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.