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Friday
Oct212011

The Thing (2011)

That Thing You Re-do!

Oh, God! That's why the prequel to The Thing is so terrible: it was written by Eric Heisserer!

Research is important, kids, especially when it comes to film criticism. Despite my goal of always walking into a movie fresh, I at least like to know who's work I'm about to see; I didn't do that here, and am much poorer for it.

In fairness, seeing Heisserer's name in both the opening and end credits didn't register at all; no alarm bells, no nausea, nothing. Obviously, my brain had so blocked out the screenwriter's other recent disasters (Final Destination 5 and the too-awful-to-believe remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street) that I was left wide open for all manner of new traumas.

From the get-go, the movie is all kinds of wrong. We open on a trio of Norwegians trekking across the Antarctic in 1982. They're chasing a signal in their giant Snowcat (or whatever it's called), which falls through several feet of ice and gets lodged at the mouth of a deep, black abyss. Hanging upside down, the men throw on the searchlights and discover that they're really sitting a few feet away from an alien spacecraft. After a few seconds, the top of the vessel opens up and light comes pouring out of a widening hole--eventually forming the words, "The Thing" as the explorers look on fearfully.

To paraphrase Spınal Tap, there's a fine line between artsy and stupid, and if that reveal was Heisserer's call, then he deserves credit for at least being honest about what kind of movie we're in for. If Carpenter's version was Alien, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.'s is Alien 3, a sloppy, unnecessary misinterpretation of what made the first film great. Instead of tense character drama set against the backdrop of a dimly-lit, rarely seen menace, we get an exhausting body count picture where monsters that weren't just created by computers but apparently designed by them, too, run noisily amok. The filmmakers render the creature's ability to disguise itself as anyone moot by devoting ninety percent of its screen time to being grossly conspicuous.

Technically, The Thing a prequel to Carpenter's The Thing (more on that confusion in a bit), but it's more a remake than anything else. This time, the trapped scientists are a hodgepodge of Norwegians, Americans, and a Brit or two, and the protagonist is a woman. As any prequel should, the movie hits all the mysterious touchstones of the original; the bloody axe in the door, the burnt human/alien-hybrid corpse in the snow, and the several holes that were blown in the research facility are all explained away. But Heisserer and van Heijningen duct-tape them onto a nearly beat-for-beat rehash of the "cool" moments from Carpenter's movie.

A few examples:

 

  • An innocent man is shot in the head.
  • During a key moment where the alien could easily be stopped by the guy wielding the flame thrower, the flame thrower refuses to start.
  • The alien reveals itself in the rec room and thrashes about, infecting people who will soon have to be put down.

 

You could argue that these are as much series staples as Friday the 13th's Jason Voorhees using a machete to kill teenagers, but The Thing was never a dead teenager movie. It's supposed to be a bloody Whodunnit for adults, and this premake offers nothing to surprise anyone over the age of thirteen. Yep, I'm the idiot who hoped for originality; mostly because I figured anyone old enough to buy into the brand-recognition-fueled decision to bring this story back to theatres would expect something new--or at least interesting.

The few new additions to the plot are just clumsy distractions that in no way cover up the fact that they're part of a stolen concept. There's a helicopter crash {cough Aliens cough} early on, which should have taken out the four men onboard--especially since one of them was infected. But, no, two of the men show up later, stumbling in out of the cold. In a shocking display of originality, the rest of the team confines them to a remote shack until they figure out who's human. The crash scene, while allegedly dramatic, doesn't work for the following two reasons:

1. The creature reveal that precedes the accident is such a hokey, CG nightmare that I didn't even realize the chopper had gone down until after the smoke began to rise over the mountains; my mind was utterly lost in comparing Rob Bottin's beautifully grotesque work from the original to the cartoony, Resident Evil-style bullshit on display.

2. Joel Edgerton is one of the four-man crew. This is significant because he is one of the few "name" actors in the movie, hot off his fantastic turn in Warrior. There's no way that guy dies forty minutes into the movie. Only ballsy and talented filmmakers would attempt such a thing, and these clowns establishearly on that suspense and surprise are soooo 1980s.

The film's one innovation, I guess, is the inclusion of a female protagonist. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Kate Lloyd (or, as I like to call her, "Skirt Russell"), a young, American paleontologist who's recruited by the Norwegians to analyze the giant spacecraft they found in the ice. Kate is spunky and pretty, and wholly unbelievable as a scientist. This isn't an age or gender thing--simply an observation based on the fact that she's given nothing to do in the film that couldn't also have been achieved by an accountant or really motivated gas station manager. Sure, she discovers that the alien's cells overpower and replicate those of its victims, but I could have deduced that, too, if presented a microscope and a slide showing this very activity.

Let's jump to the climax. Kate and Sam (Edgerton) chase the creature back to its underground spaceship and duke it out with an uninspired collection of fake-looking body parts. Your queasy feeling of deja vu is likely a flashback to 1998's X-Files movie, which also featured two people fighting aliens on a spaceship in Antarctica. But, hey, The Thing uses state-of-the-art special effects, guaranteeing a completely unique experience!

Yeah.

Kate and Sam survive, but one of them isn't who they appears to be. Going back to my pie-in-the-sky ideals of watching gutsy filmmakers at play, I would have loved to have seen Kate make a terrible mistake in incinerating Sam (SPOILER). But, no, Sam was an alien, and the movie ends with Kate in the Snowcat, looking tired--not so much sad or lost, but tired in the way that suggests the actress had been coerced into this role by a really terrible agent.

"But, wait!" you say. "That can't be the end! Carpenter's movie opens with a dog being chased by a helicopter!"

I imagine these were also the remarks of a low-level studio executive following a screening of van Heijningen's rough-cut. What comes next is the finest example of an ending literally being tacked on to the credits.

We revisit the Norwegian compound and find that one of the men who had disappeared earlier was not, in fact, eaten, but had holed up in a shack with his high-powered rifle. A helicopter arrives and the man rushes out to meet the very confused pilot. At that moment, the alien rushes past them, disguised as a dog. The men take off in the chopper and we roll right into the first minute or so of the 1982 film.

Indulge me while I ask even more questions:

1. Why would the alien wait around until morning to make a break for another nearby Antarctic outpost?

2. Why does the alien run to the American outpost, when it apparently knows that there's a Russian station fifty miles away?

3. Why disguise itself at all, rather than manifest as the ten-foot-tall, drooling, tentacled mess it really is in order to kill the lone survivor and assume the identity of the helicopter pilot? Because the alien can talk like its prey and knows enough to carry on conversations with other people, there's nothing to suggest that it wouldn't also absorb everything the pilot learned in flight school.

4. Assuming that this story is self-contained, why end the film with the Norwegians shooting at the dog, rather than either finishing the job or showing what happens once they cross into American territory? The obvious answer is that this is a prequel, but the film itself shouldn't know that. Were this my first experience with the story, as an audience member, I would certainly wonder why the film ends in the middle of a scene--not in a suspenseful way, but in a way that begs the question, "No, seriously, what happens to the dog?"

5. Will newcomers to this story even bother watching John Carpenter's film after being bored to death by the prequel?

That's the big one, and the reason I'm so disgusted by the fact that both films share the same name. Remakes are one, um, thing, but this deliberate attempt to brand the 2011 version as the definitive take on this classic story is insulting. Yes, Carpenter evolved his movie from Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World, but that's the key: he took the kernel of that story and updated it for his time; he made the film his own and gave it an original title.

By appropriating Carpenter's title, van Heijningen and company have, deliberately or not, asserted their version as the end-all-be-all. It's a shameful copycat that shares many characteristics of the original but has no real understanding of what made it unique. The best remedy for such movies is to burn them alive, leaving no room for further replication.