It’s quite fitting that The Thing is a story about a deadly alien that mimics human cell structure, because this utterly unnecessary “prequel” attempts to replicate the magical DNA of John Carpenter‘s then-maligned, now-revered classic horror film from 1982 to a tee. Unfortunately it’s a flawed replication, guilty of filching too many ideas from the earlier film, and then executing them in an entirely unimaginative, been-there-done-that way.
For the uninitiated, John Carpenter’s film, and the original 1951 film adaptation, The Thing From Another World were both based on the 1938 short story “Who Goes There” by John W. Campbell. Each version differed slightly from the source material but both dealt with the strange goings-on at an isolated research outpost in Antarctica where a spaceship and its creepy cargo are found frozen in the ice. After ferrying the alien back to the outpost, the creature regains consciousness and proceeds to devour then perfectly imitate each of the crew members, making it impossible to figure out who’s still human and who’s been taken over by The Thing.
This version, which is essentially a remake that the producers have smartly labelled a prequel to assuage the ire of genre fans (the film is meant to depict the Norwegian team that makes an appearance at the beginning of Carpenter’s film, but other than that admittedly intriguing hook, you wouldn’t know this was a different story at all), pretty much follows the same template as the other two films but adds a couple of women to the mix, presumably to pull in the female demographic.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) plays Kate, a graduate student who’s talked into joining her friend Adam (Eric Christian Olsen) and his egotistical boss Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) on a trip to investigate a spacecraft and alien creature frozen recently unearthed in Antarctic ice by a bunch of gruff, bearded Norwegian researchers.
After hitching a ride in with some dashing American helicopter pilots (Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), they cut the thing out of the glacier and Halvorson insists on taking a tissue sample from the alien before telling the world about the find. As the crew rejoices over their landmark discovery, the ice melts, the creature escapes and general “He’s the alien! No he’s the alien!!” nuttiness ensues.
First-time feature director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. does a serviceable job of making sure all the pieces fit together, attempting to mimic the tone of the last film, with the blinding white snow swept vistas, shadowy grey corridors, excessive gore and the feverish escalating paranoia amongst the remaining researchers.
It’s a valiant attempt, to be certain, but the eerie sense of isolation and the amplifying tension that were executed so perfectly by Carpenter is never as strong in this Thing. While the last film felt like a shock to the system because blending horror and science fiction was unheard of at the time, this version is as paint-by-numbers as they come, hitting most of the exact same story beats and taking away the essential element of surprise. There’s one moderately effective scene where the team employs a low-tech way to tell aliens from humans, but it quickly gets lost in a flurry of screaming, bullets and explosions.
The creature effects are mostly spot-on and suitably disgusting, but as with most modern horror films, we see too much for too long and eventually the monster becomes the exact opposite of menacing.
Where the film really loses its way, is with its human subjects. Not only do the Norwegians all look the same, there’s next to no attempt to give them distinct personalities making it hard to tell them apart, let alone worry for their safety when the goo hits the fan. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer (the A Nightmare on Elm Street remake) attempts to forge a connection between Kate and the hunky helicopter pilot but all it does is anoint the two as the film’s eventual survivors rather than giving them depth. Yawn.
The fact that this new incarnation of The Thing falls flat is proof positive that unlike the film’s industrious alien, parasitic remakes can’t easily carbon copy the host.