Movie review: The Thing

The idea of The Thing goes back to a 1938 novella by John W. Campbell, one of the pioneers of modern science fiction.  In 1951, a film version very loosely based on that work was produced, entitled The Thing From Another World.  The plot was sanitized for 1950s consumption (with a twist of anti-communist Cold War propaganda), with the shape assuming alien replaced by a humanoid plant, and the action shifted from Antarctica to Alaska.

In 1982, John Carpenter went back to the source material in creating his The Thing.  It relied heavily on paranoia and brooding fear as any good gothic horror will.  Thanks to Rob Bottin, the practical effects were particularly gory and memorable.  Carpenter’s key addition to the film was explaining that the alien arrived at the American Antarctic base in the body of a sled dog being chased by the last surviving people from a nearby Norwegian research station who know the dog’s true nature.

Plans for a remake or sequel have been ground through the rumor mills for years … even as recently as 3-4 years ago, there was discussion of a direct sequel being produced by the SyFy Channel.  The producers, wisely, decided  that a sequel might be difficult with Kurt Russell (one of the two survivors at the end of Carpenter’s film) so old, and a remake seemed a losing proposition as it could almost certainly never live up to the greatness of the original.  Thus, a prequel was probably the best route, and that is where this film goes.

I make it no secret … Carpenter’s The Thing is one of my all time favorite films, and I have been anxiously awaiting this story for a long time.

 

Last call … some spoilers from here ….

 

It is Antarctica, in the late fall of 1982 …

Norwegian researchers follow a radio signal coming from a nearby barren part of Antarctica.  The Sno Cat crashes through the ice, and they find a crashed alien spacecraft.

Cut to the United States … anthropologist Kate Lloyd is invited down to the Norwegian base, as she is a specialist in recovering vertebrate fossils from ice fields.   She goes along on the advice of one of her friends.  Once there, she is shown the enormous spacecraft and what appears to be the boy of an occupant frozen in solid ice.  She supervises its recovery, and it s brought back to the base.

To be honest, the plot is not wholly unpredictable from here.  We already know that there will be two survivors, and that they will be two people who don’t speak English.  Once the creature escapes, Lloyd quickly determines that it has the ability to take the form of any being … but unlike the first film where blood tests were the sole way of determining who was human, and who wasn’t,  Lloyd determines an alternative method that is pretty interesting.  I applaud the efforts to leave the Norwegian base just as it should for the arrival of the Americans later.

This film is very clearly not as good as Carpenter’s;  there was almost no way it could.  There is more on-screen time for the creature, which fans of the original will note seems to be based on some of the original art that was rejected for Carpenter’s film.  There is a conscious effort to show things in the Norwegian base, and how they end up after the final attack there (so that the base will look “right”, as seen in the Carpenter film, which spends a few minutes exploring the base).

The most notable weakness compared to Carpenter’s film  is that the characters aren’t developed.  In Carpenter’s film, you sympathize with Kurt Russell’s MacReady character because he is a functional alcoholic Vietnam vet who is in Antarctica escaping from the realities of the world.  There was a loner who loved his dogs … there was a stoner, a few scientist, a grizzled doctor … in short, there were people with personalities.  In this film, most of the characters look alike and have undeveloped personalities … it is a little hard to tell them apart without a scorecard.  You certainly sympathize with their plight because they are dying to save the world, but it is more difficult to relate with them.  More attention here would have definitely improved the film.

I would also make a comparison to Alien and Aliens.  Where Alien was strictly a horror film, Aliens was more of an action-adventure film.  To some extent, I think the producers tried to go that route.  Where Carpenter’s 1982 film is a text book gothic horror film, this new film is more of a thriller and action film.  That’s where I would stop the comparisons.  Both Alien and Aliens are modern classics of their genre.  Carpenter’s film is too.  I can’t say that this new film reaches the level of “classic”.  Still, far from a bad film.

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