A remake-cum-prequel of the well-loved 1982 flick starring long-locked lothario Kurt Russell, The Thing doesn’t give us any innovation on the thrills of the original. The 'thing' itself is victim to overzealous CGI, which never comes across as cutting edge. Whilst The Thing gracefully circumvents many of the plot pitfalls of blockbuster thrillers, there’s little chill or thrill about this year’s version of the alien who eats its victims then steals their bodily appearance.
In an isolated Norwegian-owned geological outstation caked in Antarctic snow, a unique discovery is made by a group of scientists: a subterranean alien spacecraft abandoned for a 100 thousand years and a deep-frozen life form suspended in a lake of ice. Operation chief Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) recruits gifted American palaeontologist Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to supervise the thawing of the miscellaneously insect-like creature. Of course it escapes. Naturally it attacks. Obviously its cells take over the bodies of consumed victims who continue walking and talking until it seems opportune for the ghoul within to burst forth.
The Thing is a movie that has placed all its eggs in the tension basket. It fell short of capturing the ‘who is the creature?/it’s one of us’ theme that defines the films principle departure from most other monster films, a disappointment made sorer in that the 1982 version did it better. This is partly because the remake is unclear on the how and the when regarding the transformation of outstation scientists into the thing itself. It a confused mess – is there more than one thing? Can its cells be transferred by blood like a virus? How can it suddenly tear out of one character after the bloodied dude on the floor has been torched? In trying to keep us guessing about whom the thing is inside, director Heijningen Jr has opened a Pandora’s box of continuity questions. This has been a deliberate move to put the viewer in the same position as the characters. Instead the audience spends too much time trying to figure out the rules of the film in lieu of emotional involvement. Writers Eric Heisserer and John W. Campbell Jnr might take a leaf out of the murder mystery example, by at least proffering a red herring or two, allowing the audience to form theories or at least differentiating a little more between the hoard of bearded Norwegian extras so we know (and thus care) who is who, and in turn who is the Thing.
Visual effects are a key part of the success of any monster movie, and in combination with a number of intricate creature sculptures, The Thing doesn’t do an entirely bad job. A willingness to see the bizarre manifestations of the creature as laughable or indeed as allusions to other film terrors (Regan on the stairs, the ‘facehugger’, the Almighty Sarlacc, Thing Addams, et al) might enhance this appreciation. As hoped the vast whiteness of the poles is articulated as a spectacular and intimidating environment in which the wooden shacks housing the scientists reverently tremble. The power of the image of snow ablaze beneath the sweep of a flame-thrower prevented the kind of dark obscurity that may have haunted the tense interior scenes.
The thing is, this film might not be deserving of the title ‘The Thing’, attached as it is to tension, mystery, and classic cult horror. I mean it’s the Thing. It’s got to be special. The creature itself is a grotesque and largely unimaginative humanoid/arachnid mash-up and no creativity is employed in visualising its various states between human and creature. I am sure that I’m not the only one genuinely bored by the generic appearance of most movie monsters. The formula is this: black, spider-legged vertebrates with sticky, drooling inner mandibles that fold out like the world’s most disgusting blooming tulip to reveal vagina dentata or tentacly, fanged phalluses. Either this is a case of sameness, or the amorphous progeny of H. R. Geiger’s Alien has recently made cameo appearances in I Am Number Four, Cowboys and Aliens and Super 8. It is one thing to evoke fear by keeping the monster unseen; it’s another to just collage the viscera of man’s most-abhorred creatures together like some accidental chimaera.
The Thing is certainly not a memorable film. The pacing was acceptable but repetitive and lacked any kind of mystery or surprise. After the thing escapes, it’s simply loud noises and characters dropping like flies until the end. I won’t name the surviving parties, but you can probably guess within the first ten minutes. Performances by Joel Edgerton as a heroic US chopper pilot and Eric Christian Olsen as Kate’s long-standing but pouty boffin pal are both good. Winstead is a highly likeable lead, though perhaps a little less swashbuckling than Kurt Russell. Happily, the dialogue omitted any formulaic exclamatory catchphrases and there was no predictable order of demise based on how big a jerk each character is, no “don’t-go-down-that-way”s and no sentimental self-sacrifices. Perhaps Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. was too bent on avoiding Hollywood gimmicks. The Thing did not replace the gaps most English-speaking audiences will feel were left by a more self-aware treatment. He replaced novelty with a dramatic script and believable, capable characters. Somehow that resulted in a lacklustre narrative. This Thing is a horror film with too dry a sense of irony or too staid a sense of fun to register as a contender for future cult-status. It’s just not colourful enough.
The wealth of charming and ‘technologically cute’ horror films made in the 1980’s is sizeable, and The Thing will not be the first or last re-make of some of the more classic examples. In thinking about this review, I discovered Time Outs top 50 list of film monsters. It’s a list of excellent films in which the monsters are foul, comical and terrifying all at once and seem to embody a kind of joy for filmmaking and all the frills of the horror illusion particular to directors like Peter Jackson, Stephen Spielberg and Ridley Scott. It might seem a little antithetical to recommend hitting the tape shop instead of the Extreme Screen on a film blog, but if you want to see a monster film soon, check out the list (below) before you look up what’s on at your local. There’s more fun to be had.
And another thing…
TIME OUT’s 50 GREATEST MONSTER MOVIES: