Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s The Thing is a weird film. Despite sharing a name, it’s not a remake of the 1982 John Carpenter classic. Nor is it a remake of the 1951 film The Thing From Another World. All three films generally share the same source material — John Campbell’s novel “Who Goes There?” But it was promised that this 2011 version would stick closer to the source material, and create a whole new story to serve as a prequel to the Carpenter film.
To a certain extent it does, but only barely. Set in Antarctica, it concerns a group of Norweigian scientists who stumble across a remarkable find trapped beneath the ice. They call in an American scientist named Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to come and work on digging it up, only to have the creature revive itself and begin to wreak havoc throughout the snowy, isolated research station. The details of the creature are much the same, as this story has been told before — it devours/absorbs other lifeforms, and then mimics them. The trick, of course, is to find out who’s human and who’s not and prevent its escape to the outside world.
The problems with The Thing are twofold. One problem is the material itself, and the other is due to a combination of blunders from Matthijs van Heijningen and writer Eric Heisserer. As far as the material itself is concerned, The Thing Matthijs van Heijningen is certainly free to call it a prequel, but it’s a damn remake. With the exception of the discovery of the creature itself and its ship, and the introduction of scientists from elsewhere, the story is virtually identical. It swaps a male protagonist for a female one, throws in a handful of Norwegian actors, but fails to really bring much else to the story or examine any additional history of the creature or its origins. Instead, it simply follows in the footsteps of Carpenter’s film without bringing much new to the table. It’s as much a mimicry as the creature itself, except it throws a handful of minor new parts to differentiate itself, but only slightly. The Thing isn’t so much a prequel as much as it is simply the same story in a new setting.
Which might have worked if not for the writing and direction, which is decent but terribly uninspired. Unfortunately, the film also borrows very heavily from both Carpenter’s film and Ridley Scott’s Alien, to the point where it begins to blur the lines between homage and outright copying. Tight corridors, crashed ships, flamethrowers, leaders with separate, sinister agendas, and a strong female protagonist — it’s as if Alien and Carpenter’s The Thing were tossed into a blender with no new ingredients, and whatever got spat out was simply pasted onto a new reel.
To make matters worse, the film just isn’t particularly engaging, and often is outright boring. It fails to generate any real tension, and relies on jump scares and creature effects to create its atmosphere. A concept such as this one lends itself to a perfect setting for tense, paranoid human drama, something that both prior films handled successfully. The Thing never really capitalizes on that, on the paranoia and unnerving fear that no one can be trusted. It spends ten minutes or so with everyone pointing guns (or flamethrowers — seriously, why do they have so many flamethrowers?) at each other and shouting, but never gives one a sense of true tension. Instead, it promptly explodes into action/monster movie mode, with chases and hiding and guns blazing, while a large, oozing mutating creature raggedly wanders the halls seeking new prey. What the film makers have done, more than anything else, is take the ideas behind two of the best horror films of our time (Aliens and The Thing) and simply dumb them down.
For the most part the actors are interchangable, a blandly generic group of bearded dudes without anything to distinguish one from the other (oh, except that one of them doesn’t speak English). Joel Edgerton, who recently absolutely stunned me in Warrior and Animal Kingdom, is absolutely wasted here, in a generic part that anyone could have played. The dialogue is drab and predictable, the characters are mostly stock, and the only one who has anything resembling an interesting personality is Winstead’s Dr. Lloyd. Winstead aside, there isn’t so much acting on display as there is reciting, and that’s a damn shame. The film lacks the wry humor and eclecticism of its predecessor, and instead it becomes a sort of dreary, by-the-numbers project that was more tiring than entertaining.
There are moments when The Thing feels like it may be ratcheting things up for something new and exciting, but it instead digs its heels in with a dogged dedication to the derivative. It fails to take advantage of the built-in tension of the antarctic setting and the paranoia stemming from the unnerving idea of dopplegangers among us. It spends little time on its uninteresting characters, and rather focuses on grotesque effects (which are actually quite good, but relied upon too much), and surprisingly unexciting chase and action sequences. The Thing can call itself a prequel all it wants, but the truth is now out there — it’s a loosely transplanted, dully executed carbon copy that never lives up to either its aspirations or inspirations.