REVIEW SUMMARY: Despite good effects, impressive cinematography, and the beautiful Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr.’s witless prequel to the Carpenter classic offers no new ideas or scares.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Paleontologist Kate Lloyd travels to a research lab in Antarctica run by Dr. Sander Halvorsten, whose team has discovered an alien craft and still-living life form.
PROS: Often good animatronic monster effects as opposed to CGI; good cinematography from Michael Abramowicz; good decision by director Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr. to shoot on 35 mm film instead of digitally; interesting take on the “blood test” from the Carpenter movie.
CONS: Poor script and plotting by Eric Heisserer and Ronald D. Moore; inconsistent alien rules; flat, often plodding direction by Heijningen; flabby Marco Beltrami score; no interesting characters despite sever good actors, including Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Ulrich Thomsen.
Subtext, not text, makes horror and science fiction movies not just good but memorable. Many science fiction fans might find a little (damned little) mirth and enjoyment in Roland Emmerich’s Stargate or the seed of a good idea in Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners, but without some meaning they possess the same satisfaction as a meal made of cotton candy; sure, it tastes good going down, but it never satisfies one’s hunger. The Red Scare drove the terrors of the Howard Hawks-Christian Nyby The Thing from Another World, while the just-burgeoning AIDS scare fueled the horror of John Carpenter’s 1982 remake The Thing. And this poses several key problems for director Matthijs van Heijningen’s Jr.’s The Thing, especially because he opted to make his version a direct prequel to the Carpenter classic. A present-day retelling substituting modern-day terrorism for the previous themes, would have made Heijningen’s effort worthwhile; what it looks like instead is a fanboy recreation.
How so? For starters, The Thing takes place mere days before Carpenter’s movie, which means that the audience knows going in that almost everybody in the movie dies by the time the credits roll. Heijningen appears intent, too, on recreating the events leading up to the opening of the previous (and next) movie, in the mistaken belief that audience somehow need to know what happened. But audiences know this already; to reverse engineer the story from the clues left in the detritus of Carpenter’s film smacks of a the same single-mindedness that compelled George Lucas to make the Star Wars prequels, with similarly disastrous results.
Still, Heijningen believes there is a story to tell. Scientist Sander Halversen (Ulrich Thomsen) recruits paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose wide eyes and short hair make her look like a cross between an anime character and Sigourney Weaver) to accompany him to Antarctica, where his Norwegian scientific team has discovered a dormant alien ship beneath the ice, which Halversen believe has been trapped for millenia. Surprising the team even more is the discovery of a frozen alien life form outside the craft…which, naturally, they bring back to their camp. Of course Halversen decided to take a sample of the creature’s tissue. And of course it manages to escape from the block (yes, block, like something from the ice cube tray of the gods) and, eventually, terrorize the scientific team by taking its form, killing each member in the process. Lloyd, learning that the creature’s cells absorb those of humans (in one of the most superfluous cinematic scientific explanations in recent memory), teams with the team’s pilot, Carter (Joel Edgerton), in order to defeat the creature.
Although Heijningen, working from a script by Eric Heisserer and Ronald D. Moore, handles these early sequence with some technical skill, although he receives reasonably competent performances from his actors, he never makes the characters very interesting. Winstead, who plays Lloyd like a postmodern Ripley, generates none of the same presence that she brought to Ramona in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World…or that Sigourney Weaver herself brought to Alien or Aliens. Thomsen’s Halversen, similarly, falls far too easily into the cliché of scientist intent on making a name through the discovery. The rest of the cast, while competent, never create their own presences. Their deaths, when the Thing does its thing, have as much impact as the kills in a video game.
Worse, inconsistencies hamper the movie throughout. The Thing, when it takes over the bodies of other camp members, either does so very rapidly or with amazing slowness, depending on plot necessities. The Thing also can disassemble itself, which makes one wonder why it ever bothers to takes human form; why doesn’t it just break itself into smaller pieces as necessary? As the movie approaches its climax, the Thing retreats to its ship, which, we learn, is still operational…making the creature seem incredibly stupid. After all, after the first humans tried to kill it, wouldn’t it make sense for the Thing to run back to the ship for protection? In battling the creature, Lloyd and other members of the scientific team learn that fire can kill it, and so arm members with flamethrowers…though why a cold weather scientific team would keep an arsenal of flamethrowers around is never explained. (This was a problem in Carpenter’s movie as well.)
In fairness, Heijningen gets a few things right from the outset. Rather than shoot The Thing digitally, he opts for an anamorphic format using 35 mm film, giving the movie the same feel as one shot in 1982. Additionally, cinematographer Michael Abramowicz shoots the expansive snowy vistas beautifully yet still captures Antarctica’s obvious chill. And Heijningen and his screenwriters do provide one clever touch: when the lab is destroyed by fire, Lloyd examines each team member’s teeth…because the alien cannot replicate metal.
But it’s not enough. Like the Thing itself, The Thing merely absorbed its predecessor to make a simulacrum of a movie, but is never a movie itself. It has the right apparatus, but possesses nothing vital or human. And lays in wait for its audience…