John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of the enduring sci-fi horror greats. It’s also the latest victim in Hollywood’s campaign against originality, only instead of a straight remake it’s a prequel- of sorts. In the opening third of Carpenter’s film there is a sequence where Macready (Kurt Russell) and a few others discover a devastated Norwegian base. That scene gave context to the situation, it detailed how this alien travelled from one planet to the next destroying all in its path. Stretching this sequence to feature length misses the point, yet here we are in 2011 with inexperienced director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. at the helm.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with John Carpenter’s The Thing, it’s fundamentally a remake of the 1951 Howard Hawkes film the thing from another world only much more faithful to John W. Campbell novella Who Goes There? This version sees a Norwegian team of scientists and researchers in Antarctica discover alien life on earth. Needing a palaeontologist, the Norwegian team recruit Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to record a discovery that will make everybody involved famous, the discovery of the alien that crashed on earth 100,000 years ago. Thinking their find is dead; they remove it from the ice and take it back to base. After retrieving a sample the alien reveals itself and starts replicating the research team – who is an alien and who is human?
With any remake, it’s important to judge the film with a detachment from the original, to judge it of its own merits. That becomes impossible with Heijningen’s film as there is very little that isn’t derivative from the 1982 film. A lot may be copied but that’s not to say it’s the same. Where Carpenter’s vision was a contained paranoiac horror, this is a creature feature as attested to in the opening scenes which openly reference Jurassic Park.
Typically the creature feature is used to look inwards on society through the subtextual “meaning of the monster”. In a concept where people don’t know whether the person stood next to them is an alien who wants to digest them or human who are as scared as they are is open for tension, paranoia and the fear of the unknown to take hold, and that is true for during certain contained sequences. Regrettably the paranoia is dealt with in a particularly toothless manner with the only real sequence that conjures up the true dread of the situation is a deeply flawed test. Beyond those isolated scenes, the general tone and execution is much more visceral and explicit.
Which is where the creature feature comparison comes in; instead of the ominous anticipation and subtlety such a premise demands we see the alien far too often. Whenever the alien reveals itself the action spectacle comes to the fore as we see the same characters run down the same corridors time and time again. This is mixed news thanks to the variable effects, when the effects are practical they’re suitably grotesque in the representation of a formless and grotesque monster that is reminiscent of Roy Arbogast’s landmark work in the ’82 movie. Equally, when CGI is adopted there’s a lack of attachment with the psychical, consequently there are moments where you can see what lies ahead because a section of scenery looks fake all but killing any potential pay-off.
Suspension of disbelief in science fiction and believability are equally crucial and for casting to be the area where this part remake part prequel falls hardest is poor. The acting is consistent and solid enough from everybody involved, whether that is Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Carter and Jameson (parallels of Macready and Childs), Ulrich Thomsen as the project leader or Jorgen Langhelle as Lars, the most interesting character in the film. All of them are perfectly cast in their roles; the same sentiment is not echoed in Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She is far too young to play an experienced scientist, this role should be played by someone older who exudes a believable and reliable pair of shoulders unlike the weak Ripley parallel Winstead is.
When the news was first announced that John Carpenter’s masterpiece and one of my favourite films was being remade it was not met with optimism. It may not be a good film but at the same time it could have been far worse given the evidence of other equally high profile remakes (Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween). Everything that is good is derivative of the original or the simpler minded creature features, all of which is undone by a final third that is more than silly it’s downright moronic. Nevertheless for about 30 minutes it was suitable thrilling without the constant reminder of its remake status coming into view which is more than anyone expected.