17 October 2011

Movie Review: The Thing (2011)

The Thing (2011)
Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

A dialogue that occurs in the 1982 John Carpenter movie The Thing, as scientist Blair (Wilford Brimley) explains the nature of the twisted dog-mass corpse on his operating table:
BLAIR: See what were talking about here is an organism that imitates other life-forms, and imitates them perfectly. When this thing attacked our dogs it tried to digest them, absorb them, and in the process shape its own cells to imitate them. This, for instance . . . [points to bone] That’s not dog. It’s imitation. We got to it before it had time to finish.

NORRIS: Finish what?

BLAIR: Finish imitating these dogs.
Now imagine this conversation repurposed slightly:
BLAIR: See what were talking about here is a movie that imitates a popular movie with enormous name-recognition, and imitates it outwardly perfectly, while inwardly lacking its essential qualities. When it attacked John Carpenter’s The Thing it tried to digest it, and in the process shape its screenplay to imitate it while masquerading as a prequel. This, for instance . . . [points to film on screen] That’s not The Thing or a prequel to it. It’s a cosmetic imitation. We didn’t get to it before it finished.

NORRIS: Finished what?

BLAIR: Finished re-making The Thing while pretending that it wasn’t.
And so my review is finished.

But, if you want some further details, there is a bit more after the jump.

Oh, you’re still here? Yes, the new Thing is a flat-out re-make of John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing. It plays the prequel game so it won’t seem as if it is treading across sacrosanct territory. However, the title gives away the filmmakers’ true intentions: instead of a more appropriate title like The Thing: Planet Fall or The Thing Awakes or The Thing: From Spaceship to Husky in Less Than Two Hours, the studio has gone with, well, the title of the film it’s supposedly setting up. The new movie may take place in 1982 at the Norwegian base that features prominently in the opening of the earlier film, but it’s only a trick to get audiences to watch an inferior CGI re-do.

I am obligated to point out that Carpenter’s film was also a re-make. But The Thing ’82 is substantially different from The Thing from Another World, the 1951 Howard Hawks-Christian Nyby Cold War SF flick. Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster went back to the source material, John W. Campbell’s 1939 novella written under the Don Stuart pseudonym, “Who Goes There?” The ’51 film did not have the effects technology to achieve the amorphous alien beast of the novella, and went for a more standard man-in-a-suit creature (played by Gunsmoke’s James Arness). Both the ’51 and ’82 films are excellent, and because of the difference between them they can stand side-by-side as fascinating different approaches to the same material.

But The Thing ’11 is just The Thing ’82 repeated, beat for beat, scene for scene, only with CGI effects, a female lead, and malaise instead of tension. Even the font of the credits is identical. To use Mystery Science Theater 3000’s most infamous chronic put-down: “This movie reminds me a lot of The Thing. Except it’s not very good.”

And by “not very good” I want to emphasize that the film isn’t worthless or a disaster. It is simply “not very good.” Nothing more than a standard 2000s FX-monster-on-the-loose flick. Viewers who have never seen the 1982 version, mostly younger ones to whom this movie is catering, may find adequate enjoyment here, but they should instead go seek out Carpenter’s film. Fans of The Thing ’82 will find this iteration boring; they’ll be connecting the dots of scenes in their heads, always staying a few dots ahead of the movie.

The story takes place in the few days before the infiltration of Outpost 31. Explorers from a Norwegian base discover an enormous space ship trapped beneath the Antarctic ice, and its “passenger” frozen a short distance from it. Because an all-Norwegian-speaking cast won’t work for a U.S. mainstream film, scientist Dr. Sander Halversen (Ulrich Thomsen) brings in American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to the base to help investigate the discovery. To add to the English-speaking cast, The Thing packs in Dr. Halversen’s American assistant (Eric Christian Olsen), two American pilots (Joel Edgerton, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), plus some British guy (Jonathan Lloyd Walker).

That’s already a dense cast of alien-fodder, and we haven’t even got to the Swedes. (“They’re Norwegian, Mac.”) Don’t fret though; the film doesn’t expect you to know who any of these people are.

Once the ice slab containing the spaceship’s occupant gets taken back to the base, the Thing breaks free and starts a campaign of assimilation and impersonation. Kate, saddled with the exposition, figures out the alien’s M.O. and tries to corral the rest of the base into ferreting out the intruders among them. Most of this consists in her using Bill Lancaster’s script from the ’82 film to move things along as predictably as possible.

The cast is almost entirely dispensable. It gears up the carnage and the interchangeable Norwegians/Americans (strangely, nationality is no help in telling the characters apart) start dying fast before the genuine paranoia sets in. Throughout the film, I had to keep asking myself, “Wait, who’s dead now? Which guy is missing?” Although the characters of The Thing ’82 have no backstory provided to them, the casting and direction gives them immense personality, and the terror of them getting winnowed down one-by-one in the hunt for the Thing remains potent even after multiple viewings. I didn’t give a damn who lived or who died in the new movie.

As an audience identification character, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a wash, playing her part as a monotone scientific explainer. She has no charisma to take over when things get crazy, and no shades of gray to make her intriguing. In other words, she’s no Kurt Russell.

A friend who saw the new film with me made an interesting observation about the difference between the leads of the two movies: Kurt Russell’s Macready emerges as the lead character due to the escalating circumstances, while Winstead’s Kate is simply declared as the lead character from her first scene. Why is she the hero? Her name is first in the credits, that’s why.

The only supporting cast member who sticks out is a Norwegian researcher I thought of as “Redbeard” while watching the movie because of the massive rhododendron bush growing across his chin. The credits tell me his name is actually Jonas as is played by Kristofer Hivju, but I’m fine with “Redbeard.” He has a boisterous attitude and a sense of a sweet persona hidden beneath his incredibly Viking exterior. Redbeard is the closest the new movie comes to the quirks of the cast of the older one. Someone needs to cast Kirstofer Hivju in a sword-and-sorcery epic film right now.

The new Thing does attempt to knit itself to Carpenter’s to justify the “prequel” title. Want to know why that axe was left jammed in the door? (No.) Well, here’s how it happened! Want an explanation for that double-faced toasted Thing-body found out in the snow? (Maybe.) Well, here’s how that happened as well. There are many other places where the movie goes out of its way to match details with the The Thing ’82, especially in the production design. But it’s selective about details: some of the most interesting questions that the earlier film leaves open are wasted here in toss-off moments. I was curious to know what had made the frozen man whom Kurt Russell discovered graphically slit his wrists and gouge his throat. That must have been a tense, incredible moment. But nobody involved in making this film apparently thought so.

Plot holes. It has more than a few. It was the first topic my friend and I got into after the film finished: we started swapping all the nonsensical inconsistencies and lazily dangling ends, and found out we had a mega-sized popcorn bucket full of them. These aren’t fun, ambiguous mysteries; they’re just gaping story chasms that cause irritation. The strange events of The Thing ’82 still ignite spirited debate among viewers thirty years later. Nobody will be investigating the plot holes in this movie more than an hour after it’s over.

Time to get into the CGI. Digital effects were obviously going to replace the practical effects of Rob Bottin, and I can’t fault the movie simply because it took this route. As much as I love Bottin’s work, which still entrances today because of its creativity and the effort that went into it, CGI was inevitable for the new version. It’s good CGI as well: the execution and designs are actually alien and creative. The Thing’s multiple forms and its transformations as it bursts apart its human shapes are much better than I expected.

But . . . where the CGI damages the film is that it deprives the Thing of its stealth. This alien nasty no longer wants to hide as long as it can; it bursts out into major transmogrifications with little provocation. Then it maintains these grotesque forms for extended periods so it can chase and stalk people in standard horror movie fashion. Watching the bizarre CGI alien lunging around hallways and smashing through walls robs the sinister aspect of it as a hidden creature, and this takes away the fear that made the ’82 film such a nail-biter. This Thing is basically a wild alien beast that occasionally changes shape.

The Thing ’11 knows that it has to play the paranoia game of “who among us is not human?” but it only holds onto this for a stretch in the middle. Since the characters are difficult to distinguish (which whiskery guy are you?) there isn’t much tension when the film tries to play the suspense. The replacement for the legendary “blood test” scene from Carpenter’s movie is silly (it involves bad dental hygiene) and fails to pay off.

As The Thing wrapped up its underwhelming double climax—one of which plays during the end credits—I realized that I never actually wanted to know what happened at the Norwegian base before the husky and the helicopter opening of The Thing ’82. This isn’t a story that needed telling, except as an excuse to re-make a classic. The Thing ’82 has made a reputation from the way it continues to provoke questions and analysis from its mysteries. Having some of these questions answered isn’t satisfying. Casual viewers will forget the new film, and fans of Carpenter’s film will shrug this off as non-canon. Two men in a helicopter trying to shoot down a husky fleeing across the Antarctic snow . . . let’s start there.

By the way, the movie isn’t scary. I thought I should mention that.

And speaking of places to start, there is no reason not to watch the Howard Hawks movie first. It isn’t as great as Carpenter’s closer version of Campbell’s novella, but it remains a quintessential 1950s SF thriller. Of course, if you can find a copy of Campbell’s novella, that’s an even better place to get your Thing going.