The Thing is a horrifying and intelligent creature with purpose. Sadly, the same cannot be said of its new movie. Much like the horrifying hybrids its eponymous alien becomes, Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s The Thing doesn’t know what it wants to be. Officially, the film is a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 classic horror film of the same name. However, by copying certain elements of the original’s plot* and pacing, the new film is torn between how much it should emulate and how much it should invent.
Carpenter’s film begins with a dog running towards an American science base in Antarctica. A Norweigan helicopter is trying to gun the dog down, but it fails to do so, the dog makes it into the camp, and the Norweigans are killed before they have a chance to warn the Americans. The new film shows us what happened at the Norweigan camp and tries to explain the horrors and gigantic spaceship MacReady (Kurt Russell) found at their base. The Norweigans, with the help of paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), unearthed an alien they believed was dead but was actually in stasis and waiting for new hosts. The alien’s M.O. is to infect its prey, imitate their host perfectly, and wait for the right moment to burst into a phantasmagorical nightmare and devour its next victim. Once Lloyd discovers this pattern, it creates deep-seated paranoia among the survivors.
Heijningen and screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s greatest accomplishment is how desperately they don’t want to lift anything wholesale from the original. Lloyd is the one who knows what’s going on, but she’s not MacCready with boobs. There’s a repeat of the scene where every member of the camp is tested to see if they’re the creature, but Lloyd makes her evaluations based on science rather than intuition. Winstead does a terrific job with the character and once again shows she has a knack for playing a bad-ass.
However, in trying to create a separate beast, the new Thing loses what makes the premise so intense. The original movie has some horrific moments, but on repeat viewings, it’s really more of a mystery. We’re tense not just because the monster could pop out and go “Boo!”, but because we have access to clues that help us decipher where the monster could be next. Heijningen and Heisserer decide to play up the action sci-fi elements of the story, which drains the film of terror other than its jump scares.
More damning is the heavy reliance on CGI effects. Perhaps Heijningen thought it wasn’t worth trying to outdo the incredible practical effects from Carpenter’s film (effects which still hold up today) and thought that using CG would help his pre-make stand apart. But almost all of the transformations in the new movie could have been done and should have been done practically. What makes the creature horrific is that it organically rips apart a human being. It’s an organism and that biological aspect is removed when coated in the nice sheen of computer effects. There’s no grit, no grime, and it’s a further reminder that this is a prequel that would rather not sit in the shadow of the original.
It’s an understandable decision, but Heijningen and Heisserer constantly miss the smart opportunities to call back to the original while still setting their movie apart. Carpenter’s The Thing fills its cast with one-dimensional characters who probably never liked each other very much to begin with. However, it allows us to project ourselves onto their situation and experience the terror vicariously. There’s far more camaraderie at the Norwegian camp, but the new Thing doesn’t grow these relationships and seize the horror and despair of the subtext that nobody truly knows anyone. This approach would also allow the filmmakers an opportunity to add new facets to the creature such as the limitations of imitating personality and memories. Instead, we get too many characters, hardly any time to care about any of them, and we’re stuck with a lesser version of Carpenter’s movie.
And if Heijningen couldn’t escape Carpenter, he should have imitated him. It would be a risky move, but the concept at work is that this is the first half of one long movie (which is why they have the same title). Heijningen has no problem briefly using Ennio Morricone’s terrific score, but then he gets composer Marco Beltrami to devise something new and heavy-handed. Additionally, shooting on digital rather than film removes the texture and more importantly, the organic feel, of the movie. Once again, Heijningen and Heisserer seem more enchanted by the sci-fi angle of the story rather than the horror, and they come up short on both.
This time around the alien goes for a more direct and less interesting approach to its victims, the paranoia and cynical themes are exchanged for jump scares and action scenes, and the third act is devoid of tension as we’re taken to a place we could not care less about. However, some smart ideas manage to sneak through. Kate Lloyd is a solid protagonist, there’s room for a new but equally terrifying and cynical subtext, and the opportunity to make the story feel like half of a larger narrative rather than making ties to the original an afterthought (half of the explanations come during the credits). Unfortunately, at every turn, The Thing makes the wrong decision, fails both as a prequel and as a remake, and the result is a pointless and poor imitation.
*Yes, I know that Carpenter’s film was based on The Thing from Another World and that in turn was an adaptation of John W. Campbell Jr.’s short story “Who Goes There?”