7 December 2011


One of the first reviews I remember doing for this blog, a couple of years ago, was Tony Scott's remake, The Taking of Pelham 123. Even aside from how it completely misses the point of the original film, and John Travolta's especially revolting performance, it's a pretty competently made film, which left some readers puzzled as to why I hated it so much. And their confusion is probably down to the fact that I don't know many other people who count the classic 1974 version amongst their favourite films.

So colour me unsympathetic, now that we're faced with The Thing, ostensibly a 21st century remake of John Carpenter's The Thing, which was itself a remake of 1951's The Thing From Another World. As becomes apparent throughout the 2011 version, however, it's actually in continuity with Carpenter's film, which prominently features a Antarctic base in the aftermath of an attack by the shape-shifting bastard of the title. So, the film opens with the discovery of a spacecraft, frozen underground, and palaeontology graduate Kate Lloyd is shipped out to Antarctica with a bunch of Norwegians, to investigate the discovery.

Coming from the producers of Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, you should have a pretty good idea of how this is going to pan out. If informed by a love of John Carpenter's version, you probably have your own issues as you go in, like an expectation that the CG effects will be less impressive than the practical effects seen in 1982, which hold up to this day, as some of the best creature effects ever seen in a movie. Nothing fruitful can come of this "anticipointment" (a fan sensation of expecting or looking forward to disappointment, according to Doctor Who writer Gareth Roberts), especially when the Dawn of the Dead remake, which seems to have been embraced by as many people as those who derided it, is a more accurate gauge.

That said, I am by no means recommending that you check this film out in the cinema, if the original lingers in your mind. The ending of 2011's The Thing perfectly executes the function of a prequel, by making you want to go home and watch the Carpenter version right afterwards. But Rob Simpson, my co-host on the Double Take podcast, counts that film as his favourite of all time, on days when he doesn't prefer Enter the Dragon, and what I've heard of his response so far was what I expected- "It wasn't as bad as it could have been." It's hard to imagine many other die-hard Thing fans, however well-intentioned their attempts to watch the film without comparing to previous versions of the story, reacting with any more enthusiasm than that.

There are a number of cracking setpieces, but these are largely rehashed. This immediately invites the comparisons from which the film will suffer most- with detachment from what has gone before, the characters in The Thing are not stock characters, and nor are they unlikeable or boring to watch. John Carpenter's The Thing has exceptionally well-developed characters, so of course Joel Edgerton's Carter, arguably the film's Kurt Russell substitute, would not stand up to the same level of scrutiny. But the film's biggest loan from sci-fi horror doesn't even come from Carpenter's film, but from the Alien series, and she's also the best thing about the film.

By the measure of how she is treated by the men in the film, and her general accumulation of badass points as the film progresses, winsome American protagonist Kate Lloyd is basically the film's Ripley, the only other woman in an isolated situation. It's very nicely played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who has proven herself a resilient horror heroine in far worse films than this one, and she's consistently the most watchable thing about this prequel. If Carpenter was making a film about mistrust, in the environment of a uniquely tricksy gribbly, then Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. makes a brave stab at a film about mistrust based on misogyny. Unfortunately, this gives out too quickly, in favour of more jingoistic mistrust, an arena in which the wronged must always be in the right.

At the very least, you can say that the source material has not been misunderstood. It may be a less finessed version of the salient points, but Eric Heisserer's film is not without humour or chills. Likewise, Marco Beltrami does a great job of picking up composing duties from Ennio Morricone's original score, without relying solely on his iconic cues. Those who feared the visual effects would pale in comparison would be vindicated by those shots where the CG resembles that seen in Van Helsing, more than a film made in 2011, but the use of VFX and prosthetics doesn't jar for the most part.

All in all, The Thing might have been more interesting as a clean break from the Carpenter film, because even at its most fan-pleasingest, it's not going to win over many purists of the original. Separate from the strictures of a prequel, it could have sank or swam on its own merits, instead of treading water. It's a serviceable update for more casual viewers, with a strong turn from Mary Elizabeth Winstead and enough spooky and gory moments to maintain interest. It was never going to be as memorable as its forebear, but there's no sense in ruling out altogether.

The Thing is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Thing, why not share your comments below? To hear me discuss the prequel/remake with the aforementioned Mr. Simpson, listen to Double Take on the online stream from 2-3pm GMT, or subscribe to the podcast to hear it afterwards.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

1 comment:

Craig D. said...

Carpenter's The Thing is one of my five favorite movies, so I was prepared to hate the prequel just as much as any petulant fanboy, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Not that it's a triumph or anything, but it's far better than you would ever guess based on the terrible reviews it got. I was surprised when I read them, not because the film was attacked for using CGI in place of practical effects (anti-CGI bias is always to be expected), but because critics claimed that it lacked the paranoid tension of the 1982 film. I must have seen a different movie, because I remember lots of scenes of characters giving each other suspicious glances, ranting about how this or that person can't be trusted, and pulling weapons on each other out of fear. And for all the complaining I've read about the CGI, you'd think the movie looks like an Asylum mockbuster, but it's mostly pretty solid. It's not just a matter of looking realistic enough; the creative monster design was more than satisfactory.

My biggest problem with the film isn't that it lacks paranoia (it doesn't) or that the CGI looks bad (it doesn't), it's that the script sticks far too closely to the 1982 film. I understand that they were trying to make a film that functioned both as a prequel and a remake, but I groaned every time a scene from Carpenter's film was rehashed. The prequel doesn't really hit its stride until the third act, when the filmmakers start to really take advantage of CGI and give us a more mobile monster that gets to chase people around (which the puppets from 1982 couldn't really do) and starts to feel like a movie with its own identity. Also, there's a distinct lack of characterization, which was such a strong point of the 1982 film. I like Kate and the one Norwegian who Wikipedia tells me was called Jonas (the fact that I had to look this up says a lot), but few of the other characters made much of an impression on me.

But despite my misgivings, I still thought it was a solid horror flick that focused mostly on the right things, and I think that most of the negative reviews were written by people who were anxious to dismiss it. Despite the lack of characterization, I liked a lot of the dialogue ("So I get murdered because I floss?") and the actors were good all around. What's strange is that I enjoyed The Thing much more than the Dawn of the Dead remake, even though Dawn didn't make the mistake of sticking too close to the original film. After the terrific opening scene, Dawn spent the next 90 minutes boring the hell out of me, while The Thing held my interest and just kept getting better toward the end. I've got plenty of problems with it, but there's too much that's good about it for me not to recommend it to anyone who likes the 1982 film and wants a good companion piece. I can't simply damn the film with faint praise by saying that it's "not as bad as it could have been" or something similar. I think it's genuinely good; just not great.