The Thing (2011)

Yesterday, I was a man consumed by fear. A brand new, big-budget prequel to my favorite movie of all time was coming out. Though the new movie’s course was charted 30 years ago by the hints laid down in the first film, so much could still go wrong. Pessimist that I am, I was sure it would be a disappointment at best and a soul-crushing nightmare at worst. My fears were unfounded.

So yeah, I loved this movie. It’s thoughtfully crafted, scary and visually impressive. It definitely has its shortcomings, but it remains leaps and bounds ahead of most alien horror in every way that matters.

I tend to be hypercritical of the things I love, expecting more from them than is reasonable. Still I admit that my love for the first film may blind me to the warts of the new one. It’s certainly possible the uninitiated may not see what the big deal is, finding instead only a garden-variety alien monster flick.

Fuck that noise. Go see this movie.

Not the most convenient location, but it has a nice backyard.

The story: The title sequence of the original version of The Thing depicts a damaged flying saucer, wobbling through space and plunging into Earth’s atmosphere many thousands of years ago. The next scene follows a lone sled dog as it charges through the Antarctic snow, frantically pursued by two armed Norwegians. And thus begins the story of the doomed ship’s monstrous occupant and its attempt to infiltrate a remote American outpost.

The story of this year’s prequel, also titled simply The Thing, takes place entirely between the those two points. It begins when a Norwegian geological team accidentally discovers an enormous downed spaceship in a glacial chasm. They recruit additional scientists, including Kate Lloyd, an American paleontologist specializing in cold weather excavations. Her skills are needed for the task of extracting the real prize: the frozen body of the alien itself.

Now where did we park?

They chop the specimen out of the ground and cart it back to their base. They’ve barely begun to celebrate the greatest scientific discovery of all time when they realize their guest is not happy with its icy accommodations. As if an aggressive alien on the loose wasn’t bad enough, they soon learn the creature can reshape its body to mimic other lifeforms. Worst of all, it may even be able to convincingly pass as a human being.

Biggest letdown: This is hard for me because I was expecting to be let down so hard I’d need therapy to recover. Instead I got a very competent horror thriller that respected the legacy of its revered predecessor. It’s true this movie is a whole lot slicker and more action-heavy than the 1982 version. But the hyperactive creature effects may actually be closer to what John Carpenter originally intended. The amazing effects created by wunderkind Rob Bottin, while cutting edge and more imaginatively designed than the work of most of his 1980s contemporaries, were by necessity slow-developing. It took a lot of coordination and effort to manipulate so many puppets in a cohesive manner. The result was a series of great-looking creatures that tended to move very slowly and awkwardly.

Modern technology, however, allows for the same innovative transformations in a fraction of the time. The one drawback is that the resulting monster is so fast and powerful, it has no need for the subtlety and stealth the previous incarnation relied on. Why bother hiding in the shell of a man when it’s easier to transform in a few moments into a ten-foot tall arachnid and just rip everyone apart?

I'm thinking closed casket?

Why you should watch: See how I took the segment about letdowns and made it a selling point? Well, fair is fair: this is not, truth be told, a great horror movie. It comes nowhere near the level of dread and terror produced by the first one, which itself fell short of the true titans of the genre. But what the new Thing does well is pay tasteful homage to its source material without resorting to hokey, nonsensical inside jokes. It may not recreate the same sense of utter despair and paranoia, but the tension and overall anxiety remain fairly high.

This is a film that is so faithful to Carpenter’s version that a purist like me, who instantly noticed that one character wore a small earring identical Copper’s nose ring in the original, will find very little to object to. There are a few inconsistencies if you look closely, but for the most part the film hits all the right notes. Despite a twisting, even occasionally surprising path, it winds up right where it should to maintain continuity with the first film. At the same time, the prequel manages to provide some interesting new information and leave just a few loose threads for future thought.

Mr. Eko, on ice!

Memorable Moment: Just like in the original, the alien organism’s sole preoccupation is survival. When it monsters out, it’s easy to forget the creature is still smart enough to pilot a ship and perfectly replicate human speech and behavior. We get a neat little reminder when the crew lays into one with a couple of flamethrowers (apparently standard-issue scientific gear in Antarctica). Instead of collapsing on the spot, which would have been just fine, the monster flees to the kitchen and throws itself on the stove, activating the room’s fire suppression system. It’s a simple, minor scene, but it didn’t have to be there. It shows the level of thought that went into even the most mundane details.

They named this character after me. Swear.

Choice quote: In general the dialogue isn’t terribly snappy, but neither is it awful. What stands out is the way they justify having the Norwegian crew speak English. That was a major concern of mine since the two Norwegians in the original were unable to explain the problem to the Americans because they didn’t speak the same language. I figured we’d get a Hunt for Red October type deal where a foreign language magically shifts to accented English for no damn reason.

The Thing‘s solution, however, is elegant and effective: the subset of Norwegians who are bilingual speak English most of the time purely out of consideration for their international colleagues. This choice also creates an organic opportunity for sowing mistrust later on, when some of the Norwegians intentionally exclude the Americans from their conversations.

Oh right, here’s that quote: “So, I’m gonna get killed because I floss?”

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2 Responses to “The Thing (2011)”

  1. […] 31 Flavors of Terror A terrifying movie terror-thon of terror « The Thing (2011) […]

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