The Cynical Optimist says The Thing is a satisfying prequel

Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s new film, “The Thing,” is not a remake. It’s actually a prequel to John Carptenter’s 1982 film of the same name, which in itself is a remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 classic, “The Thing from Another World.”

Taking place a few days before the events of Carpenter’s film, paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is recruited by scientist (and opportunist) Sander Halversen (Ulrich Thomsen) to join a Norwegian research team that has stumbled across a crashed extraterrestrial spaceship buried beneath the ice of Antarctica.

Upon examining the crash site, the crew discovers the frozen remains of an organism that seems to have died in the crash eons ago. After recovering the creature in a block of ice, they transport it back to their research station and (foolishly) conduct an experiment which frees the alien from its icy tomb.

After escaping, the thing begins killing and imitating the crew one at a time, using its ability to mimic any life form it absorbs through digestion. Now Kate (in bad-ass Ripley mode) and helicopter pilot Carter (Joel Edgerton, in bad-ass Kurt Russell mode) must stop the creature from reaching civilization.

John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is one of my all-time favorite movies, and it’s pretty obvious the film holds a special spot in Heijningen’s heart as well. I can’t stress how bad this could have been — but instead it was treated with a certain level of respect and fondness for the source material that is rarely seen in modern horror.

While a prequel to Carpenter’s film is ultimately unnecessary, given the option of a prequel, sequel or remake, the prequel is the lesser of evils. Heijningen’s film is well-made and cleverly conceived with believable characters and the perfect blend of practical and computer-generated effects.

And let’s talk about those effects for a moment. Carpenter’s film is beloved for it’s masterful use of makeup, stop-motion animation and practical effects to bring the monster to life in-camera — thanks to skilled visionaries like Rob Bottin and Stan Winston. In Heijningen’s film, the effects are an amalgam of animatronic puppets and computer-generated effects — reminiscent of Frank Darabont’s “The Mist.”

A brilliant move on Heijningen’s part was to recruit makeup and special effects gurus Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr., two guys responsible for some of the greatest creature effects of all time (“Aliens,” “Terminator”) to give the film credibility.

I remember watching making-of footage of “Aliens” and “Alien 3” and seeing Woodruff creep around corridors in the Alien suit, thinking he had the coolest damn job in the world — and it’s good to see them filling in for the late Stan Winston here, paying homage to effects he helped pioneer.

The only real issue with a prequel to such a suspenseful film is, you’re already familiar with the formula, so the suspense is lessened by a common knowledge of what the thing is capable of – that it could be hiding inside anyone.

In any case, screenwriter Eric Heisserer follows Carpenter’s continuity rather flawlessly and manages to expound on things previously hinted at in the 1982 film while not entirely spoiling the mystery established.

“The Thing” doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It’s guilty of borrowing too much from its previous incarnations. In that way, the film has become the titular monster itself, desperately trying to imitate the look and feel of something more authentic. To its credit, Heijningen’s prequel does pull off something rather impossible in 2011 — a competent horror film.

Bottom Line: If you love Carpenter’s remake, you’ll be satisfied with this prequel. While it’s formulaic and altogether unneeded, it’s a nice piece of genre filmmaking with a kick-ass female battling monsters with flamethrower. What more could you possibly ask for out of a prequel to an ’80s B-movie based on a ’50s B-movie?

Final Thoughts: In this decade we’ve already seen a “Predator” sequel and a prequel to “The Thing”- soon followed by “Prometheus,” Ridley Scott’s “Alien” prequel in 2012, and José Padilha’s “Robocop” remake in 2013. Don’t forget the inevitable “Terminator” sequel somewhere along the way.

All of the iconic movie monsters of my early adolescence are returning, and while I could be completely cynical and jaded and go on at length about how bad these films could potentially be, I couldn’t be more excited to see all my old favorites on the big screen again. Now, if I could just get a “Critters” remake or a “Mothra” reboot, I’d be totally set.

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Dennis Lee