Keep watching…ah, forget it: “The Thing (2011)”

November 20, 2011

So, we got a prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing, also titled The Thing. Hey, that’s not confusing. And also somewhat unnecessary. I mean, Carpenter’s movie (based, as it was, on John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?”) was a nicely-contained little story without a whole lot of ambiguity to it. I mean, honestly, the only mystery that’s nagged me about that movie is why a survey team in Antarctica was issued quite so much booze and firearms (unless their superiors really, really wanted the team to go bugnuts crazy and kill one another two weeks into winter, in which case mission accomplished, Starfleet). But Thing2 (really, it’s just easier to call it that) decides to give it a try anyway, telling us the story of the Norwegian team that first encountered the thing titular thing and set it loose (via dog) on an unsuspecting Kurt Russell and cohorts (no, Russell isn’t in this movie, so don’t get your hopes up.)

Anyway, the movie begins with a sampling of Ennio Morricone’s iconic theme from the 1982 version, which at least shows that this movie’s heart is in the right place. A bunch of Norwegians (“Swedes” as Russell would continually misidentify them in the 1982 movie) discover something massive beneath the Antarctic ice. Cut to one of those generic academia settings where a paleontologist named Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is summoned by a more senior scientist, Dr. Sandor Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) to help him study the alien craft and the body of the being that inhabited it. Aliens? Antarctica? An isolated outpost hundreds of miles across unforgiving terrain from any assistance?  Well, who wouldn’t jump at a chance like that? Anyone with a scintilla of survival instinct, but you know, we need the movie to go, so time to break out the Yak-Trax.

So, Kate flies to the outpost and proceeds to study the creature. Sort of. No, not really—I gotta be honest. See, the thing was removed inside a massive block of ice, and while Halvorson is champing at the bit to get a tissue sample, Kate is all like, “No, we should wait…it might be all icky and gross…and we might totally get space cooties…” Halvorson ignores her and politely refuses to point out that they didn’t fly her monkey-butt all the way to Antarctica so she could look at the damn thing through a block of ice! He also drills into the ice to get a tissue sample. Later, while the Swedes are getting hammered in celebration of discovering alien, the thing leaps out of its icy prison. Yeah, apparently, the cracks caused by Halvorson’s drill weakened the ice enough for the alien to bust free. Yeah, I know it makes no sense, but I’ll give it a pass, since in the 1951 Howard Hawks version, they thawed the thing out by accidentally covering it with an electric blanket.

From here, things take a familiar turn as various people thing out, and Kate and an increasingly-small group of survivors try to figure out which among them are still human. There’s a lot of tentacle action. And it ends where it must: with two men in a helicopter desperately chasing a Siberian husky toward an American base camp. Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr (making his feature film debut) clearly respects the 1982 version—so that’s not a problem—but he doesn’t wring anything original out of the story, either. In copying the formula of the predecessor, he only emphasizes the ways in which his film’s directorial and writing decisions fall down in the face of Carpenter’s. Such as:

Characters: Remember how vivid the crew from the 1982 Thing was? They were portrayed by great character actors (Richard Dysart! D.W. Moffit! Wilfred Brimley! That guy from Picket Fences!) Not only did they create swift, distinct characters, but they turned in such lived-in performances, you never once doubted that these guys were cooped up too long with one another and nothing to do. In Thing2…ah…not so much. Okay, MEW doesn’t do a bad job as Alice—she’s easy to take seriously in the role—but everyone else is pretty much a cipher. I mean, there’s the Norwegian with the beard, and…um…that other Norwegian with a beard, and…ah…the black guy…and it goes like that.

The setting: Carpenter’s film took place on the eve of the Antarctic winter. This is significant because, after the team finds the thing we never see the sun again. Not only is this the equivalent of thunder and lightning in a haunted house movie, but it adds another, even more palpable hazard to the film: the sub-zero weather which will kill them as indiscriminately as the alien terror. For some weird reason, Heijinenin…Hejin…screw it, the director chooses to set the action in the blinding light of mid-day. Where the outdoors in the 1982 version was the impenetrable gray of a blizzard that made you understand why the guys would take their chances against the thing indoors where it’s at least warm, Thing2 sees the pristine white of the snowscape contrast against the deep, cerulean blue of the sky, and you think “looks like good skiing weather…”

The Thing: Yeah, we gotta get to this. The original creature designs were groundbreaking. They were, without hyperbole, like nothing ever put onscreen before. In a way, they were what sunk the film for John Carpenter as audiences and critics were so horrified and repelled by what they saw onscreen, they just wanted to flee the theaters and settle in with some lower-impact chills like Poltergeist. This movie…eh…like I said, there are a lot of tentacles. They’re faithful to the original’s designs, but they lack the psychological horror of the original. The 1982 movie dredged up levels of body-horror David Cronenberg only dreamed of. This one just feels like a pale copy that never truly understood where the chills from its predecessor came from (hint: it wasn’t tentacles).

The story: Thing2 wisely follows the template of the previous three Thing incarnations, but makes some critical missteps. First off, the thing scenes are too long and action-oriented. We see too much of the thing’s latest incarnation and it ceases to be scary. The semi-climatic chase scene between a couple survivors and the thing incarnation that gets thawed out in the 1982 version feels like the tired action set-piece from any other monster movie. The thing could have been a velociraptor or a Predator or a werewolf or, hell, the animatronic Saint Bernard from Cujo. The movie promptly loses any otherworldly terror it tried to produce in this scene. Likewise, a late-movie trip to the alien ship peels even more mystery away from the creature and leaves us with just another CGI setting to contemplate.

The music: Ennio Morricone created a score as perfect for this movie as John Williams’ scores were for Jaws, Star Wars, or Raiders of the Lost Ark. A simple, spare synthesizer riff—an electronic heartbeat–it gets inside your head and amps up the story’s inherent dread and paranoia. To truly get a sense of how poorly this movie is served by Marco Betrami’s generic movie score, the movie gives us an epilogue in which Morricone’s score gives way to Beltrami’s. A lot of this movie’s shortcomings become instantly-recognizable in just a few moments of soundtrack.

So, that’s 2011’s The Thing. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not bad, per se. It’s not terribly stupid or incompetent, and it tries hard. But, in the end, it’s only okay, and when you’re following up two sci-fi horror classics, okay just doesn’t cut it.

(And it does nothing to answer my question about the 1982 version. I mean, these dudes had shotguns, fer chrissakes! The hell were they so worried about? a bunch of Emperor penguins waddling into camp one day and stealing their booze? I never got their impression that penguins were that ferocious. Plus, they could probably just get drunk with them. A drunk penguin would probably be pretty funny to see).

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