The Thing-a-Thon: The Thing (2011)

Earlier today, I 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 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 thirty years later, we got 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 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 Universal gave 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? 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, The Thing, by the very nature of the story, take away from the earlier franchise entry. Seeing the same story as The Thing, taking place before the Thing, makes The Thing (1982) seem, well, rather less than special, doesn't it?

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 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 believe, 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 un-topped 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 vulnerability 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. I have returned to it and watched it several times since 2011.

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

For instance, the blood test is devised and brought 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 discovered 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. On the contrary. There are moments of interest and invention here, even if the final film falls far short of its much-admired model.

It is intriguing, however, to note that this version of The Thing does refer, at least tangentially to the Hawks/Nyby version. Here, the scientist Halvorsen is as wrong-headed and irritating as Carrington was.  So far, every iteration of the story has featured a scientist who was wrong-headed, or flat out crazy.  

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 (clever) imitation...a copy.


  1. I knew it was doomed the minute that they decided to have Americans be in the Norwegians Camp. Fuchs said "They started with 10 there would be 8 others left," he didn't add "Hey look, they had some Americans and Brits visiting." The lead actress is appalling. Why couldn't she muster some kind of emotion with the dire situation they are in? The main Norwegian lady should have been the star/main character. The nature of the Thing changing from "the chameleon strikes in the dark," to it Things out in broad daylight in front of everyone is annoying as hell. At least the bit with the Norwegian lady trying to take the lead off to assimilate her starts properly. They are isolated. But then she goes on total thing out mode and makes a scene, rather than say do what Blaire did with Gary. How did the guys get out of the shed without both being things or one being complicit with his thingified buddy? They botch split face, they totally botch the saucer. And being caught between the 2 camps of remake and prequel doesn't help.

  2. John, great review of THE THING (2011). I would like to see thing film with the practical effects and no CGI. Apparently, the studio over layed CG enhancing or covering the '82 style practical effects.



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