Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Thing

Although this film is called The Thing, directed by Matthijs Van Heijningen Jr., it is actually a prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 film. Something that you may or may not know depending on how much of a movie buff you are is that Carpenter's film is actually a remake of the Howard Hawks 1951 film, The Thing from Another World, which is in turn based on the popular novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell. For his film, Carpenter took another look at the novella, but he has been quoted saying that he, like many filmmakers of his generation, loved the films of Hawks, so he was obviously inspired by both the original film and literature. One thing that all three films have in common, is how scary the idea of the Thing actually is. It travels across the galaxy and presumably takes over planets by morphing into its prey. It can take out a whole population by living alongside them.

The 1951 version really deals with all the communism paranoia that was going on at the time. It had a lot in common with Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still and Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (a film that Philip Kaufman expertly remade). Carpenter borrowed some of the direction Hawks set up for his story, but this time with advancements in makeup and visual effects, he delivered a film that was just as good if not better than the first albeit in a different manner and style. It had a lot in common with Ridley Scott's Alien. So, where does this new film fall on a scale in comparison to the previous two? Unfortunately, despite being a prequel, it completely feels like a redux of Carpenter's film just with a lot of CGI.

Set in 1982, paleonthologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is asked by a colleague (Eric Christian Olsen) and his boss (Ulrich Thomsen) to come to Antarctica to take a look at an alien lifeforem that discovered in a spaceship, deep in the icey ground. Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje also star as helicoptor pilots, who along with the scientists, become trapped when the alien inevitably escapes from its frozen state. Cue some dogs barking, a blizzard, an abudance of flamethrowers, and a redo of the famous blood testing sequence from Carpenter's film. Although this time the testing is handled based on everyone's dentures, the film is still clearly just trying to achieve the same suspense that Carpenter mastered with that scene. It is the highpoint of this film, but as I've just pointed out, we've seen it before.

A variety of other issues are raised. The use of CGI is actually somewhat harmful for this story. Van Heijningen used a mix of digital and practical effects relatively seamlessly, but when it is clearly more CGI than prosethetics/makeup/etc.- it is really damn CGI looking. It just flat out evokes less fear than Carpenter's original version where he was able to create fear without CGI because of the many different forms/scenarios he placed the monster in. We see a little too much of the Thing in this prequel. We've seen its forms before back in the 1982 version, so perhaps Van Heijningen should've taken the approach that a recent film such as Super 8 took and not show the creature up until the end (this approach even worked for Alien in 1979 as that monster was shown rarely).

My other biggest gripe is how Winstead's character is handled. First off, she doesn't even refuse undertaking her mission (I have a feeling there is a deleted scene of her doing so if I remember the footage screened at New York Comic-Con 2010). Rules of classical storytelling were made to be broken, but her acceptance later feels unbalanced as one minute her character is worried and screaming and the next she is burning stuff with the grimmest of looks on her face.

This film is just another example of the recent horror remakes that simply retread the ground the original film presented (and this doesn't even apply to horror, the best remakes are the ones that take on a slightly new territory). Examples include A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th (although I'm not a huge fan of the original film). I applaud Rob Zombie for taking some major chances with his prequel/remake/sequel of Carpenter's Halloween that doesn't end up working. The last time I really felt like there was a good update/remake of an American horror film was Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead (that was produced by the same guys as this movie I'm reviewing).

Obviously, in horror films, logic sometimes has to go out the window. Even in the most classic of this genre, characters are going to make the most stupid and irrational decisions in a panic because the story needs two hours of screentime. This happens in life, but obviously storytelling can sometimes be a balance between being unique and being relatable. I just feel that a majority of horror films forget the "relatable" part no matter how passionate the director, producers, and writers are. Especially when it comes to remakes and having too much of an affinity for the original material.

That all being said, I still didn't outright hate my experience with this movie. If you could pick a film to re-visit and partially copy and imitate, Carpenter's The Thing isn't a bad choice.

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