Strangely, considering he made, in Halloween, one of the great shadows-and-spaces suspense movies, John Carpenter dislikes Jacques Tourneur’s proto-slasher, Cat People. He thinks it’s a con, all shifting shadows and no substance.
What Carpenter loves is Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World, a film of motion, action and manifest malevolence. His own 1982 remake, The Thing, took the show’n’tell to extremes, and was lambasted at the time for Rob Bottin’s now-celebrated effects – whipping innards, suppurating flesh and yawning vagina-maws to give HR Giger nightmares. “If you have something you can bring out under the light, then do it, go for it,” Carpenter insisted.
No point bemoaning this prequel for its overt CGI , then. Indeed, while there are a couple of misjudgments and one sequence evokes distressing memories of The Rock’s face pasted onto a giant scorpion in The Mummy’s Return, the viscous VFX are, by and large, impressive.
Partly it’s because tendrils, talons and melting meat lend themselves to CG . But mostly it’s because of the imagination, rather than the pixels, on display, with Dutch first-time director Matthijs van Heijningen’s effects team serving up a smattering (splattering?) of ingenious riffs on the ’82 film’s key moments. More problematic is the lack of suspense…
Who goes there?
The build-up is cogent and measured as Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s American paleontologist Kate Lloyd joins a team of Norwegians in the Antarctic to investigate a 100,000-year-old craft buried 200m deep.
They find – what else? – a shape-shifting ET , the cantankerous critter exploding out of a block of ice and hightailing it into the wind-torn night in search of somewhere to hide. And as any VHS-era movie fan knows, man is the warmest place…
The outside threat, lurking within? Nowhere to run but a frozen wasteland? Brrr. Carpenter’s picture was certainly cramped and claustrophobic, the walls of the dingy research base closing inexorably in until the pregnant paranoia birthed slippery, hard-to-grasp monsters.
By contrast, van Heijningen’s effort offers a cleaner, brighter, roomier living space, plus plenty of daytime exterior shots and a good deal more flamethrowing action. There are moments of tension – one involving a chopper taking off with the Thing, in all probability, on board, and another serving as this film’s version of the famous blood test – but the airier framing allows any ratcheting suspense to dissipate quickly.
The dynamic of the group is similarlyless engaging. “This is the last place you wanna be stuck with a load of Norwegian guys,” one character grins at Kate in the opening reel, an amusing, offhand remark loaded with underlying threat. But any hope that the filmmakers’ decision to drop a little oestrogen into the pool of testosterone is more to do with introducing a palpable sexual threat than appeasing studio suits – the 1982 film’s box-office flop was attributed, among other things, to the all-male cast – is quashed by Eric Heisserer’s bubble-wrapped script.
A mutual spark of attraction flickers between Kate and chopper pilot Sam Carter (Joel Edgerton, giving Texan viewers another ‘American’ character to cling onto), but that’s your lot. The guys neither leer or jeer when Kate assumes the role of group leader in the face of the icky threat.
The new horror
Winstead, for her part, is fine in the Ripley-esque warrior role, and Edgerton has just enough fuzz on his face and gravel in his throat to suggest he might have filled Kurt Russell’s snow boots if his role was enlarged.
The rest of the crew, though, are fodder; you won’t care if they live, die or erupt into a pulsing fountain of spaghetti, which in turn means the new technique devised to establish who’s human and who’s host carries a good deal less import than it should. (It also contradicts a detail of Carpenter’s film.)
Of course, anyone coming to The Thing 2011 minus a relationship with Carpenter’s film or the 1951 original, which this also riffs on, will find less to quibble about. In fact, if you don’t shudder with excitement when the otherworldly light shines through the title, you might even want to add an extra star to this review.
Certainly, taken in the context of the plethora of horror revisits we’ve suffered through in the last eight years, it’s one of the better efforts, a notch or two below the hot-heeled Dawn Of The Dead retread but considerably stronger than, say, Friday The 13th, A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Hitcher, The Last House On The Left and Rupert Wainwright’s godawful remake of Carpenter’s The Fog.
Make no mistake: this is a rollicking Friday-night monster movie. But a match for The Thing in its original form(s)? You gotta be fuckin’ kiddin’…
A solid, reverential riff on a horror/sci-fi masterpiece. The frequent homages (including applying Carpenter’s score to the full-circle finale) are welcome, though they remind viewers how much this has to live up to.