Almost thirty years since the release of John Carpenter's superb 1982 sci-fi thriller "The Thing," it remains one of the great so-called "monster movies" in cinema history, comparable in sheer mastery and creepiness to Ridley Scott's 1979 classic "Alien" with one key location change (Antarctica rather than outer space). Equipped with a brazenly ingenious premise of an alien that simultaneously absorbs and replicates its victims, Carpenter mounted a taut, elegant, frequently gruesome genre pic that kept its audience on continuous edge over which of the characters were still human, and which ones weren't. Beyond that, Rob Bottin's make-up effects remain some of the most imaginative and impressively complex to ever be put on film. Indeed, they still hold up today, potent enough to have viewers recoiling in fear while scratching their heads over how they were pulled off.
When word came that Universal Pictures would be tackling a reboot-cum-prequel, it was only too easy to imagine all the ways a modern filmmaker might screw it up. A succession of boo scares over genuine tension and terror. People forced to make numbskull choices by a dumbed-down screenplay. Pale imitations of scenes revisited, done much better the first time around. The unforgettable practical effects of Carpenter's '82 version thrown out and replaced with a bombardment of lazy, less-realistic CGI. No, a 2011 version of "The Thing" did not appear at the onset of its announcement to be a promising idea, and that's all the more reason why viewers will be forced to eat their preconceived notions once they get a load of the overall care that has been brought to the finished outcome. Although the shared title is a bit perplexing since it plays as a direct chronological precursor to the previous film rather than a remake, commercial director Matthijs van Heijningen, making his auspicious feature debut, treats the earlier material with a well-acknowledged reverence. Interested parties unfamiliar with the '82 film would do wise to see it first since so many of that picture's little details and story elements are both cleverly nodded to and paid off here.
When American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is made an offer by Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) to come to Antarctica and assist his predominately Norwegian geological research team on a top-secret discovery, it's one that she cannot refuse. What she finds is a mysterious spacecraftand a creature of unidentified originthat have been buried under the ice for at least 100,000 years. Despite Kate's trepidation, it is made clear that she has little say in the matter when they decide to bring the chunk of ice with the alien inside back to their research station to test its DNA. The creature's subsequent escape is compounded by a microscopic look at its cells, each one devouring the normal cells and then emulating their appearance. With any one of them now potentially an otherworldly interloper, the process begins for separating the humans from the non-humans. If one of them escapes, it could spell a cataclysmic world event.
If 2011's "The Thing" is not quite 1982's equal, the distance in quality between the two is closer than one has any right to be expecting. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer (2011's "Final Destination 5
") takes a detectable personal interest in living up to what John Carpenter created, making sure that this new film, set in the days leading up to the events of the original, seamlessly builds toward a conclusion that also happens to be the older picture's beginning. Likewise, Matthijs van Heijningen's directorial contributions are enough to signal that this is not merely a work-for-hire cash grab; he blesses the proceedings with an enthrallingly deliberate first act that sets all the pieces in place before unleashing a whirlwind of tension and frights on the viewer. More than that, the action always makes sense based upon pre-established rules and logic, heading toward a dastardly conclusion that is at once obligatory and a fresh twisting of expectations. We know where it must end, but not necessarily how it gets there, and Heisserer and Heijningen are especially savvy in their uncovering of revelations that shed light on more ambiguous happenings from the previous film.
Following a sit-up-and-take-notice prologue detailing how the buried UFO is found, "The Thing" introduces lead protagonist Kate Lloyd as she listens to "Who Can It Be Now?" by Men at Work, a brilliant choice of song that acts as a comment on the era in which the story is set; turns out to be the primary quandary that the research team find themselves in when faced with an alien in disguise among them; and a sneaky reference to the source material, a 1938 novella by John W. Campbell Jr. called "Who Goes There?" As things expediently unravel, the two majorly effective jump stingers are earned through the smart use of silence and circumstance rather than cheap, throwaway false-alarm moments. Creature effects are, yes, mostly CGI, but the designs are so eerily repulsive and ambitious that it usually doesn't call attention to itself. The trouble areas are when computer effects are used for explosions and a key anomaly Kate comes upon near the end; these are so clunky they don't appear fully rendered. Fortunately, they are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to the film's technological prowess.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (2010's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
"), a compendium of Kurt Russell's R.J. MacReady and Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley, is just right as the brave, sensible Kate Lloyd. Winstead doesn't look like a pea-brained, stick-figured ingenue, but like a real person with a working mind and a vulnerable resourcefulness. Only the essentials are learned about Kate, but Winstead fills in the gaps with what she does and how she says things. Early on, before Hell has broken loose, she looks up at the nighttime stars hovering above a wasteland of ice and snow and says, "I'll never look at them the same way again." It's safe to say that she really
won't look at them the same way again if she survives the ordeal she's about to face. As helicopter pilot and fellow American Braxton Carter, Joel Edgerton (2011's "Warrior
") is solid, if overshadowed by the observation that he looks more and more like Conan O'Brien with each new movie he appears in. Fortunately, Kate and Braxton build a relationship quickly and under stressful conditions so there is no time to introduce a pointless romance between them.
Minor quibbles aside (how, for example, can Kate and Braxton roam around a fiery interior, flamethrowers in hand, for so long without succumbing to smoke inhalation?), "The Thing" enraptures and impresses as one of the better mainstream horror releases of the year. Shadowy and atmospheric, sumptuously photographed by Michel Abramowicz and scored with some unique melodies by Marco Beltrami (2011's "Scream 4
"), the film keeps interest levels as high as the characters' paranoia. A climactic set-piece daring to peek inside the spacecraft approaches visionary levels of inspiration, while no one will want to leave before the first chunk of end credits are over, lest they don't mind missing how this film arrives full circle at the start of Carpenter's. If not quite
reaching an identical level of dread, 2011's "The Thing" stands as a creepy-crawly, more-than-worthy companion piece.