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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
October 2011

The Thing

Déjà vu

'The Thing' isn't technically a remake, but that doesn't stop it from replicating its predecessor

The Thing
Universal Pictures
Director: Matthijs van Heijningen
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, based on the short story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen, Eric Christian Olsen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje ad Jørgen Langhelle
Rated R / 1 hour, 43 minutes
Opened October 14, 2011
(out of four)

The first review I wrote for IGMS was a remake of a John Carpenter film. Here we are, six years later, and I'm doing it again. I lamented even back then that Carpenter's career was being pillaged - not only unnecessarily, but far too early. It's as if Hollywood is trying to systematically undermine his contributions, or diminish his relevance.

To be honest, that gambit wouldn't pay off anyway; the barrage of miserable Carpenter remakes only strengthens the originals by comparison. As (sigh) inferior remakes always do. It doesn't say much that this newest retread - following Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog and Halloween - is probably the best of the bunch.

But wait, what am I thinking . . . that's right, The Thing isn't a remake. It's a "prequel." This story about an Antarctic research team terrorized by a cell-replicating extraterrestrial creature is completely different from the 1982 film in which an Antarctic research team is terrorized by a cell-replicating extraterrestrial creature. Because, you know, this one takes place a few days before the other one. See? This is totally not a remake. The characters in this movie called The Thing are the Norwegian researchers who were already dead during that other movie called The Thing.

It's like if they made another movie called Groundhog Day, only the main character was a different TV weatherman, played by a different actor than Bill Murray, and the story took place in 1992, a whole year before the original. See? Prequel.

(And yes, I'm fully aware of the actual original, Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks' 1951 The Thing from Another World. But that's not nearly as relevant to this discussion.)

But I digress. The fact is, the storylines in Thing 1 and Thing 2 are virtually identical - the primary difference being that we get to see the initial discovery of the creature buried in the block of ice. But that's only a trivial concern, because - spoiler alert - it doesn't stay buried in that block of ice for very long.

The characters are mostly dimensionless, featuring a few archetypal bearded Scandinavian toughs; a strict, humorless lead researcher (Ulrich Thomsen); some American scientists brought in for their good looks specific areas of expertise; and Mr. Eko.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars in the lead as a young American paleontologist, and while it's nice to see her get such a prominent role, it would have been even nicer to see the filmmakers do something interesting with her character. A nuance here, a surprise there. But no. Instead, she's the static voice of reason - a faceless protagonist. (Consider the way Kurt Russell was used in the '82 original, and how there were times when we suspected that he was the thing.)

This is not a poorly made film. Director Matthijs van Heijningen does a reasonable job creating tension - and even, perhaps surprisingly, insists on using practical effects much of the time rather than CGI. No, it's not used as impressively (or as extensively) as Rob Bottin and Stan Winston's work on the original, but considering how casually most modern films settle for digital effects, The Thing is rather a sight for sore eyes.

One's reaction to this incarnation of the story might be more complimentary without any knowledge of the 1982 version. But that's beside the point, isn't it? Van Heijningen has such obvious reverence for the Carpenter film that his prequel ends up being little more than a very affectionate re-enactment. It relies entirely on the previous film. Like the thing itself, it is a replicant, absorbing every detail of its predecessor to form a superficially perfect imitation.

It's a little bit like the way Brett Ratner mimicked Jonathan Demme (as well as he could, anyway) for two hours when he made Red Dragon, only even more obviously. Van Heijningen's The Thing isn't a shot-for-shot remake, but it might as well have been. Is it a terrible film, like the reboots of Halloween or The Fog? No, it's not that bad - it's just wholly unnecessary.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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