Forget, for a moment, that The Thing is a prequel/none-too subtle remake of John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing, which was a masterpiece of latex and animatronics. The Thing, after all, was a remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 The Thing From Another World, a McCarthian allegory for the secretly infectious capabilities of communism that had, at it’s source, the 1931 novella Who Goes There?, the elements of which have been mined again and again, often to rousing success. Yes, it’s moderately upsetting that, in a year where everything from Conan the Barbarian to Johnny English got a remake or a sequel, John Carpenter and Howard Hawks couldn’t escape unscathed, but if we want these things to remain sacred, we’re going to need to burn Hollywood to the ground. We can’t learn anything from that mindset.
Instead, let’s note how The Thing is representative of the nadir in American horror films, the product of some 30 years of devolution due to the mistaken belief that the isolation at the heart of terror wasn’t what moved viewers to the edge of their seats, but buckets of blood, focus-tested plot machinations and, oh yeah, ear-piercingly loud spikes in the music. All of these things happen in The Thing, to the point where it’s a relief when the film, already under the impression that everything old is new, moves into the kitchen of the besieged Antarctic research station, where the Thing stalks its prey as if it’d morphed into a velociraptor. For two minutes, it was nice be reminded that, yes, movies have the capacity for real fear.
Here, the discovery of an alien specimen and his (it’s never “her” in these instances) spacecraft below two miles of Antarctic ice is greeted with the sort of warm enthusiasm one expects from a classroom of bored students in the middle of a PowerPoint presentation. Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an American paleontologist, is asked along on a mission to the site by Dr. Sander Halverson (Ulrich Thomsen), who is unnecessarily built up as an unethical, slightly villainous dude with designs on unending fame for “his” discovery. You’d think that a movie aiming to massacre a group of people one by one in ways grotesque wouldn’t need a bad guy beyond the monster, but The Thing wants us to root hard for the American girl and the pack of misfits surrounding her, so Halverson is first a headstrong jerk, then a floating head awkwardly photoshopped onto a CGI conglomeration of limbs, stingers, and teeth. It is hard to register even a blip of sympathy for the men and women trapped in Antarctica; no matter how much blood flies: The word “prequel” renders the whole story non-essential, no matter which scientist is the megalomaniac with a questionable grasp on the scientific method. In fact, The Thing makes a strong case for The Thing as it’s hero. After crash-landing and taking a 1,000 year powernap, his crankiness at being woken up by an electric drill is nothing short of understandable.
There’s really not much to discuss when it comes to The Thing. Winstead is able as the plucky paleontologist, and some of the scenes, under different circumstances, would have been quite tense. Most of the movie, though, is spent deep frying The Thing, or on second guessing party members who don’t quite understand each other. I’ve read that Winstead’s character was inspired by Ripley, from Alien, but that transformation doesn’t take place until the very end of the movie, when we’re good and ready to see the baton passed to Kurt Russell’s gang. The movie’s two most effective scenes happen right at the end. Unfortunately, they’re among the film’s most inconsequential.
That’s a small part of why The Thing, despite the fact that it is by no means a terrible movie, represents the nadir of American horror movies. I suspect a large part of my misgivings ultimately has to do with my inability to separate The Thing and The Thing in one major department: The special effects. In a movie like this, special effects do the heavy lifting. In 1982, The Thing set a high watermark for special effects, and everything in that movie is more visceral, more convincing than what’s on display here. Having read a review or two, there seems to be the consensus that special effects today are better than they were in the 80s because of the advancements in computer technology, which has effectively rendered whole segments of special effects making useless.
I think the people who say that the special effects are better now are wrong, for one big reason: Special effects aren’t special anymore. This has been the argument since the special edition re-releases of Star Wars, and while I appreciate the hard work and dedication that goes into rendering a monster like The Thing, I’m less impressed by the ability to point and click something into existence than by the effort exerted to make that thing exist in real time and space. You can argue that a filmmakers’ imagination is no longer shackled by physical or monetary restraint, and, to an extent, that’s true. But movies like The Thing were special because filmmakers like Carpenter refused to let what was possible get in the way of his vision. You give a team of guys a computer and no limits, and what do you get? A wriggling, incomprehensible being assembled from spare, gooey body-parts; a creature who looks incapable of even a facsimile of life.
But this is where we’re at now. We’re over-saturated and overstimulated. Instead of doing something new, George Lucas has spent the better part of a decade adding bodies into crowd scenes and erasing puppets from his film prints. Instead of making his debut with something new and original, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. has sucked the marrow out of something he idolizes, because old horror movies are the only ground studios are willing to allow new faces to tread on. And yet we, the audience, apparently clamor for more of this sort of thing, eating regurgitation after regurgitation, sometimes the regurgitation of a regurgitation. It’s like they see us, too, as The Thing, as if they’ve deemed us incapable of digesting organic material. Maybe they’re right.
The Thing. Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. With Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Dr. Kate Lloyd), Joel Edgerton (Sam Carter), Ulrich Thomsen (Dr. Sander Halversen), and Eric Christian Olsen (Adam Goodman). Released October 14, 2011, by Universal Pictures.