Does contain some implied spoilers.
In one of the extras accompanying the Blu-Ray/DVD release of this film, one of the stars of this prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 classic sci-fi horror opines that there’s no point doing this film unless they can bring something new and fresh to it. Unfortunately that’s precisely what they haven’t done.
There’s evidently a lot of respect from the cast and crew for the original, and they’ve left no block of ice unturned in maintaining continuity between the original and the new film. But the genius of Carpenter’s original is that it cut right into the action as it was already underway; much of the effectiveness of the early scenes is down to the cast discovering the earlier horror in the Norwegian camp. It’s creepy, atmospheric and compelling because we have no better idea of what’s going on than they do either.
By its very design, this prequel loses all of that. The film actually starts too early – a dull scene in an anonymous US laboratory is no substitute for the original’s frenzied helicopter dog chase. The first half hour shows us all the things so effectively implied in 1982 and which gain nothing but lose much from being seen directly. It then has too little story to tell before the creature is unleashed, which means the scenes drag with laboured character development, forced interplay and artificial friction. Then – knowing that its audience knows all too well what “the Thing” is – it suffers a crisis of confidence and abruptly shifts into too-fast a gear, whipping through key scenes without letting the tension build.
The lead character – Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Kate Lloyd – manages to go from analysing a blood culture to deducing the entire nature of the creature in five minutes flat, as if she’s just been watching the original film on DVD and can’t wait to get the infodump out of the way so that the action can begin. There’s a moment in the script where no one believes her; but just in case that should give rise to any accidental dramatic tension, her wild assertions are graphically proved right to all and sundry a couple of minutes later, after which the film can just concentrate on action without interrupting it with anything that needs thinking about.
Specifically, this film manages to misplace the whole “who is human?” paranoia of the original film and the short story on which it is based (John W. Campbell Jr’s Who Goes There?) by introducing a ‘tell’ for the creature that is perfectly logical within the plot, but simultaneously makes it far too easy to confirm if someone is a real human (although not necessarily the reverse, so at least there’s some ambiguity.) A final twist relies on a further refinement to this that is both too small a detail for the audience to be able to pick up on – even in the reasonable high-def transfer available on the Blu-Ray – and also so much the stuff of routine movie continuity errors as to be a cheat when used in this fashion.
The movie gets some good karma by having a largely genuinely Norwegian cast, but of course the plum roles go mainly to US movie stars: Winstead is fine but no Sigourney Weaver in a thinly-written role; Joel Edgerton (actually Australian, but these days Hollywood finds it hard to tell the difference) is similarly no Kurt Russell; Eric Christian Olsen works best, but largely because of audience identification carry-over from his series regular role in NCIS: LA. As ever in this sort of thing there’s a compliment of British actors who manage to contribute more solid and memorable characters than they should actually be able to given the script – Lost’s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as a helicopter co-pilot and Jonathan Walker as defeatist radio operator Colin.
A positive point is the quality of the effects: while CGI is inevitably present and occasionally dodgy, on the whole it’s reigned in and the creature effects themselves are all practical models and animatronic creations, and consequently look superb. The intervening 30 years have allowed this FX technology to advance in leaps and bounds and consequently the look of some of the creature moments is truly breathtaking, even exceeding the original while keeping closely to its design ethos. However, that does mean that despite a couple of great reveals (the unmasking on the helicopter is particularly effective), there’s nothing nearly as gut-grabbingly original as the spider head from Carpenter’s film. It’s homages, all the way down.
Unfortunately the film abruptly loses its way in the final act, dispatching most of its red herring cast in a single-scene orgy of bloody FX to allow the leads to go off in a curiously flat monster hunt around the wreck of the creature’s space craft, which unfortunately invites unkind comparisons to the likes of Predator 2 or the misconceived Alien vs Predator sub-franchise. There are a few creature variations that dip too deeply into the well of HR Giger’s facehugger, too. You’ve seen this sort of ‘haunted house in space’ sequence many, many times before and The Thing doesn’t do a particularly inspired job with it here in any case.
Ultimately, the film ironically becomes as soulless a facsimile of the original movie as the alien creature does of the humans it absorbs. To put it another way: you know a film is in trouble when the most thrilling part of the whole endeavour is when the original film’s theme starts up over the end titles and the opening scenes to the 1982 movie are linked to and recreated.
To those inclined to pounce on my use of the term ‘original’ for the 1982 John Carpenter film and itching to point out that there was a previous 1951 black and white adaptation of Campbell’s short story, I’ll just head that off at the pass by saying that the the title of that film was “The Thing From Another World” and therefore not “the original ‘The Thing'”! Great film in its own right, though, and well worth watching. More than this 2011 effort.