Thursday, December 8, 2011

So You Won't Have To: The Thing (2011)

 It's almost too easy to beat up on The Thing - it's a movie with no purpose. From the big dumb cgi alien to the big dumb climax in the big dumb space ship to the between-credits sequence that's there to remind people that the END of this film is the BEGINNING of John Carpenter's The Thing, there's no reason for this movie to exist. If you thought to yourself "who gives a shit what happened to the Norwegian station?" when you realized this was a prequel and not another remake, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. and writer Eric Heisserer didn't do anything that's going to make it worth your while. Their answer, apparently, was "pretty much the same thing that happened in the first remake."

 Let's get that out of the way right up front, by the way: I'm tired of reading reviews that call this a "remake" of John Carpenter's The Thing and then conveniently neglect to mention that Carpenter was remaking The Thing from Another World. Have any doubts about that? Watch the title screens of both films. Technically all three films present themselves as adaptations of John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?" but the 2011 iteration is explicitly set right before the 1982 version. The newer Thing is designed to be linked to the first remake, which adapts the premise if not the structure of The Thing from Another World. John Carpenter's The Thing is a superb remake, and one of the arguments everyone uses when defending "good" remakes, because it is, in its own right, a fantastic horror film. It's prequel, on the other hand, is awfully familiar. Oh, and awful.

 To be honest, if the film didn't keep shitting its pants trying to be grosser or creepier than The Thing everybody loves, it might be okay. Then again, the reason everybody calls it a "remake" is because the story is so close to what happens in John Carpenter's film. After a promising opening where the Norwegian crew discovers the frozen spaceship and "thing," we meet Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a bio-paleontologist invited to attend a "discovery" on short notice by Dr. Sandor Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) and his research assistant Adam (Eric Christan Olsen). We already know what the "discovery" is, because if we've seen The Thing from Another World and / or The Thing, we've seen the outline of the ship and the frozen specimen. This time we get to see the ship, which at first seems novel but then becomes ridiculous at the end of the film.

 Well, you can guess that they bring the specimen back to the base camp, it thaws out, starts killing / absorbing people, and before we know it no one can trust each other. First they pull a "bait and switch" about who the Thing has "copied" in a helicopter attack scene that defies narrative logic. Okay, I'm willing to accept that the Thing is (SPOILER) just trying to get back to its ship and not headed for society like Kate worries it will. That's fine. But why, when in the helicopter, does the Thing freak out and attack the guy we thought was "infected" and cause the copter to crash, presumably killing it and the two American pilots (Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). But wait! They aren't dead, so Kate doesn't trust them. Could one of them be the Thing that survived and (for no good reason) returned to the camp?

 The paranoia that works so well in Carpenter's film is nonexistent. Why? None of the characters are remotely memorable. It's hard to care about who is or isn't the Thing when your protagonists are two pilots who should be dead, three scientists who behave suspiciously, a bland research assistant and a gaggle of interchangeable Norwegian victims-to-be. I give Mary Elizabeth Winstead credit for trying to keep everything together, and I will also concede that the film wisely doesn't try to make her into a Jack MacReady surrogate. That said, she's constantly pushed into the background of scenes by characters I could care less about and I didn't buy the "sad" ending before the film remembered it needed to bridge to a much better film.

 Because they couldn't use the "blood" test again, there's a half novel but half baked attempt to develop the absorbing powers of the creature. It can't mimic non-organic material, so Kate decides the best way to see who is and isn't human is to - it's so much stupider typing it - check everyone's mouths for fillings. Seriously. They set up the Thing's evolution but couldn't figure out how to parlay that into an interesting way of generating suspense. Why? Because FOUR people don't have fillings and only one of them is the Thing, but we don't find out which one until a silly fight scene between the pilots and the scientists.

 A word on the effects - I was under the impression that 2011's The Thing was to have more "practical" special effects and less CGI. What I didn't realize was that was limited to corpses. The work by Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. is appropriately disgusting, but it isn't freakish or disturbing like Rob Bottin's effects. They also don't move - the practical effects are for corpses, of fused Thing/human hybrids or half absorbed corpses or charred remains. Anything that moves is bad looking CGI that seems like it was borrowed from Dead Space. Things look even stupider in the ship, where the Thing looks like a rejected monster from Men in Black II.

Who was this movie made for? I can't imagine people who have seen The Thing from Another World or The Thing sitting through the entire film. Only people with a passing knowledge of Carpenter's film would even stay engaged, but most of the connections at the end would be lost on them. I actually give a pass to selling it as "from the producers of Dawn of the Dead" because in theory, it could have been different enough of a take on the premise that using Zack Snyder's remake as a basis for comparison. Had the film lived up to that concept, maybe I could understand why it exists.

 For a brief moment in the first thirty minutes, I thought there might be something watchable in The Thing. It turned out that there was, and it was John Carpenter's The Thing. Why I watched the watered down, CGI "enhanced" version is anyone's guess. Well, the truth is that I said "what the hell" and rolled the dice. Never has the term "craps" been more appropriate. Let's just say I watched it So You Won't Have To and leave it at that.

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