October Horrorshow: The Thing (2011)

Last week, The Thing was released to theaters. Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., this new Thing is a bit weird. Originally conceived as a remake of the 1982 John Carpenter film, during pre-production the film morphed into being a prequel. This was not a bad idea, as the Carpenter Thing is not only a strong film, it also had a ready-made introductory story that could be made into a full-length feature...possibly. The new Thing, however, while being clearly a prequel to anyone familiar with Carpenter’s work, contains so many visual cues from Carpenter Thing that it also becomes clear the remake idea was not completely scrapped. Or maybe it’s just a case of lazy filmmaking. Maybe there was a script for a remake, the concept changed, but that draft remained, was altered, and became what was finally put to film. Either way, it’s the remake/prequel aspects of new Thing that make it weird. Maybe it’s an homage, but if that’s the case, there was a bit too much homaging going on.

The toughest task the filmmakers set themselves was trying to fit a new story into the ending that John Carpenter provided in his film. In Carpenter Thing, the film opens with a helicopter chasing a sled dog across the Antarctic wastes, a passenger shooting at and trying to kill the dog before it reaches any sort of civilization — in this case, an isolated American research station. They fail, their helicopter blows up, and passenger and pilot both bite the dust. So there’s the ending of new Thing, right at the beginning of Carpenter Thing from thirty years ago. That’s simple enough to write for, but it gets even more complicated for new Thing’s people. Carpenter needed a bit more backstory attached to the sudden appearance of this helicopter out of nowhere, so it is established that these dead mystery men come from a Norwegian camp not far from the American base.

Two of the characters travel to the Norwegian camp and find it burnt, exploded, and exposed to the elements. Inside there’s a corpse with some ghastly self-inflicted wounds, and in the back is a huge block of ice that once contained the thing (Carpenter’s own homage to the original Thing from 1951, and round and round we go).

Outside the camp, the two Americans discover the deformed, burnt remains of some creature. Later, in another day trip from the American camp, an alien spacecraft is shown to have been discovered by the Norwegians beneath the Antarctic ice. So now, instead of just a mysterious helicopter, two bearded Norwegians, and a dog to explain, there’s a burnt camp, a suicide, a rather significant block of ice, a monstrous body, and a spaceship that all need to be shoehorned into a story that ENDS with a helicopter, two bearded Norwegians, and a dog. It’s hard enough to write a story when subsequent events have been established, much less when events during the earlier story have been established without any need for narrative cohesion. Indeed, the lack of cohesion made them more mysterious and served Carpenter’s needs better than if things had made sense. The hill new Thing’s filmmakers were trying to climb just kept getting steeper and steeper.

But there’s still more.

Carpenter Thing is looked upon with quite a bit of fondness by its fans. It’s the best film John Carpenter ever made, and even though it flopped when it appeared in theaters, it’s aging well, getting better with every year that goes by. It’s no 2001: A Space Odyssey, but, continuing with that analogy, new Thing has to compete with Carpenter Thing in the same way that 2010 had to compete with 2001, whether the filmmakers want it to or not. There is no way it could live up to what came before. The hill is now a mountain.

Finally, there’s one other problem new Thing couldn’t overcome: it’s own ineptness. All that stuff written about above is meaningless in the face of new Thing’s prevalent mediocrity. There is little to distinguish the film from any over-CGI’d monster flick of the last twenty years. There are only small flashes of the tension which should be inherent in a story about an alien chameleon. Instead, the film relies too much on the appearance of the monster, and on the film’s lead, Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

Set immediately before the events in Carpenter Thing, new Thing opens with the Norwegians discovering the alien spaceship mentioned above. Shift to the United States, and paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Winstead) is recruited by scientist Dr. Sander Halversen (Ulrich Thomsen) to travel to Antarctica to extract a biological specimen from the ice, something she has experience with. Secrecy abounds, and Lloyd is forced to make her decision to join Dr. Halversen without being told what she will be digging up. Of course, it’s the body of the thing.

After Lloyd and the Norwegian team excavate the alien remains and return them to their camp, it awakens and bursts forth from the ice in the first bit of silliness that doomed this film. The thing goes on a murderous rampage in the camp, presumably quite surprised at its new surroundings. It is subdued and burnt by the Norwegians, and things return to normal in the camp. No more alien, no more trouble. Of course, if the plot wrapped up so quickly, there wouldn’t be any movie. Now the thing’s true menace is shown. It can imitate any living creature it comes in contact with. One or more of the team members at the camp is an alien — hiding, stalking, waiting and watching for its opportunity to escape Antarctica and make its way to populated areas.

Lloyd picks up on this very fast, and goes from zero to paranoid in a flash. Never mind that she’s right. She makes leaps in logic and deductions in subversion that would make Joe McCarthy blush. Far before things become clear, she’s ready to torch anyone who so much as looks at her funny. What makes it worse is that Winstead just couldn’t carry the film. The entire movie rests on her shoulders, and it does not work. The necessary gravitas is missing.

As for the rest of the cast, they operate in ensemble, and are fairly decent. The film would have been better served by toning down Lloyd and bringing her more in tune with the rest of the characters, or dumping Winstead and her character altogether. Probably the latter, as she was miscast.

The filmmakers attempted to stuff the middle of the film with mystery (who’s the thing?) and were on to something, but abandoned it in favor of showing their CGI monster chasing the cast around the camp. Too bad. Once that happens, all the scary, and all the suspense, ends. The last twenty minutes are spent shoving the pieces into place for Carpenter Thing, while still giving Lloyd a shot at an original contribution, and both efforts are sloppy.

New Thing has entered the pantheon of throwaway creature features, alongside Mimic, Leviathan, DeepStar Six, and many others.