'The Thing' Review: Hopelessly Devoted To John Carpenter

The word 'uninspired' is an easy shortcut to communicate an impression of unpleasant mediocrity, and so it gets thrown around a lot. It is also the perfect term for The Thing, the new film by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. that acts as a prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 film of the same name. Uninspired, right off the bat: no one could even bother to tack a subtitle onto this movie, much less an entirely new name.

The Thing '11 is slavishly devoted to the '82 effort, which has evolved from box-office flop to a revered horror icon. Ostensibly a prequel, this film is so heavily attached to the old, like a pre-surgery Belial, that I'm not sure there was ever a chance it could grow a personality of its own. It appropriates some of Ennio Morricone's score for the '82, noticeably the low bass throb of the original main theme, but it might as well adopt Olivia Newton John's AM radio hit 'Hopelessly Devoted to You' as the real theme. In short, The Thing '11 is a fan film on a studio budget.

A recap for those who haven't seen Carpenter's movie: the staff of a Norwegian research station in Antarctica uncovers an actual flying saucer long-buried in ice. They also find, buried nearby, what appears to have been the lone occupant: a spiny, many-legged, insectoid alien thing. Turns out this thing isn't quite dead. Worse, it has a brutal hunting methodology: it takes the form of its prey. As team members are killed and impersonated by the alien paranoia and violence take over, and the research station succumbs to uncertainty as the survivors attempt to do away with the creature.

Let's get some praise out of the way. As you'd expect from a fan film, a superb amount of effort has been given over to replicating details glimpsed in Carpenter's film, and these sets generally look quite good. Which is to say that they look like a drab, possibly functional research base in the early '80s. The image is a bit more glossy than Dean Cundey's cinematography from the early '80s, sure, because this was shot digitally rather than on film. I can live with that.

I'm also accepting of the blend of CGI and practical effects that is used to give motion to this version of the shape-shifting alien. The first time we see an imitate human explode into alien limbs and tendrils the effects are overly glossy and digital, but eventually things settle down. The alien effects feel as if some key member of the VFX team is a big fan of EA's Dead Space video game series (which, in turn, bears influence from The Thing '82) and that's OK, too. This version of the alien behaves differently from the one in Carpenter's film — it is more aggressive, and quicker to reveal itself — and I could have been accepting that if the behavior had suggested something specific. Instead, it appears only to be tied to modern studio filmmaking.

Finally, the casting generally works — I believed quite a few of the Norwegian crew members, and Joel Edgerton is good as a gruff and practical not-quite stand-in for Kurt Russell. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the standout as a grad student paleontologist who turns out to be the most adaptable and open-minded person on the base. John Carpenter's film is cast with a visually diverse group of character actors, and this doesn't match his inspired choices in that realm, but that wouldn't be much of a problem if the script for this prequel has any characters you'd be able to remember after the credits roll.

As that last line implies, the rest of this film is a morass of strange and simply bad choices. Because the conclusion of this story is established by Carpenter's movie — spoiler: everyone dies — there isn't room to create any significant tension. And because the '82 film features a walkthrough of the research base that acts as this film's primary location, van Heijningen and screenwriter Eric Heisserer have to organize all the action around establishing the stuff seen twenty years ago.

The need to conform to Carpenter's movie could be a creative challenge, or creatively confining. In this case, it has been interpreted as the latter. It would be short-sighted to say there's nothing this story could possibly accomplish. The Thing '11 could tell any number of tales that might break away from the structure of Carpenter's film. Heisserer's script does not tell any of those stories. It does more or less the same thing Carpenter did: introduces the alien into a group of people, who then have to devise a means of telling human from alien before getting bumped off. It doesn't follow exactly the same path, but close enough for most purposes. There are more people in the base this time, which means we get to know each one to a lesser degree.

The cast is good enough that even with the weak and generally indistinguishable bunch of researchers written into the script, the movie isn't particularly bad for the first two acts. It doesn't have any truly compelling scenes, and we don't learn anything that we didn't already know from watching the Carpenter film, but the people on screen are working so diligently to sell the action that I bought into it for a while.

And then we leave the Norwegian base and end up on the alien ship. If you remember the detour onto the Predator's craft in Predator 2 you can more or less imagine what you'll see here — little more than an empty shell, with some seemingly under-rendered technology at the center. I can't for the life of me figure out how the alien we've seen managed to create or pilot this craft. I can imagine all sorts of possibilities and I guess The Thing '11 imagines it is being clever and generous by giving me such things to ponder. (The most obvious idea: that the alien took the shape of whatever did pilot the craft — but we might have guessed that in '82, as well.)

Here's where we almost see something new, something that could belong specifically to this film. Instead it's an empty dodge, a blank attempt to add epic scale to a story that is specifically built around claustrophobia. That in turn leads to one of the most awkward endings I can recall in recent years, where The Thing '11 tries to wrap up its own small story before remembering to serve up scenes allowing it to dovetail with Carpenter's. We're left with a film that falls so easily into the obvious metaphor: an imitation that is effective for a time but can't hold it's shape long enough to really fool anyone.

/Film score: 4 out of 10