Part prequel and part remake of John Carpenter's classic 1982 film (itself a remake of the 1951 Christian Nyby/Howard Hawkes film The Thing From Another World), this latest version of the paranoid science fiction horror genre hybrid aims the tell the tale of those "crazy Swedes" (yes I know they were Norwegians) who discovered the frozen alien in the Antarctic ice that would go on to cause Kurt Russell so much grief.
Palaeontologist Kate Lloyd (Winstead) a is hired by the powerful and egotistical D. Halvorson (Thomsen, terrific earlier this year in the Oscar winning In a Better World but wasted here) to assist a Norwegian research team who have made a mysterious discovery in Antarctica. On arrival at the base she is immediately taken out onto the ice and asked for her expertise in excavating what appears to be the frozen pilot of a flying saucer. There is some urgency as a severe storm is closing in (although, as the specimen has been undisturbed for more than 100,000 years, it's hard to fathom what the hurry is). The specimen is taken back to the research station where it is prepared for transport off the continent. Before this can happen, Halvorson insists on taking a tissue sample – against Lloyd’s advice. Of course, the alien wastes little time in escaping, and soon it is apparent that this is a dangerous and malevolent being capable of infecting and imitating other lifeforms. Soon no-one is sure who is human or thing.
Van Heijningen’s The Thing attempts to mount a cellular replication of Carpenter's film, but unlike the titular creature is unable to fashion a convincing copy. There are numerous problems, but the main one is that it isn’t scary. Because this is a prequel the story moves towards a conclusion that is already foretold and consequently suffers from a distinct lack of suspense. Carpenter's film was a box office flop, critically reviled in release. While the film has now enjoyed a critical reappraisal it is ironic that one of the key criticisms levelled at it was a lack of characterisation. This was unwarranted and unfair. Working from a fine Bill Lancaster script, Carpenter actually carefully set up the protagonists and hired a very talented group of character actors to play them. In contrast this new Thing has too many characters, and starts killing them off so fast it is hard to connect with any of them. Where Kurt Russell’s MacReady was expertly sketched with memorable scenes such as his reaction to being beaten by a chess computer, Winstead is given nothing to work with at all. Weirdly, despite supposedly being the story of the Norwegian camp, the film concentrates on a group of American characters (and one annoying Brit). As well as Lloyd, Egerton and Akinnuoye-Agbaje play characters who are just cardboard cut out versions of Russell and Keith David.
Carpenter's original benefited from amazing practical effects by Rob Bottin; of course, the new version uses a preponderance of CGI. I'm sure you will read a lot of criticism of this aspect of the film, but actually the CG is often very good, and the creature designs suitably gross. There are problems whenever CG interacts with actors, though – CG impalements, gore and blood look painted on. Carpenter lit Bottin's creations with great care and introduced them gradually as the film progressed, whereas Van Heijningen is overwhelmed by the possibilities of CG to the detriment of good storytelling. Far too much is shown, far too soon, so instead of a creeping escalation of dread and paranoia, we have surreal bodies exploding in the audiences face. There is one good scene of character-based paranoia which uses the possibilities of a multilingual cast well, but it is brief and soon it’s back to flamethrowers and shouting. Where the alien threat that menaced MacReady was insidious and clever, only revealing itself when threatened or disturbed in the attempt to replicate another being, the creature in the new film acts like a lagered-up hooligan taking the offensive when all it needs to do is just sit there in its block of ice and wait to be helicoptered to somewhere more populated.
Carpenter’s film was deadly serious, but he was aware of the need to provide the audience with an occasional laugh (“you gotta be fucking kidding”) which released the pressure and kept the film scary. There is no humour in this new version at all, except for an unintentional laugh due to a plot point involving the sole Brit having a perfect set of teeth.
Is it unfair to compare the prequel to the 1982 version? Carpenter created an enduring classic, which regularly features in lists of the greatest horror films ever made. It would be difficult for any follow-up to emerge from its shadow. However, by choosing to set itself up as a prequel, and slavishly copying key moments and characters from Carpenter’s film, comparisons are not only unavoidable, but demanded. Unfortunately, they do the 21st century Thing no favours at all. This film is too tied to the original to satisfy a new audience who have not seen the 1982 film, and it is too similar to it to satisfy diehard fans – who will be especially irritated by the replacement of Ennio Morricone’s score with a sub standard Marco Beltrami one that could easily have worked for an Alien vs Predator film. For every moment that ties in to the 80s film, there are others that feel clumsily bolted on especially an awful end credits sequence that tries to tie up all the bits they have forgotten about.
Ultimately one can imagine the reaction of MacReady to this, and if he wants any company, I think I’ll be with him in his cabin getting drunk.