Sequels are old news, and fairly risky business when it comes to following up on a genre classic. No, prequels are the way to go, similar to what Ridley Scott is doing with his Alien franchise right now. A prequel grants the ability to both be respectful of the source material, while also rewriting the rules to some extent, expanding on a familiar story and pulling back the curtain on the rules we think we understand. The Thing had been in the planning stages for years, before finally taking shape as a prequel in 2009 with Dutch filmmaker Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.at the helm. While trying to remake what many believe to be John Carpenter’s greatest film would have been a terrible mistake, as a prelude The Thing is a well-crafted, occasionally shocking thriller.
It’s clear from the very beginning that Heijningen has a deep love and knowledge of Carpenter’s work. The story begins as a group of Norwegian scientists stationed in the Antarctic discover what appears to be an alien spacecraft buried deep beneath the ice. A research team, led by the dangerously serious Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) is brought in to investigate. Why? Because an alien carcass, frozen in an icy block, has also been recovered. Because the audience can’t spend the whole time deciphering the thick Norwegian brogue, a few Americans are also in tow, including paleontologist Kate Lloyd(Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Halvorson’s assistant(Eric Christian Olson), and a pair of rugged helicopter pilots(Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).
Wasting no time, it’s within a few minutes that the creature has woken from it’s slumber. Busting through the ice, it runs roughshod throughout the facility. But it’s more than just an alien killing machine. It feeds on it’s victims, absorbing them in the most ghastly manner imaginable and replicates them down to the very cell. This sets up an intriguing paranoia as nobody can full trust the person standing right next to them.
It may be easy to forget, but Carpenter’s film was actually a remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 gem, The Thing From Another World. Hawks’ story wasn’t nearly as gruesome as Carpenter’s, dealing mostly with the paranoia inherent in the scientists’ predicament. Heijningen takes elements of this as well, upping the ante by throwing in a healthy amount of distrust between the Norwegians and those arrogant, seemingly unkillable Americans.
For all the heat Carpenter took for the extreme level of violence and gore in his film, he was equally and justly praised for the ingenious, natural special effects. It doesn’t look so good nowadays, but back then the inspired creature work was enough to raise a few goosebumps. In 2011 it’s all about CGI, and the monster now is a little more squishy, a touch more grotesque, especially when stuck between replications. The effects are a little sloppy when the camera lingers long enough to give a good look at the creature, but these times are few, as Heijningen uses mostly quick cuts and flashes to present the Thing’s assault.
As you might expect, there aren’t going to be any acting awards handed out to anybody in this cast. The only real stand out is Winstead, and she has the hardest job of all because clearly she was made in the Sigourney Weaver model. All she needs is a front loader to do battle with the Thing Queen. It’s not easy for any woman to be the lead in a film like this, not just because of the obvious Aliens comparison it evokes, but because tough women characters tend to come off badly. Winstead makes Kate a strong, believable character in a screwed up situation, stuck with a lot of guys who don’t necessarily want her opinion on anything. Carpenter’s film was a total sausage fest. Not a female in sight. The pent up frustrations of the men was palpable then, but the decision to add a couple of women now was an inspired move.
The weird thing is that The Thing plays out more like a remake than a prequel. Most of the familiar story beats are there. The same suspicions, the same tactics, the same method for figuring out who’s really an alien(blood test everybody!!). Don’t let the similarities scare you off, though. Heijningen keeps a brisk pace, more than enough to keep you on your toes.
Is this ‘Thing’ better than the last one? No, but that doesn’t appear to be the intent. Clearly the goal was to create a horror film that is good enough to be considered alongside Carpenter’s. As a fan, all one can hope for is that it doesn’t tread all over the original, and makes sense when the two are taken as a whole. If you need to know how perfectly the two films link, well, let’s just say there’s a dog that plays a very important role.