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The Thing Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 22, 2012 at 12:45 AM

  • Movies review

    148

    The Thing Review

    I've seen a Thing or two in my time, you know ...

    And I've seen this film a few times now, the first time being long ago at the Leeds International Film Festival, but it took another couple of viewings to fully get to grips with how I felt about. Now that it has arrived on US BD, courtesy of Universal, I have discovered that I'm enjoying even more. With John Carpenter's The Thing occupying that extremely tight number one slot right alongside Jaws and Gladiator that is reserved for my absolute all-time favourite films, I personally had a lot of expectation invested in Matthijs van Heijningen's prequel of the same name, although I would also have to say that I had been highly prepared to loathe this interpretation if they'd mucked-up a story as downright precious and influential as I believe this to be.

    Thankfully, they haven't … and The Thing (Norwegian style) is a tremendous addition to the saga of a lost and lonely alien entity revived from a block of ice, after having been frozen at the bottom of the world for over 100,000 years, to go on a shape-shifting crusade through the ranks of a bunch of beardies in parkas and thermal long-johns. It blends into Carpenter's film extremely well and, best of all, it doesn't detract from his classic SF super-chiller in any way. In fact, so reverent to the 1982 material have screenwriter Eric Heisserer and debut director Heijningen been that it genuinely warms the heart to realise that in this day and age of watered-down remakes, half-assed American reduxes and shameless studio-ticked rip-offs we can still get a movie that pays its respects and sincerely adds something of worth to a saga so cult-adored.

    But this is still a production that could have crashed and burned even before the cameras started rolling. The original, which was the second and most faithful screen adaptation of the grand SF novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell after the fantastic 1951 variation from Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby, was met with disdain and indifference when it was released in a moulded foam latex head-to-head with Spielberg's altogether nicer ET. Home video was its salvation, though, and the metaphor-riddled tale of bodily ingestion, super-paranoia and sly alien infiltration became a steadily building classic of truly epic proportions. The amount of once harsh critics who did a volte-face regarding the fine qualities of the tale was proof that the groundswell of opinion wasn't wrong. Scholarly studies have been written about the film and its warped theories, and John Carpenter, who was never able to come even remotely close to the standards he set himself here, has been rightly hailed as a genius for creating a veritable masterpiece of mood and the macabre.

    The film was perfect as it was and, quite justifiably, didn't warrant any narrative extensions. Although it answered very few questions, the mysteries it threw up were an integral part of its unique status as one of the genre's greatest achievements. Although fans were reluctant to welcome sequels, prequels or remakes, videogames and comic-book serials did extend the mythology somewhat … and it was never going to be a surprise that Hollywood would eventually revisit the white-out world of The Thing.

    Besides, who didn't get a tingle of excitement when they learned we were finally going to discover what happened at the Norwegian camp?

    There are those who decry this as being merely a less-than-cunningly-disguised remake of the Carpenter directed, Bill Lancaster scripted film. Well, with your snow-goggles on, that could be seen as a fairly strong argument. Certainly, the narrative runs along the exact same lines. An alien craft is found is the ice, and a frozen survivor gets thawed out and goes on the rampage in an isolated Antarctic research base. It's alien cells can absorb and duplicate those of any other living organism, replicating them perfectly and enabling it to hide in plain sight. Only by burning the Thing do the paranoid humans stand a chance of winning against it … but once the entity dons its charade as someone who was once a close friend, the suspicions and the resentments begin to pile-up. Tests are conducted to find out who's who … and absolute chaos ensues. The numbers are whittled down as the masquerade is exposed and the Thing tries desperately to escape the forlorn prison of the far-flung outpost, craving more densely populated areas in which to thrive. Thus, the more Things change, the more they stay the same. But, really, how could you expect this story to radically break new ground without either betraying the legacy of Carpenter's film or going off on a tangent that studio execs would be inclined to dub as a “re-imagining” ?

    And you wouldn't want that now, would you?

    When those Crazy Swedes - “They're not Swedish, Mac, they're Norwegians!” - quite literally stumble across the crashed alien spacecraft, they send for one of their own, Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) and the best, well the nearest palaeontologist they can find, cute American egghead, Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to provide some official answers. Whilst the ship is an object of awe, something altogether more mind-boggling has been located in the ice a short distance away – a survivor. Chopping this clearly unusual creature out of the ice, the team – a mixture of bear-like Norwegians, a French woman, an unhappy Brit and some cynical American helicopter crewmen, fronted by Kurt Russell-lite Joel Edgerton as pilot Sam Carter – bring it back to the camp where it promptly breaks free during their somewhat premature celebrations and goes on the offal-flinging offensive.

    And it is here that this story then makes its big deviation from the well-known path. The Thing, this time around, is not content to simply hide where its warmest. Heisserer's screenplay isn't as smitten with subterfuge or cloak-and-dagger half as much as Lancaster's. At the first hint of trouble, the alien drops its camouflage, sprouts unsightly appendages and goes for the nearest man. Or woman. Or dog. The team are actually privileged to witness a couple of these on-the-hoof absorptions, the alien really not appearing to be all that concerned who sees it as its most intimate and ghastly. There have been complaints that we aren't given any tantalising clues as to when certain people have been taken over. In Carpenter's, there were lots of vague hints and red herrings dotted about – the shredded clothing, the turning shadow on the wall. That was the Agatha Christie angle being wonderfully exploited to its fullest. This time around, we don't really need such mechanics to keep up the tension. Although we have lots of tense confrontations and some volatile distrust – a flame-thrower stand-off in the corridor is brilliantly done, and a real knuckle-whitener – the prequel is much happier when Things are out in the open.

    SomeThing on your mind?

    In a simplistic switch, there is no sexual element to this movie at all. And I'm not just referring to the inclusion of attractive young ladies in the presence of potentially stare-crazy boffins who might suddenly fancy studying a fissure of a different sort. Whereas Bill Lancaster's script was rife with sexual connotation, Heisserer's is much more cut 'n' dried. Back then, the whole replication process of the alien was hideously sexual in nature, based upon the rape and the emasculation of men. The Thing was, to all intents and purposes, female. It reproduced, and it did so by taking its victims inside itself and birthing progeny in their image. It was also the notorious Lovecraftian image of the hellspawn vagina – quite literally the vagina-dentata in the film's most celebrated sequence. But in Heijningen's film, this notion is pretty much jettisoned because the assimilations appear all the more random and committed purely out of a very quick need to survive and to get away in the guise of the next, and fastest host. This runs the risk of dumbing-down what was originally a very sophisticated story but, in the scheme of things, this is where the alien has to think on its feet, or suckers, or whatever, and just get away as quickly as it can in order to regroup and to plan what it has to do. Once it reaches the US camp, it will have time to process all these new possibilities, so I think we can forgive this film for playing it much safer and with greater emphasis on the immediate. This isn't a slow-burn deal.

    Right, let's get one thing clear about the special effects. They are okay. But nothing more than that. The use of CG is naturally annoying, but we have to accept it as being par for the course, these days. Personally speaking, I believe that there is too much of it … and that it is far less convincing than it should have been. Scything tentacles penetrate torsos with pure cartoon-like gusto, and no sense of realism whatsoever. Flailing mutated bodies lack substance, texture and detail, especially when they go on the lumbering rampage – the lack of in-camera reality massively compounded by the fact that Rob Bottin's effects, from thirty years ago, still look totally amazing and hugely superior to anything on display here. There is still plenty of honest-to-goodness, stretchy-gloop prosthetics in the film, though – nicely skin-crawling autopsies, a mutated body hanging off the back of a pillaging thing, midriffs ringed with dinosaur fangs - but the makers' early assertion that CG would be used just to enhance the transitional phases of the transformations is way, way off the mark. But I wouldn't mind this at all if the creature effects that are flung across the screen had any originality or imagination to them. Bottin's effects were outlandish, eerie, beautifully grotesque parodies of human physiognomy with delirious hints of the otherworldly, and the sheer invention that went into them was unparalleled. Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff have proven themselves marvels at creating monsters, with Tremors, AVP, X-Men First Class and Starship Troopers to their credit, but I find their monstrous critters, here, to be quite disappointing in the main. The over-use of the spider motif becomes a touch too samey to retain any shock value. The clichéd image of the transformed beast suddenly pausing to snarl or roar at onlookers is pretty tedious and certainly something that Big John never resorted to until the dog/Blair hybrid finale. The sheer lack of imagination – I mean we all know that it can imitate any of a million creatures from a million galaxies at any time – is bewildering. Why stop at just bent-over humans with a few additional limbs scuttling about like Dr. Praetorius in Stuart Gordon's From Beyond? Carpenter, himself, did this sort of thing, as opposed to Thing, in the fun and usually underrated In The Mouth Of Madness, which had more of that essential Lovecraftian physical surrealism than is seen in evidence here, and Gillis and Co. really don't seem to have let their minds run free. The Dark Horse Comics series that took events way past the MacReady/Childs stand-off was another example of surprisingly poor imaginative flair when it came to the creature incarnations … and that was a comic, which had no such limitations of technology or budget. All of which means that Bottins' effects remain, to this day, the best and the most ingenious. Nothing beats the Norris head tearing itself away from his body, sprouting legs and trundling off. Nothing.

    But, and this is a crucial thing, the film still works just fine as a basic monster movie. It is just that the parameters have shortened and the imaginative leash is much tighter and more conventional than it was with the groundbreaking game-changer from Carpenter. Adjust your expectations accordingly, and you should have a great time with it as a terrific popcorn-spiller.

    The film is well acted too. Winstead is surprisingly good as the fish-out-of-water who susses out what is going but has a hard time convincing anybody else. She provides just the right amount of wide-eyed wonder and practical, proactive gumption. A great little moment comes after they have first surveyed the beast in its prison of ice, when Kate takes time to gaze upon the stars gleaming in the firmament. “We'll never look at them the same way again.” It is a rare strand of the emotional that, to be frank, was absent even in Carpenter's film, in which the knowledge that we are not alone was completely overshadowed by the impulse to keep out of the alien's slimy grasp. However, we need to give even more praise for the fact that when she takes command of the situation she does so without any of the typical contrivance that usually goes along with it. I know I'm quite alone in this, but I've never, ever bought into Ripley's stoic take-charge stance in Aliens. I just can't buy it at all, I'm afraid. And the whole Ripley-thing has become the cliché for every female who steps into the breach and goes monster-bashing. Well, Winstead has none of this one-note relocated machismo. In fact, I find her much more credible as a reluctant take-command survivor than as a dedicated palaeontologist. Look at her giving orders and trying her damnedest to bully potential Things around – she actually makes those lines work. Squaring off against hard-faced ice-jocks who don't want to open their mouths for her new patented fillings-test to ascertain who's human, and pursuing creatures with a flame-thrower? She takes it in her stride and becomes one of the most unassuming and likeable heroines that the genre has pitched our way in a long time.

    And Joel Edgerton, so damn good in Warrior, and Animal Kingdom, and soon to be seen in The Odd Life Of Timothy Green, is also very effective in the role of the ostensibly quiet pilot and dogged working-joe, Sam Carter. To his credit, Edgerton, yet another Aussie actor making waves in Hollywood, underplays the part. Unafraid to go missing for a lengthy portion of the film, and to be bossed around and even occasionally saved by a lady, he doesn't give us any of the usual heroic traits. He doesn't snap out eye-rolling one-liners. He doesn't make a move on Kate. He doesn't care too much if he irks the Norwegians and he doesn't have any false bravado. Check out the blind panic that consumes as he flees for his life with a Thing in hot pursuit. There aren't too many "hero-types" who would allow us to see them with out-and-out terror etched on their faces. The script wisely sidelines him, which makes his attitude and his unexpected return after a seemingly doomed mission all the easier to both welcome and distrust at the same time. Being another American in the camp, and the bonafide MacReady in this take, it would have been far too easy and much too yawn-inducing to have been able to side with him so swiftly and so surely as we do with King Kurt. And yet, for me, it is precisely this on-the-periphery quality that Edgerton imbues his scruffy, squinty-eyed flyboy with that makes him so engaging. Mind you, he does have the look of a trimmed-down Kurt Russell … and that can't hurt, can it?

    The various set-pieces are handled with some gusto. Once the new-fangled Thing-test goes explosively awry, there is no let-up in the alien stalk 'n' slash. The visual effects for the spacecraft are quite spellbinding too, with some real size and presence afforded it. And it's great to see what powers those fantastic blue-circle propulsors that lit up the saucer that came spinning towards the Earth. I like the way that the image of falling snowflakes and chips of ice that rain down through a Thing-made hole in the roof is poetically embellished much later on by the wacky power-source column that resides in the centre of the spacecraft. There is also a lot of fire in this film, a lot more than in Carpenter's, that's for sure. In fact, the film is actually quite beautiful to behold once the flames take hold, with a sort of surreal incandescence that suffuses the screen.

    I've discussed the film's score already in a comprehensive review of the CD release. But, for now, it is worth repeating how effective composer Marco Beltrami's work is. A faint echo of Ennio Morricone's doom-laden heartbeat motif from Carpenter's original notwithstanding, this is a tense and action-packed score that boasts a phenomenal new two-note sliding theme for the Thing, itself, that really makes the flesh crawl. Where Morricone enhanced the feeling of isolation and inhumanity, Beltrami is much more dynamic and exciting, concentrating far more upon the action.

    The thing about The Thing.

    A great game for fans to play is Hunt the Connection.

    Heijningen doesn't waste much time in marrying his film to Carpenter's. The familiar burn-through titles give off a queerly cosy ambience, as well as establishing the brand-mark of the movie. Instead of the dot of a helicopter making a contrast against the glaring white as the film opens, we have a snow-mobile. Not only is the Norwegian camp an absolute deadringer for the remains that we saw in the 1982 take, right down to beams, desks, cabinets, chimneys etc, but he utilises many similar camera angles and movements, courtesy of DOP Michel Abramowicz, to evoke the feeling of supreme deja vu. The gliding shot that takes us down a corridor and through a doorway to survey the block of ice is an exact replica of the scene when Dr. Copper makes his way towards MacReady and we all get our first sight of the wrecked block. Many other camera movements are culled from the Dean Cundey text-book. Just look at how the steaming autopsy is lensed, and there are plenty of group ensemble shots that place us directly in the heart of a very similar nightmare. We learn about how the axe became lodged in the wall – although, if I'm honest, I would have preferred this to have been a little less heavy-handed and possibly just been a quicker, more throwaway cut. Fleshy things, caught mid-morph, are set ablaze and blunder madly through doors and walls. Radio transmissions are knocked out of the air by that pesky approaching storm – oh, the wind effects outside the camp are more convincing this time around, too.

    A fresh assimilation has to be burned-up very rapidly, and the body does the same spasmodic Windows leg-kick in the flames. We get to see another of those bizarre-looking overhead pool-table lights getting shattered in the middle of a mutating-melee. Like with the American camp, you really shouldn't be so quick to administer medical aid to injured parties. Somebody even makes an awkward landing on one of those mysterious round packing crates, just like MacReady when he dives to avoid the Blair/dog Thing. And then there's that two-faced corpse that the Americans unveiled back at base. Well, now you're going to see exactly how that horrific coupling came about.

    Oh, remember that incredible frozen suicide from the last movie? Possibly the most outrageous example of personal overkill that I've ever come across in the movies. Well – and this is for the real fans - just see if you can guess who it is that is going to slice himself up so strategically. It shouldn't be too hard - Heijningen has picked somebody who looks exactly like that iced-over corpse. How about that? And this is just another great little example of attention to detail. I'll let you spot the plethora of other nods and references.

    Sing it with me now … “Things … can only get better!”

    Well, okay, they can't in this case. But it is a valiant effort, nonetheless. And there is a helluva lot to enjoy with this retro step.

    I love the way that the movie is able to combine elements from both the previous incarnations of The Thing. For a kick-off, the very sight of beleaguered and stunned scientists just settling down over hot coffee, and two of them being women, is straight out of the 1951 version. However, the most audacious and really quite inspired linking device is the characterisation of Dr. Sander, who is clearly modelled, in some deliberate degree, upon Robert Cornthwaite's stuffy, pig-headed boffin, Dr. Carrington. Sander clearly wants to “protect” the alien, though not in the same way that Weyland Yutante's robot Ash wants to protect that other Alien aboard the Nostromo. Science is definitely his first goal, and the furtherance of knowledge is his prime directive, which was precisely what drove Cornthwaite's brilliantly irritating head-scratcher to place his companions in so much jeopardy. Whereas Dr. Carrington quite openly states that he and his team-mates “owe it to Mankind to stand here and die” if it then means that the alien in Hawks' film will provide them with the secrets of a new galaxy, Sander's lack of human empathy is much more concealed. I doubt he believes that any of his colleagues are “expendable” but he clearly doesn't like it when they immediately fry-up his beloved specimen. There's a great look that he shoots Carter in the aftermath of their first deadly encounter with the Thing that can be taken any number of ways. Personally, I find that it mimics the look of combined awe and hostility that Palmer throws towards MacReady after he has been so quick to have the alien barbecued in the dog kennel. Sadly, the character of Sander is mistreated in the final third of the film, relegating someone who was once icily interesting to little more than another body blindly rushing about.

    Suspicion was always the linchpin of Campbell's story. Carpenter really increased the pressure to boiling point in the American camp – the atmosphere was so combustible that they probably didn't need flame-throwers or dynamite – and Heijningen is able to pitch a few curve-balls into this human-masked ball. Whilst I agree that you won't be surprised at who is revealed to have oodles of latex skin and a propensity to grow extra limbs, the lack of time in which to get to know the majority of characters actually helps the unease of the situation rather than hinder it. Back in 1982, we cared about who got absorbed and who was horrifically exposed as being a Thing. We genuinely didn't know (“Or maybe some of you did!” ), and it came as a bit of a shock when somebody you liked lost their humanity and went all icky. Here, there is a legitimate argument that you just don't care about anybody … but I believe this acts in the favour of drawing the walls in a little closer around us. Like Kate, we don't know anybody, so we hardly like any of them either. But this also means that we simply cannot trust any of them. We have Kate … and that's about it. I like this angle. It is faster, snappier. It is do or die. With the two films we now have the suspenser and the actioner. And I think that it is a good fit – two styles addressing the same dilemma.

    As Columbo would say, “Oh, and another Thing ...”

    One of the most iconic images in the entire genre could be found in the original Hawks/Nyby version when the team spread out to “determine the size and shape” of the crashed ship in the ice, forming a circle and then realising that “We've finally got one. We found a flying saucer!” Carpenter knew the cultural resonance of this sequence and he paid homage to it in his more faithful adaptation via retrieved tapes of grainy VHS footage depicting the Norwegians fanning-out to ascertain what they've found in the ice. Now, considering that he has already shown us a tantalising glimpse of this, I'm genuinely surprised – and a little disappointed – that the Norwegian makers didn't address this splendidly evocative and eerie angle. I know the vessel is seemingly deeper than we may have previously thought, but come on, this is one of the defining images of Science Fiction Cinema and it would have tied all three films together quite beautifully and poetically.

    I also have some misgivings about the ending to this story. No, not the segue into the beginning of Carpenter's, which is excellently done in-between the end credits (and even incorporates footage from his earlier classic), so don't go switching off immediately, but the actual denouement to the Kate/Carter saga. Without going into any detail, I think that this was another missed opportunity. We've already established that the alien is exceedingly intelligent, so why not allow it the chance to speak up for itself and perhaps hint at its intentions. Having discussed the classic 1972 chiller Horror Express in its Blu-ray review recently and making clear the fairly close link that it has to The Thing, this shortcoming is rammed home all the more emphatically. In that glorious Anglo-Spanish creature-feature, the alien body-swapping entity, once cornered, stakes a claim for its own existence to Christopher Lee, one of the film's heroes … and this is a rare and provocative moment in which we see things from the other point of view. Carpenter's version of the film didn't need to do this because almost everything in that story was composed deliberately of mystery, suspense and paranoia … and was shovelled into a ferocious battle for survival. Heijningen's prequel ups the ante in the bodycount stakes but also showed that it had ample opportunity to have a meeting-of-the-minds, as it were. The final stretch of the new movie plays out like the concluding of phase of Predator 2, in that it simply descends into peek-a-boo, snarl-and-chase tactics when it could have closed-out with something infinitely more intriguing and thought-provoking. Admittedly, Carpenter's movie has one of the best-ever finales placed on film and there would be no point in trying to replicate or even better that. But this film, which is very good in its own right, could really have given itself its own distinct identity and truly added something new to the Thing's mythology by giving the creature a voice. For me that would have been the way forward.

    But, as it stands, The Thing (2011) is a taut and exciting roller-coaster ride. It increases the number of causalities and it provides considerably more action. At the expense of humour or characterisation, it devolves into a relentless series of thrills and set-pieces, but this is not a mistake as far as I am concerned. The alien is a definite threat. It has just thawed-out and it is in panic-mode. This explains its rather impetuous tendency to simply attack without much in the way of stealth. That is a strategy it will learn once it reaches the American camp … as it evolves and learns from its errors.

    But that's another story.

    Vigorous, well-paced and surprisingly exciting, the new/old The Thing is great fun and definitely comes recommended. There's niggles aplenty, but nothing that tarnishes the reputation of Carpenter's film … and, if you put the '82 take on straight afterwards, I think you'll be amazed at how well the two films match up.