I remember the moment that I heard Hollywood was remaking John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). I was furious. There are a few sacred films that should never be remade, and this, and his Escape from New York (1981), are two of them. (The Escape from New York remake has experienced a lot of problems, and last I heard it wasn’t going to happen. That could change, of course.) At some point, this “remake” mutated into a prequel, and my blood pressure was lessened. What got me all riled up again was the trailer. This “prequel” looked an awful lot like a remake. So what exactly was it? A prequel? A remake? A complete abomination of imagination? Despite my reservations, I went to see The Thing on opening weekend, and just to set the record straight: It is a prequel and it’s fantastic.
The Thing (2011) takes place during the winter of 1982, at a Norwegian research camp in Antarctica. The film begins with three Norwegian men, driving a snow cat and following a mysterious signal across the endless snow. The result isn’t a good one. Not long after the titles appear, we are introduced to Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a paleontologist at Columbia. She is visited by Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) who asks her to accompany him, and his research assistant Adam (Eric Christian Olsen), to Antarctica. There has been a truly significant scientific discovery there, he says, but he doesn’t reveal much else. Intrigued, she accepts the offer, and once there assists in the recovery of an alien life form that has been frozen in the ice for, perhaps, 100,000 years. Despite the fact that they know absolutely nothing about this alien, the men bring it to the research station, and it begins to thaw. If you are familiar with Carpenter’s film, you know the rest of the story. Let’s just say that it doesn’t end well.
I have seen the 1982 film enough times – I own it on DVD and Blu-ray – that while watching this prequel, I kept waiting for signature moments/scenes to be recreated. You know the ones of which I’m speaking: The alien/dogs transformation, the autopsy sequence, the testing of everyone’s blood with a hot metal rod … these are the clips that are shown during those “best moments in horror history” programs. Thankfully, screenwriter, and no doubt fellow fan boy, Eric Heisserer gives us enough knowing winks with his script without fully recreating Carpenter’s film. And for that I am eternally grateful. In fact, Heisserer gives us a few new, very memorable, moments of his own. SPOILER **** For instance, instead of taking a bit of everyone’s blood and testing it with heat, to see if its alien aspect will react violently; Kate discovers that the alien cannot recreate inorganic matter. Because of this, when it makes a “copy” of its victim, it leaves out metal pins used in surgery and teeth fillings. To see if someone is an alien or not, Kate checks his or her teeth. Toward the beginning of the film, the dog owned by the non-English speaking Norwegian man gets killed by the alien. And then that’s it. It isn’t like Carpenter’s film in which a whole kennel full of dogs is assimilated. (Great and horrible sequence, btw.) Because we only see this one dog, which dies, I was really worried that Heisserer was going to botch The Thing’s ending. To make the two films fit together perfectly, you have to have one dog tearing through the snow, while two Norwegians frantically pursue it in a helicopter while shooting at it, right? Well, never fear. Heisserer knows his stuff, and the film ends just as it should. I was so elated by this ending that my original plan was to go home directly once the prequel ended, and pop in Carpenter’s film. Sadly, that didn’t happen. Since I’m definitely seeing this again in the cinema it can the next time. SPOILERS ENDED ***
I’m a bona fide Joel Edgerton fan, and when he has facial hair he does a passable impression of R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell). But whereas the 1982 film had a male lead, this prequel has a female taking charge. In fact, I’m sad to report that Edgerton’s character, Sam Carter, one of the few Americans in Antarctica, doesn’t have all that much screen time. So why did they make the lead character a female? I’m guessing here, but it’s probably because when Carpenter’s film was released, it was criticized for being completely devoid of female characters. To correct this “oversight,” The Thing prequel contains two female characters: Kate Lloyd and Juliette (Kim Bubbs), one of the Norwegians. To his credit, rather than including them as some kind of cinematic quota, Heisserer uses the female characters brilliantly. In one sequence, that takes place right after the alien begins killing people, we get to see how the different genders respond to crisis. Whereas the men are more concerned with hunting down the alien, Juliette, in particular, laments the loss, reminding everyone that this was a man with a family. A bit later, the women share a “bonding” moment that feels true to life. Whenever women are in a professional setting, and they are in the minority, they tend to be reserved about expressing themselves for fear of causing conflict. With another woman around, Lloyd can find a sympathetic ear, and the two can give each other strength. In too many action/sci-fi films, female characters are either simpering nitwits or they are just men with breasts. Heisserer avoids both of these types, making his characters more realistic.
As for the other actors, Winstead, with her saucer-like eyes, plays a character who is confident, intelligent and role model worthy. She does a nice job, but, if I’m honest, I still would have liked to have seen Edgerton in the lead. Another fine addition to the cast is Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who plays Jameson. In the film, he is often paired with Edgerton, a visual nod, perhaps, to Carpenter’s pairing of Kurt Russell and Keith David. Danish actor, Ulrich Thomsen, has been busy on both sides of the Atlantic, and no wonder, he’s fantastic. He was about the only thing that lent a sense of respectability to Season of Witch (2011). Almost. Although he’s made his fair share of pea-brained teen flicks, Olsen has, in the last few years, built himself a pretty respectable resume with appearances in the indie Sunshine Cleaning, and on TV’s Community, Brothers & Sisters, and most recently, NCIS: Los Angeles. After seeing him in The Thing, you will never forget him, if only because of the gruesome way … well, I won’t get into that. And finally, because this is a Norwegian base camp, they made the brilliant, and unusual for Hollywood, decision of casting Norwegian (and a few Danish) actors. All are phenomenal and lend a sense of realism to the film. I can’t tell you how annoyed I get when a British actor retains his dialect but is supposed to be playing a Russian. Or an American is supposed to be British and doesn’t even make an effort. (Kevin Costner, I’m looking at you.) Of the Norwegians, I am particularly fond of Kristofer Hivju, the very tall actor who sports a full head of red hair and the bushiest beard known to man. (Next to Brian Blessed, perhaps.) Also good are the handsome Jan Gunnar Roise, Jorgen Langhelle (he plays a pivotal role), and Carsten Bjornlund, who looks like he could be related to Alan Tudyk.
Unlike Carpenter’s The Thing, this prequel has more in common with the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a story that, for some inexplicable reason, really resonates with my psyche. Earlier this year, I wrote an essay for a soon-to-be-published book on parasites/worms in cinema, and for that, I found myself watching every incarnation of the Body Snatchers. These films ask us valuable questions, such as, if another organism looks and acts like we do, is a perfect replica of us, is it us? Is it human? If it isn’t then what is it? What makes us us? ***SPOILER *** The Thing has a brilliant autopsy sequence during which they cut open the alien and discover an “amniotic sac” which houses the first victim. But it isn’t him. It’s a perfect replica, albeit without the metal pin in his arm and his fillings. As the film progresses, we learn that the alien essentially absorbs its victim, in some instances fuses with him/her, and then its DNA replicates the victim’s DNA. Once the new organism is created, no one can tell the difference. That’s the Invasion of the Body Snatchers all over again. And the thought of something being able to do this really sends a chill down my back. It’s the monster outside of us, but also the monster inside of us. It isn’t the group needing to circle the wagons to prevent an outsider from striking, because no one knows who or where the real enemy is. In fact, you wonder if the people who have been replicated even know they are alien. Again, shudder. Horrible stuff, but so amazing to think about. ****SPOILER ENDED.
As you might have gathered, I really love The Thing prequel. I saw it about a week ago, and am still obsessing about it. I had a lot of trepidation about this film, but it was in the capable hands of Heisserer, who wrote the A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) reboot or whatever they are calling it, and Final Destination 5, which has a few imaginative kills; and Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., making his feature film debut. If those words make you nervous, don’t let them. He’s an award-winning commercial director, and what he’s done is very fresh, imaginative, and beautifully shot.
In summary, The Thing is one for the fans. It’s intense yet thought provoking; gruesome and disturbing. There is just something about the desolation of that icy landscape, and the terror of being trapped with an enemy you can’t identify that really unsettles me. This is the stuff of great cinema. I can’t honestly remember the last time I was so drawn into a story; so captivated by it.
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