By Clint Morris
In director John Carpenter’s ”The Thing” (1982), a group of scientists head to the Antarctic where they are confronted by a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of the people that it kills. The film ended conclusively, and though it did leave a couple of questions answered, nobody much seemed to care to hear an answer.
Only now, with Hollywood’s hard-on for ‘the brand’, has Universal decided that it’s time to offer audiences a response and explanation to some of the who’s and what’s of that original movie. But believe me, they’re not thinking of you, they’re thinking of their wallets.
The unnecessary prequel (still, got to be thankful it’s not a remake, at least the studio is kinda considering the fans of the original by attempting to tie the films together) tells of what happened in that slab of snow before the victims of the first film arrived to do battle with the bloodthirsty local.
Remember the references in the original to the Norwegian camp that was obliterated and eaten whole by our alien ‘thing’? Well this is their story.
Only it’s not just Norwegian scientists doing battle with the extra terrestrial but a couple of Americans too, notably an American savvy Yankee graduate student and a courageous chopper pilot.
This gang arrives in Antarctica to analyse a frozen alien found in the ice (it’s spaceship buried nearby, deep below the surface); naturally, one of the gang are more interested in becoming famous remaining safe so orders the gang to poke and probe the frozen find until… it blasts out of the ice and starts attacking.
What Sam Worthington lacks as a blue-collar type aussie actor cum faux American blockbuster headline act, Joel Edgerton makes up for; for starters, Edgerton knows how to do a credible American accent (you think that would be a friggin prerequisite to landing employment overseas, no!?). In “The Thing” (2011), (I know, stupid right!? They couldn’t have just called it ‘The Thing Begins’? ‘The Thing Episode One : A Phantom that Menaces’? ‘The Other Thing’? ‘A Smaller Thing’? ‘Thing before the Thing’? ‘Look at My Thing’?), Edgerton plays the abovesaid heroic chopper pilot of the film’s prospective monster meals and with his strong Yankee accent, credible performance and mattinee idol swagger you’ll swear James Cameron mistook Worthington for Edgerton when he began hiring for ”Avatar”. He’s good.
Edgerton, who is having a doozie of a year with this and also the acclaimed fight flick ”Warrior”, which I still gotta catch, might be this film’s Kurt Russell – in fact, I’m almost positive that’s the point of his presence. Russell, of course, starred in the original 1982 film and went on to become (not only director John Carpenter’s lucky horseshoe in film after film but also) one of cinema’s favourite action stars. Russell had a lot more to do in Carpenter’s film than Edgerton does here (for starters the Aussie actor disappears for a huge chunk of the film) but if trying to fill the void of Russell was the stratagem, you can’t do much better with the well-built and enigmatic ex-Oz Soapie star. When he’s on screen, you’re interested.
When his female co-star is on-screen, you’re even more interested. They could have called the movie “Check out Mary Elizabeth’s Hot Thing” and I’m betting audiences would feel more satisfied with what they got.
Unlike the last ”Thing” (1982), which was essentially man against monster, Matthijs van Heijningen’s prequel shakes things up by having a female taking centre stage. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the cutie who played John McClane’s feisty daughter in the last Die Hard flick and Ramona Flowers in last year’s ”Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”, gets her Ripley moment here as the kick-butt scientist who, seemingly without having to read an instructional manual or get a lesson, becomes a pro with a flame thrower. Winstead’s a good actress and she’s also sexy, sassy and seemingly able to slip into the slacks of any character. It might be a small stretch having her play an ultra-brainy scientist, but she pulls this off too. Just as well.
If it feels like this review is weighing too heavily on the performances in the film that’s because, well, there’s not a fucking lot else here to recommend besides the fine work of the cast – and I’ll include the creature effects team under that tag because the ‘Thing’ itself (not Mary’s rump, the creature) is, obviously, a big character in the film too and he/she proves to be quite an effective villain; the film looks slick, and the production design is admirable (they’ve gone to great lengths to replicate some of the sets and scenes from the original Carpenter movie so they match up), but as a story this one embodies about as much fizz as a lidless bottle of lemonade.
van Heijningen’s prequel is no better than your typical monster movie, and once the banal kills kick-in about 45 minutes in, you’ll have to glance at your ticket stub to remind yourself what you’re watching – it’s the same old by-the-numbers cut-the-cast-down horror flick. It may have a tad more money to play with, and the fortune of being knowingly tied to one of the ’80s greatest horror flicks, but that doesn’t mean ”The Thing” is any better than, say, ”The Relic” (1998), ”Lake Placid” (1998), or ”Howling VI: The Freaks” (1991) – hard to beat “Howling VI”.
In fact, Eric Heisserer’s (also responsible for the horrible ”Nightmare on Elm Street” remake; triple lashings for you, bro!) script seems to have ripped off the best moments from the four ”Alien” films (with ”Alien Resurrection”, strangely enough, the one most paid tribute to; I thought only those on the Whedon fan boards did that!?) under the assumption that the young audience who’ll be attending this flick won’t pick up on that. And sadly, they probably won’t. Doesn’t mean they won’t get bored when the film becomes less about intrigue and more about the icky.
Had Universal not cast this thing with the fine actors it has, and surrounded them with a crafty creature and effects team (there are some very impressive moments in this effects-wise), it’d be even clearer just how much better a film Carpenter’s original (well, it itself was a remake of the old Howard Hawks movie ”The Thing from Another World”) was. Fans of the Carpenter film will immediately pick up just how much more complex the 1982 film was to this one – it doesn’t even try to weave into its yarn the gripping look into the human psyche the original did. That sense of paranoia, mistrust and uneasiness that flows through the veins of the main characters in the sequel have been replaced here by artificially-sweetened takes on those elements – and extra corn syrup.
OK, so this is a serviceable film, and it does have its moments, but at the end of the day it’ll only make you Carpenter fans yearn to see (and hear, the synthetiser!) his version again.
But shit that Mary Elizabeth is one smokin’ thing.