The Thing (2011)
Give credit where it’s due: The Thing is not a remake of John Carpenter’s 1982 classic (or Christian Nyby’s 1951 classic, for that matter, of which Carpenter’s film was a remake). It is, rather, a prequel to the 1982 film, exploring what happened at the doomed Norwegian camp in Antarctica that the Thing escaped from, at the beginning of the ’82 film, en route to the American camp. I myself had been curious about what had gone down among the dead men. As it happens, the events at the Norwegian camp are pretty much the same as the events at the American camp. Aside from a new way to distinguish a real human from a person who’s been absorbed and imitated by the Thing, the new film doesn’t come up with anything fresh. It’s like the Star Wars prequels: Fan-fiction speculation over the years has probably been more inventive than what has now been presented to us as official Thing canon.
The major difference here, of course, is that the various permutations and transformations of the Thing carry the telltale sheen of CGI, whereas Rob Bottin’s revolutionary latex work in the 1982 film always occupied real physical space, giving the actors something to react to and interact with. Reportedly, the new film once sought to follow in Bottin’s footsteps with entirely practical effects, but the dailies apparently disappointed, and the studio ordered up digital enhancements. What’s left of the real-world sculpting of Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. looks appropriately savage and surreal, but the result of the tweaking is that the Thing can now move more quickly and fluidly, and can do things it somehow can’t do later on, in the 1982 film.
Of course an American audience wouldn’t be trusted to maintain interest in a Norwegian-camp prequel composed entirely of Norwegians speaking subtitled Norwegian. So we have four Americans, an Englishman, a French woman, and a bunch of indistinct Norwegians, most of whom obligingly speak fluent English. One of the Americans is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a paleontologist recruited to have a look at the Thing discovered buried in the ice. Winstead isn’t a bad actress (she was a delight in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World), and at 26 she could plausibly be a college graduate and practicing scientist herself, but the problem is she doesn’t look it. Like many another actress these days, she looks far younger than her years. She doesn’t get to do much science-y stuff anyway, though she does figure out that the Thing can’t replicate inorganic material, so anyone without fillings in his teeth is suspect. (I’m guessing she means it can’t imitate anything bioinorganic, but the producers may have feared such a word would confuse the same stupes who were assumed to need Americans in a Norwegian story.) So we get several scenes with characters yelling at each other to open their mouths.
Look at the 1982 Thing again and you see a perfect thunderstorm of paranoia and suspense, brewed up by the clash of the cold front of director John Carpenter’s cool-cucumber style (the camera almost never moves, and it stares objectively at the characters much as a Thing would) and the warm front of Rob Bottin’s excitable-boy, sugar-fueled metamorphosis sequences, where chaos reigns. Director Matthijs van Heijningen, a fan of the Carpenter film, gets the externals but can’t duplicate the authentic chill and isolation of the original. (In some scenes, too, the steam wafting out of characters’ mouths in the cold air seems real, while in others it seems digitally pasted in. It’s distracting.) He isn’t free to bring anything of his own, either; he’s got prequel-cuffs around his wrists, locked into the look of the ’82 film, and its beginning, too. We know this film has to end with a Norwegian attempting to kill the Thing before it reaches another camp, and we assume everyone else will die. They don’t, though, and the door is left open for a sequel to this prequel: in addition to the Norwegian and American camps, there’s a Russian camp we hadn’t previously heard about. How many damn countries have guys stationed out there in the snow, and what are they all studying?