By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist October 13, 2011 at 3:55AM
"The Thing" arrives this weekend as a prequel to John Carpenter's masterful 1982 film, that aims to theoretically expand on the story presented nearly three decades ago by telling us what happened at the Norwegian compound that first housed the alien infection that then spread to the American base. But perhaps it should be no surprise that screenwriter Eric Heisserer, the man behind "Final Destination 5" and the "A Nightmare on Elm Street" reboot, has little imagination or ability to bring anything new to the table. So what we end up with is a strange hybrid of a movie, one that is oddly slavishly devoted to Carpenter's original, but when given the chance to put its own stamp on the material, falls back on tried and true genre antics. To put in perspective just how at odds this prequel and Carpenter's film really are, the 1982 film starts in a panic in a sequence that ends up with a guy getting dramatically shot in the face -- Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.'s movie kicks off with crude sex joke.
It's this weird juxtaposition of bowing down to Carpenter's movie while trying to remain a brand new chapter that hobbles "The Thing" nearly every step of the way. The film begins with an old school Universal logo and sequence which brings the Norwegian scientists to the mysterious craft underneath the ice before "The Thing" logo, a juiced up and slightly slicker version than the one in Carpenter's movie, pops up on screen. From there we take a brief detour away from Antarctica 1982 to the U.S., where paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is recruited on a time sensitive mission by the creepy, emotionless Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) to go with him to the South Pole to help excavate a find. With very little to go on, but intrigued at the possibility of a rare "cold dig" in a place where life forms are generally not known to be found, Kate signs up and the next thing we know we're in a helicopter over the Arctic tundra.
The first hour of the movie is essentially a straight remake of the major events of Carpenter's film with zero of the excitement or nuance. It only takes about 15 or 20 minutes into the movie for the creature not only to be discovered, but escape, launching itself out of the frozen iceblock in what becomes a lengthy number of constant references back -- or should it be forward? -- to the discoveries made by the Americans in the events that follow this movie. Anyway, by the half hour or 40-minute mark, some team members get locked up outside, we have an alien autopsy and Kate deduces by looking through a microscope that the organism replicates humans in order to hide itself. And yes, at about the midway point of the film we're where Carpenter's movie concluded: with a decision to give everyone blood tests to find out who are Homo sapiens and who aren't. And it's not just major markers from the 1982 flick, but smaller ones too that get touched upon. Where we hear "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder in the original, here Kate, who clearly has poor taste in music, prefers listening to Men At Work's "Who Can It Be Now?" which also serves as an eye-rolling joke. And to take the homage right over the top, Heijningen Jr. also utilizes the lens flare Carpenter peppered throughout his movie, but then overdoses it into J.J. Abrams territory.
But it's just at the point where you've pretty much given up hope on getting anything new out of "The Thing" that the movie suddenly comes alive. When a fire in the science lab renders the plan to utilize the blood tests useless, Kate comes up with a new makeshift idea to find out who is human, but one that puts her in closer peril should somebody turn out to be the creature. It's actually a pretty inventive twist and the entire sequence that follows is actually the explosive peak of the film, and the only moment that breathes fresh life and gives a momentary hope that a new direction will be forged. But as if frightened by his own show of originality, Heisserer returns to the safe harbor of Carpenter's movie and creates the fused face monster found in that film to essentially chase everybody around for a while before putting the pieces together for the finale that, of all the poor decisions made through the movie, tops all of them. Without giving it away we'll just say this: Universal's desire to franchise "The Thing" forces the filmmakers into a position they can't possibly win -- leaving the door open for a sequel. And where the movie could have and should have gone dark and brutal, it instead ekes out a cheap compromise, one that leaves the barn door open for "The Thing 2" that also deflates any of the remaining mystique in the story.
While kudos should be given to Universal for letting the movie go out with an R-rating, we're guessing by just how limp the movie is, that it was shot with a PG-13 in mind first. F-bombs are kept to a minimum, but fans of Carpenter's movie may be surprised to learn that of the two pictures, it's his that still remains the most effectively brutal. In the 1982 flick, Carpenter's monster may not appear as often but when it does, it's biting off arms and chomping down on heads in scenes that are genuinely shocking, surprising and most of all, fun. But it seems 30 years on, horror filmmakers are increasingly short-handing sincere thrills with jump scares. Where the desolate, forbidding atmosphere in Carpenter's film was just as much a part of the atmosphere, Heijningen Jr. is much more focused on his creatures, which while more fully rendered and gooier, are uninspiringly let loose to crawl around in dark rooms, suddenly appear from around corners or are given more time to show off their squirmier insides when they predictably explode from their human shells. Which brings us to the CGI, that while for the most part is just fine, is highlighted by two extraordinarily bad sequences. One scene in which a man faces one of the aliens scampering up his arm is cut together so badly, it only serves to emphasize that the monster was added after the fact, as a variety of mismatched shots distractingly try to salvage the situation and make it look "real." But worse is a totally bizarre "column" (that's all we can say without spoiling anything) that shows up late in the movie that appears to have been made of out Tetris pieces. It plainly looks unfinished or rushed, but it's glaring in its cheapness and stands apart from the rest of the digital work in the movie.
However, of all the ingredients missed this time around, it's the Cold War paranoia and fear that underpinned the original "The Thing" that is most sorely absent. Instead, Heijningen Jr. tries to center on character tensions but never lingers on them long enough to fully develop. At first, we think there might be romantic entanglements between Kate and research assistant Adam (Eric Christian Olsen), but we're never quite sure if they're in a relationship or not. With Norwegians and Americans mixing it up, you'd think there might be more conflict between the two nations but besides some language barriers and one random accusation the latter can't be trusted, that fizzles out as well. And as for any sexual tension given that the young, beautiful Kate arrives at a base where most of the men can't even get a recent basketball score, forget about it. It seems the Antarctic air has frozen their sex drive. Casting is also an issue as well, because while Winstead is solid in the starring role, it takes a boneheaded line of dialogue in the middle of the movie by one of the Norwegians to confirm that yes, she is the leader now. She lacks the quiet confidence and presence of Kurt Russell whose leadership was understood with nothing more than a bottle of J&B and a grunt. Joel Edgerton has a similar persona here, and despite having a smaller supporting part, every time he's on screen with Winstead you almost expect his role to suddenly become bigger than it actually is. No knock against Winstead, who does look badass wielding a flamethrower, she is never quite the commander in charge nor is she even really given the chance to prove it, as the plot focuses less on strategic thinking and more towards setting stuff on fire as the movie wears on.
It will be well before the movie wraps up when you stop caring about what happens to these characters. The one area where Heijningen Jr. didn't follow the Carpenter template is in the number of people on the base, as he seems to have doubled the number to about a dozen to the point where during a critical sequence we had forgotten about one character, only to be surprised that the person was still around and alive. For the diehard "The Thing" fan who wants every nook, cranny and basically everything that made John Carpenter's movie special spelled out and filled in, this prequel will do the job. But the true admirers of the original know that it's exactly that aura of the unknown that is half the thrill, and they will walk away from Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.'s with only one question: how can Norwegians with a seemingly endless supply of ammunition be such a terrible shot? [D]