but the two films are largely the same in all substantive narrative ways. To determine if this Thing has a negative impact on Carpenter's, the test would be to watch the films in chronological order, and see if the reveals/steps/narrative/character arcs of the first film render the second film somehow less interesting. It might be worth doing.

    A very interesting comment, and you've got me thinking even more deeply about the film, which is always a gift, as far as I'm concerned.

    I always love it when someone shows me a side to a film I missed, or under-valued. And so far, you've done that for me on at least two of my major criticisms of The Thing...

    Food for thought!


  16. Excellent look at this one, John (and what an in-depth comment by Cannon). My reaction to the film was mainly an appreciation of the female lead. Mary Elizabeth Winstead was the strength of this film in the ‘MacReady’ role made famous by the Kurt Russell — interesting trivia: both Kurt and MEW were in the SKY HIGH movie back in 2005. I was less enamored with the CGI creature effects, though. That was mostly for what I believed was the filmmaker's (or the studio's) overuse of the modern SFX technology.

    I don't remember which reviewer said it, but the 2011 version of the 'Thing' did initially resemble a vagina with teeth. Not that there's anything wrong with that... Yet, they seemed to like showing their creature off every chance they got -- and in bright light, at that. More is less in this case. None of which did Carpenter do in his classic. JC knew better the use of darkness in '82.

    As this was supposed to be a prequel, I did find myself checking off the list in my head for where this or that was in relation to the Carpenter film. The thing (pun) that bugged me right away, was the Husky shown at the start of the new film. Criminy! It didn’t match up (not even closely) with the dog that begins the earlier seminal film. As well, if you watch it again, notice that it’s another dog entirely, from either that one or the original, in the movie credit stinger that bridges this 'Thing' to the 1982 film. I hate that.

    And don’t get me started on the plot-hole you could blast a starship through. That of creature’s ship at the end of the film! It works?!? Why crawl out of the damn thing and get frozen in the ice if it still functioned!!! I’m probably being overly critical, but your review and impression would pretty much be the same for me. It has some good points, but it's not anywhere near the level of John Carpenter's sci-fi/horror classic. Thanks, John.