Remakes are nothing new. From the silent era onward, filmmakers have returned again and again to the same stories, re-interpreting them and updating them either for the sake of modernization, to expose them to a broader audience or to just make more money. We modern film geeks tend to roll our eyes and groan cynically when a new remake comes down the pike, but the fact of the matter is that when done right there are few things as satisfying as a seeing a story we love get a good cinematic spit-shine. Remakes are a part of the grand tradition of storytelling and cinema history, and love them or hate them, they’re here to stay.
But in the last decade, the term “remake” has become something of a dirty word, and as a result Hollywood spin doctors and internet journalists have given us the new terms “reboot” and “re-imagining”. Do these terms actually have meaning, or are they just empty buzzwords? The mission statement of this ongoing column will be to answer that question by comparing an original film to a re-do and determining if the newer version fits one of the following definitions:
Remake: A straight re-telling of a story for the purpose of updating it for a contemporary audience, or making it accessible to a different culture or region.
Reboot: A course correction done with the purpose of restarting a franchise. A reset. Fealty to the original story or film is not a priority.
Re-Imagining: A re-telling of a story, but only in the broadest sense. Characters and some story elements may be retained, but mostly plot and story have been repurposed.
I also will make a judgment call on which version is superior. Some controversy may ensue.
THE THING 1982 VS. THE THING 2011
What’s the deal?: Oh, The Thing 2011. Was there ever a chance anyone would love you? A great man once said, “Some motherfuckers are always trying to ice skate uphill.”, and this is one remake, or prequel, or…uh requel that has had a very icy uphill climb from the get-go. When I first heard rumblings that there was a “prequel” to John Carpenter’s legendary cult classic in the works I thought it was a fool’s errand and honestly never expected that it would see the light of day. But the horror remake trend of the early ought’s willed it into existence, and the result may have been the death knell for the tend itself, at least for the foreseeable future. Like its predecessor, The Thing 2011 was a critical and box office disaster. But was it deserved, or did it simply suffer the backlash brought on by a decade of remakes, reboots and re-imaginings?
If you need to be reminded, the story of all Things is that a group of scientists stationed in the arctic uncover a creature from space in the ice that thaws and wreaks havoc, and in the newer versions goes as far to mimic the hapless crew. John Carpenter’s film took the idea of a shape-shifter to dizzying heights of imagination, and for that reason has become a film that every horror or sci fi fan has seen and probably loves. I guarantee that is you are reading this, you love John Carpenter’s The Thing.
This puts Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. (I’m not typing that name again)’s Thing in an incredibly tough position. If it was somehow possible (and it isn’t) to be the type of person who would see this Thing without having first seen Carpenter’s masterpiece, you might actually find Things to like. In an era where most creature-features are SyFy channel cheapies, this movie is a definite cut above. For a monster movie of the modern digital era, the creature work here is decent. Yes you can tell the work is largely digital, but judged on its own terms the shape-shifting titular thing here is well-rendered and disturbing. Much was made about how the production had originally featured extensive practical work that was later replaced with digital, but what matters is the finished product, and the finished product is a solid B picture. The actors do a good job, there are some moments of genuine terror and suspense, and the film looks pretty great. On a purely technical level, The Thing 2011 is an acceptable if not exceptional piece of sci fi horror. Also, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is nice to look at, even in a parka wielding a flamethrower.
So why, especially considering the diminished expectations of your average horror fan, is this film so universally reviled? I do believe that this film suffered the full brunt of horror remake fatigue. After years of enduring endless remakes of horror classics, this was just one trip to the well too many. Despite whatever good intentions filmmaker’s may have had, it is a trend rooted in cynical, cash-grab marketing, and the fact of the matter is that even the dumbest of audiences eventually wise-up to being played. And let’s face it, there was no good reason to make this Thing other than to cash-in on a property that producers mistakenly believed had garnered some cache over the years. It certainly wasn’t the “story” — no fans were clamoring to see the events that transpired in the Norwegian camp that served as the backstory of the original. And calling it a “prequel” became a transparent ruse the minute the first trailers hit; this was less a prequel than a beat-for-beat rehash of the Carpenter film.
And that’s the real problem with The Thing 2011; someone already made this movie and they made it better. It was also called The Thing, and it featured mind-blowing creature effects by Rob Bottin that have never been matched in the history of modern cinema, and certainly not by this movie. And to make matters worse, The Thing 2011 never lets you forget that The Thing 82 exists! This makes it impossible for the viewer who is familiar with the Carpenter film to watch the requel objectively without constantly comparing every scene to its superior 1982 analog. The filmmakers and producers won’t let this Thing be its own Thing, and the result is an almost unparalleled been-there, done-that experience. In fact, for a lot of the running time, I felt myself tuning out of the movie and revisiting the Carpenter film in my mind. If this was the filmmaker’s intent, it is a terrible one.
Of course, Carpenter’s film was a remake of Howard Hawk’s The Thing From Another World, but it was a re-imagining that drew more from the source material novella Who Goes There? and went in its own direction. This Thing draws only from the Carpenter film. And it’s too bad. There was some real effort here on the part of cast and crew; it’s a shame it couldn’t be in the service of something that had a little of its own identity. Like the titular creature itself, The Thing 2011 is simply an organism attempting to mimic its host, and as such it can really only truly be identified as a remake.
Which version is better?: I’m pretty certain there isn’t a human being alive who would choose The Thing 2011 over John Carpenter’s The Thing. Aside from being a marvel of creature FX, Carpenter’s film is masterfully suspenseful and atmospheric in a way that the requel could never be. It’s an insult to even ask this question.
Up Next: Look, I know this installment took forever. I started a full time job, and honestly I found it difficult to to write about this movie and had already committed to it as a subject. But next I’ll have a movie I won’t have difficulty writing about. That movie is 2010’s The Wolfman.