THE THING (2011)
The problems are apparent right from the get-go with Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.'s THE THING. For starters, the title makes it appear as if the film were a remake of John Carpenter's groundbreaking 1982 film of the same name. Hell, Carpenter's film is often referred to as a remake of the Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby film from 1952 THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, even though it was really just a new adaptation of the John W. Campbell short story "Who Goes There?". So the confusion starts right out of the gate. Is this a remake of a remake or something else? Well, it isn't a remake of either film. It's a prequel to Carpenter's film. That said, one wonders why they didn't come up with a more suitable title to convey that message. That would have certainly disarmed the negative reaction bomb right out of the gate once the film was announced. It certainly helps knowing that before you sit down to watch it.
It has the exact same set-up as both of the other versions of THE THING. A group of scientists uncover a UFO buried in the Antarctic ice. They also uncover the frozen remains of an alien creature. They decide to unearth the specimen and move it back to their research compound. Soon enough, the block of ice that holds the creature in a dormant state of cryostasis melts and the creature breaks loose. This isn't your ordinary alien though. This bad boy has the capability to impersonate any being it comes across. This leads to mass paranoia and much mayhem as the crew of scientists struggle to figure out who is human and who is really The Thing.
All three movies use this set-up to some level. Carpenter's film begins after the creature has already been uncovered (it infiltrates an American research camp in the guise of a sledding dog) and after the Norwegian expedition team that discovered the alien craft have all died off. We get to see the damage done to the Norwegian research compound and two of the characters transport a charred alien corpse back to their camp. From there Carpenter moves deftly into claustrophobic paranoia, crafting one of the most effective and disturbing horror films (or science fiction films, if you prefer) ever made.
This prequel offers us a chance to see for ourselves what horrible fate befell the Norwegian scientists. I have to say one thing about van Heijningen's film: it respects Carpenter's film a great deal. As someone who has seen John Carpenter's THE THING dozens of times, it was quite interesting to notice all the little winks and nods. For example, my inner geek smiled a little bit when I found out why that axe was stuck in the door, or when I saw the monster crawl on top of a screaming American scientist, their heads slowly fusing together. Little things like that are the joys this film has to offer. Unfortunately, everything else about it is subpar and ridiculous.
The poster for THE THING tells us that it is "from the producers of DAWN OF THE DEAD", the remake, and boy, does it show. In the same way Zack Snyder and Co. turned Romero's slow burn classic into a frenetic action flick, van Heijningen takes Carpenter's model and shoots it full of adrenaline. If you're expecting a creepy, crawly, skin-tightening round of suspenseful paranoia, you're going to be disappointed. While Carpenter's focus was on the growing distrust between the men and the idea (the very frightening idea) that anyone in the room with you can be The Thing, van Heijningen just wants to get to the gory bits. About one third of the film is action scenes featuring a completely CGI alien chasing people around (the transformation scenes look like footage taken from boss fights in the Resident Evil videogames). When you think of Carpenter's film you undoubtedly think of the absolutely masterful scene in which MacReady slowly and methodically checks for infection using a piece of heated wire, prodding petri dishes of blood samples. Here, we watch as someone checks each person's teeth for fillings, the idea being that The Thing cannot replicate inorganic matter. The kicker is, the scene starts to work incredibly well, but before any kind of payoff at all can be had, van Heijningen decides to interrupt it and launches us into another useless bit of action. It's incredibly frustrating. It's as if the filmmakers don't understand where the greatest strength lies in their own material.
Of course, the filmmakers don't even explore the material in any depth whatsoever. The original THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD used its alien as a metaphor for Cold War anxiety, specifically the McCarthy era paranoia over the quiet infiltration of American society by Communists. Carpenter's film has become retroactively a film about the AIDS epidemic, though it could just as easily be looked at as an allegory about sexually transmitted diseases or viral contagion (while the AIDS epidemic exploded a few years after Carpenter's film was released, it's easy to imagine a story about a bunch of men living together in close quarters being infected with a virulent "thing" as an AIDS parable). What is van Heijningen's film about? What is the subtext here? Beats me. If there is some deeper meaning here, it managed to elude me over its running time. Now while I will be the first to proclaim that a film doesn't necessarily need to be ABOUT anything, this story - more so than any other science fiction/horror story out there - screams potential. To just craft an action film and then leave it at that when there is so much one can say with this set up is just laziness beyond imagination.
Looking back at Carpenter's film now, one is struck by how mature a piece of filmmaking it is and just how secure it is with its story. It is one of the most anti-commercial films I've ever seen. It features an all-male cast of unlikeable characters stuck in an isolated Antarctic environment and wallows in nothing but gore, grit and paranoia. But it has a point and a method to its madness. It is ABOUT something. And it doesn't masquerade its misanthropy and nihilism. It doesn't honestly care if we had a good time. All of those things add up to make a film that challenges first and entertains second. It has gathered so much respect over time because it deserves respect. This film, however, feels commercial to its bones. It feels like a cash grab and it acts like one too. That's the real difference between Carpenter's film and this prequel. One has a definite effect and the other barely lingers in the memory. This is a multi-million dollar film that should have been just another piece of five dollar fan fiction.