It’s possible there might be something new, insightful, and complimentary that can be written about John Carpenter’s The Thing, but luckily that’s not the task in front of me today. Here’s what I once wrote in brief about The Thing (1982 edition):
What can be said, at this point? John Carpenter remade a sci-fi classic by his hero, Howard Hawks, and arguably, he beat it. It’s still a brilliant set-up – a malicious shape-shifting alien being plagues twelve guys manning a research station in Antarctica – and the follow-through is equally brilliant, between the direction by Carpenter, the imagery by cinematographer Dean Cundey, the monstrous effects by Rob Bottin, the dying-heartbeat of a score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, and the eclectic ensemble cast of character actors (some you’ve seen before; some who were never seen again), led by Kurt Russell and the legendary Keith David. The end result is the greatest movie T.K. Carter was ever affiliated with NOT named Doctor Detroit. It’s arguably Carpenter’s masterpiece. It’s a classic in science fiction, a classic in horror, a classic study in isolation and paranoia, and it’d be all of those things even without that remarkable ending, which is legendarily, chillingly, ambiguous.
The Thing started out as a pulp story called Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. Howard Hawks (with Christian Nyby) turned it into a movie in 1951, and then Carpenter, who regards Hawks the way I regard Carpenter, took a phenomenal script by Bill Lancaster (Burt’s son, who also wrote The Bad News Bears) and turned it into one of the great horror films of the past thirty years.
Carpenter’s film was a remake, technically — one of the most artistically successful remakes in cinema history. This new version of The Thing, written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., is NOT a remake. (Although, confusingly, its credits claim to be based on Campbell’s original story, which featured none of these new characters or situations.) The new version purports to be the account of the events leading up to Carpenter’s movie, which began with a ranting Norwegian taking rifle-shots at a dog, Palin style, from a helicopter in hot pursuit. So the new version is not a remake, but a thing they like to call a prequel, a movie made after an earlier movie which dramatizes events that preceded it. Basically, this new movie is setting itself up as a companion piece to Carpenter’s movie, and as such it fails.
For the job of re-envisioning one of the greatest movies in their tremendous catalogue, Universal turned to a man named Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. “Junior” — that means there are two of them. Aside from being a strong argument in favor of stage names, this guy has got a set of balls on him. I’m assuming. Why else take on such a monumental fool’s errand? You’d certainly want to come at it with some major cinematic mojo — John Carpenter had already made Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween, and Escape From New York (among other things) before he took on The Thing. By contrast, this new guy has made a short film (in 1996) and a bunch of car commercials. Like I said: balls.
One element that saves the watchability of The Thing (2011) is its star, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, from Death Proof and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. She’s pretty wonderful, I think. She’s the kind of female star who can claim to be a paleontologist and make you believe it, the kind of girl who can take over a room full of beardy dudes when stuff goes wrong and make you believe she knows what she’s doing. That’s not reverse-sexism — not many MALE stars can do these things, let alone the lady parts. Comparisons to Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver seem totally fair and adequately complimentary.
She plays Kate Lloyd, a paleontologist who is called up by a co-worker named Adam (Eric Christian Olsen) and his creepy boss Sander (Ulrich Thomsen) to head down to Antarctica with them to check out a major discovery. The movie gives us no idea where Kate’s office is; I guess the production couldn’t spring for an exterior shot. It also gives us no idea why Kate jumps at the opportunity aside from Sander’s “now or never” deadline, what her relationship to Adam might be, or even really how she feels about it. This movie, unlike Carpenter’s, has little time for character. The only other actors who register are Jameson (Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje, whom van Heijningen must love for his prodigious spellchecker-killing ability), and Carter (Joel Edgerton). Edgerton in particular shows some real star quality, but maybe I just like him because he’s like a badass action-hero version of Conan O’Brien.
These characters head to a Norwegian base in Antartica, where a bunch of heavily-bearded Norwegian scientists have accidentally discovered a spaceship the size of a football field under the ice. As we all know, what comes out of the spaceship is a horrific alien squid thing with the ability to take on the physical appearance of anything it touches, whether that be man, dog, or otherwise.
But back to those Norwegians for a moment, because this is an important point: The only way you can tell these dudes apart is due to the length of their beards and the shade of their ’80s-vintage overalls. They’re all just fine, acting-wise, but they’re cast too similarly. No one pops off the screen more than another, which is a major failure of clarity on the part of the filmmakers. And here’s another method of distinction:
Note the naming of the principal characters from Campbell’s story, Lancaster’s script, and Carpenter’s movie:
MacRready. Childs. Blair. Garry. Clark. Palmer. Norris. Bennings. Fuchs. Nauls. Copper. Windows. (They have a fucking guy named WINDOWS!)
Kate. Adam. Carter. Jameson. Sander. Colin. Edvard. Peder. Karl. Olaf. Griggs. Jonas. Henrik. Lars.
Which cast list shows more creativity? More importantly, which cast list makes each character immediately distinguishable from the others?
That’s such an important question. Character naming and casting are two very important arrows in the quiver when you’re making a movie with large casts, especially when the large cast is quickly winnowed away by a murderous alien. It is of absolute importance that an audience is able to tell who’s been killed, who’s still alive, who’s on what side of the camp, and so on. I know who Kate is because she’s the pretty girl. I know who Jameson is because he’s the only tall black guy in a roomful of guys who look like Tolkien dwarves. I know who Carter is because I’ve seen Joel Edgerton in movies before. I know who Lars is because he’s the only one everyone keeps pointing out speaks no English — which also, for the record, lets me know who will live until the end of the movie, because he’s meant to be the guy from the start of the Carpenter film. But after those four, sorry, I’m lost.
Another smart filmmaking technique 1982 has all over 2011 is the idea of geography — Carpenter very smartly has his cameras roam across the base, sometimes following that dog around, so that audiences get a sense of the location. When people are running around, hiding from The Thing, later on, we are able to mentally recall from before where they are on the base. The new movie shows no such forethought. New rooms are constantly introduced. There is no consistent sense of the layout of the base. Who’s where? Who knows? Carpenter’s movie disorients the characters and the viewer with concise, methodical intent. The new movie is far, far sloppier. And these people had thirty years to think about this shit.
Other issues I noted, real quick:
For a movie which isn’t meant to be a remake, there sure is a lot of familiar ground being re-tread. A scene where a character watches human cells being imitated by the alien cells through a microscope is essentially identical to the original, which is weird when the character making the observation is a paleontologist. Where does a paleontologist suddenly get all this knowledge of micro-cellular genetics?
For a movie which takes place in Antarctica, it sure doesn’t look very cold. One of the best virtues of Carpenter’s movie is that it looks like the coldest winter you never want to get near. The new movie just looks a little chilly, like an L.A. soundstage on a cold night. Carpenter’s movie made it clear that these characters can’t go outside for long or they will DIE. In the new movie, there are scenes where the characters don’t even bother to put on coats, just rush right out in their cute little sweaters.
For a movie where one of the few significant alterations from the earlier and better movie is the introduction of a strong and capable female protagonist, those alien creatures sure do look a whole lot like angry vaginas. It ain’t just me who noticed it — The New York Times even made a point of it, and they’re so polite they call everyone Mister and Mrs. What’s with the fear of vaginas, fellas? Is that really what happens when this many dudes get together? Because I really can’t relate.
At best, The Thing 2011 is an expensive-looking, sporadically-diverting fan-film (with way too much distracting CGI). At worst, it’s a blatant money grab, assuming that people like me who adore Carpenter’s movie will be curious enough to check it out (correct, but still ugly) and that people who haven’t seen it are so starved for horror films that they will take a hasty recreation of a masterpiece. Repertory screenings of Carpenter’s film in cities like LA and NYC still pack ’em in — why not give that a shot on the national level? Carpenter’s Thing still lives. I’m so sorry to be so cruel, but the new one won’t.
Sometimes having huge balls isn’t a virtue. Sometimes, when they’re that big, you want to get those things checked.