The Hollywood rehashing of classic horror films continues this week with The Thing. In a slight twist to try and appease frustrated and exhausted horror fans, Universal decided to make the movie a prequel instead of a remake. It’s about the Norwegian excavation crew who discovered the monster that was then passed on to the cast of John Carpenter’s classic 1982 version of The Thing (which to be fair was also a remake of the 1951 film The Thing From Another World, but at least that was a good remake).
The approach was clever, but in the end the movie feels like yet another remake that just happens to loosely tie into the first movie in the final scene. The film might be better than the recent rehashes of Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday The 13th, but that’s not saying not saying much. A homevideo YouTube remake of those classics would have been better than the garbage that Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes crapped out.
Our prequel/remake begins with a beautiful young scientest (Mary Elizabth Winstead of Scott Pilgrim fame) being sent to help out with a mysterious Artic excavation with a team of Norwegian scientists that she knows nothing about. One quick helicopter ride later and she’s being shown an UFO and an unidentifiable creature that’s been frozen in the ice possibly for hundreds of years. They get the creature back to camp in an ice block and start celebrating the discovery when it suddenly breaks out and starts killing members of the team. It’s quickly discovered that the creature survives by mimicking its victims perfectly and slipping into the pack unnoticed. Soon they don’t know who is human and the body count piles up. Sound familiar? Aside from the box office boosting presence of a pretty lady and the occasional subtitled scene, it’s pretty well an exact rehash of Carpenter’s film only without the startling originality and irritatingly cartoony CGI substituted from Rob Bottin’s groundbreaking physical effects.
The first thing worth noting about this new version of The Thing is that despite how closely first-time director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. sticks to the style of the 1982 edition (including mimicking John Carpenter’s patented visual style and even lifting some of the score), he sadly misses the point of what made that film so effective. In Carpenter’s version, it’s never clear what the creature looked like aside from a brief glimpse at the end. The idea was that since this creature has mimicked so many others before, it has no identifiable form and is merely a composite of everything it has copied. We get only glimpse of strange forms in shadows and every time we briefly see it full on, it looks completely different than what has come before. From the first attack in Heijningen’s movie on, we see the CGI creature in full light. It looks like a giant cockroach initially, and while the form changes slightly every time it appears, the special effects artists present the monster in graphic closeups and full light. With this sense mystery practically removed, it’s not nearly as frightening and the CGI monsters aren’t scary in the least.
The major challenge anyone faces in revisiting The Thing is trying to replicate the incredible make up and puppet effects that Rob Bottin created for the original film. An increased budget and the flexibility of computer animation may allow the makers of the new Thing to trot out there monster more often, but the cartoon creature lacks the intense physical presence of the last movie no matter how detailed the CGI artists get. They try to create monsters inspired by the last film and I suppose if you haven’t seen it, the images would be striking. However, with this being a prequel geared to appeal to fans, the target audience will have to draw comparisons and the new version comes up short. It also doesn’t help that in the interest of dumbing down the concept to appeal to the widest possible audience, the way the creature attacks and survives is overexplained in such excruciating detail that any sense of mystery about the monster is lost, which was kind of a key component last time.
Fortunately, it’s not all bad. Even if he mishandles the monster, Heijningen is clearly a fan of the original movie and gets a lot of details right. The film is mercifully movie star free and unlike so many horror remakes, these characters actually seem appropriate for the story. Sure there’s a hot young lady scientist incorporated to sex up the movie a little bit, but there’s no distracting love story and Winstead is actually a decent actress beyond the pretty face. The intense paranoia and claustrophobia of the initial film are in tact as are the harsh real-world artic locations that become another sense of danger in the movie. The film is also allowed to end on a pessimistic note, as all horror movies should, and with this being a prequel story there’s no setup for an unnecessary sequel. Granted, the ending awkwardly segues into the start of Carpenter’s movie in a way that feels tacked on, but at least that was an attempt at fanservice, which rarely happens in these cash-grab franchise revivals.
Enough of The Thing works to make it worth seeing if you’re desperate for a return to the icy paranoid horror of the 1982 classic, but don’t expect it to live up to either previous version. As far as contemporary reboots go, this flick at least gets enough details right to feel like it takes place in the same universe. It’s a shame that the monster wasn’t handled properly, and too much emphasis was placed on special effects. That severely harms the movie even if it doesn’t kill it completely, which sounds like faint praise and it most certainly is. I’m sure if the other horror remakes weren’t so dreadful, I’d be harder on The Thing. The fact that it’s a noble failure rather than a disaster is enough for a slight recommendation and that’s as much a sad statement about the state of current Hollywood horror as it is a reflection of the quality of the film. Sigh…when are we going to get a new horror franchise that isn’t a reboot. Saw is extinct and almost ten years old and Paranormal Activity is already getting tired. Hopefully some young filmmaker gets a chance to breath a little life into the genre soon, because it’s starting to get very stale, very quickly.