- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © Universal Pictures
Reviewed by Bob Westal
es, it's a little bit irritating that Hollywood has decided to open two separate attempts to capitalize on the success of fondly-remembered 1980s films on the same weekend. That being said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with remakes – assuming the filmmakers bring something worthwhile to the party. I'm sure that's what director John Carpenter must have figured when he and screenwriter Bill Lancaster transformed 1951's Howard Hawks produced (and possibly directed) "The Thing from Another World," and the oft-anthologized John W. Campbell Jr. short story it was drawn from, into the playfully gruesome 1982 hit, "The Thing." Technically a prequel to the Carpenter film, "The Thing" 3.0 nevertheless hits so many of the same notes as both previous go-rounds it's also a remake. That's just fine, because first-time feature director Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr. and writer Eric Heisserer do a good enough job of recreating those old beats in this movie cover version. The result is a lively monster mash.
Those who know their ‘80s science fiction flicks won't be surprised to learn that the 2011 "The Thing" is set at a Norwegian scientific encampment on the North Pole at some indeterminate date that is most likely 1982. Brilliant young paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, "Scott Pilgrim Versus the World") finds herself one of a few whiskey-drinking Americans amidst aquavit-swilling Scandinavians. She is there because of an extraordinary find, an eons old space ship with a strange inhabitant. The careless unthawing of said inhabitant proves it to be a highly problematic visitor that views humanity as a tasty source of high-quality protein.
Making matters worse is the dawning realization that this alien whatsit has the ability to mimic whatever it ingests; the creature could be anyone who's been separated from the group for even a moment. Standing in the way of the entire planet's safety is not-quite-mad scientist Sander Halvorson (Denmark's Ulrich Thomson, "The Celebration"), whose passion for knowledge outweighs his interest in preserving the future of his species. Meanwhile, as paranoia rises, Kate's fellow Americans, including pilot Sam Carter (Joel Edgerton, "Warrior"), prove to be not that much more useful than their new foreign friends when it comes to fighting off the alien with unreliable flamethrowers and, as usual, utterly ineffective pistols.
Shot on film, "The Thing" makes use of a stately, dread-inducing pace which recalls not only John Carpenter's "The Thing" but also Ridley Scott's "Alien." For us classicists, it also brings back the science vs. survival subplot from the 1951 version – easily the most Hawksian movie ever made that wasn’t officially directed by Howard Hawks – and maintains many of the creepy visual strategies from both films. Director van Heijningen borrows directly from Carpenter and, let's be generous, credited "The Thing from Another World" director Christian Nyby, in making thoughtful use of drab, box-lined corridors to promote dread. Moreover, van Heijningen and director of photography Michel Abramowicz ("Taken") deliver some absolutely stunning outdoor shots that make us feel as if we're at the very top of the world, instead of the actual location in northern British Columbia.
Much more important to the fan base, the creature effects here certainly do honor to the great work of Rob Bottin circa 1982. They are an absolutely captivating blend of practical puppetry and make-up effects by Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis blended with digital work by the Oscar-nominated Vancouver effects firm, Image Engine of "District 9." I'm sort of known for my squeamishness, and only the most greedy gorehounds could be disappointed by "The Thing," but there's a kind of insane beauty and delight in the human-alien hybrid travesties on display here. At least for me, the impulse as I beheld the terrifying hybrids getting ready to chow down on various cast members was not to say, "Oh, ick!" while covering my eyes, but to say, "Oh, gnarly!" and open them wider.
"The Thing" brings no shame to the franchise, but it doesn't build on it much, either. It's probably heretical of me to say it in some quarters, but both earlier films are enjoyable yet somewhat thin exercises, and it would have been nice to see some real meat added to the bones the third time around. Whatever the filmmakers' intention, this is a classy but straight-up scare show and not much more. As for the ensemble, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ulrich Thomson, Joel Edgerton, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as a truly terrified helicopter pilot, and a mixed cast of American and European actors all do well enough, but what they're given is not the most chewy material.
Writers Guild arbitration being what it is, we may never know whether or not any of an early screenplay draft reportedly written by "Battlestar Galactica" re-imaginer Ronald D. Moore survives here, but this "Thing" could have used a little more of that show's outsize creativity. Also, a major plot point involving the alien's inability to mimic such inorganic human accoutrements as dental fillings and earrings goes just a bit awry. I could say more about what the problem is, but I feel almost like it would be telling. Let's just say that, logically speaking, "The Thing" should be rated R for "some nudity" along with all that "strong creature violence and gore."
Fortunately for Universal, however, the grown kids of all ages who go to see "The Thing" won't be demanding strong characterization, a “BSG”-style blend of thrills and thoughtful politics, or even a consistent plot. They're looking for cool monsters and slimy, scary fun. They'll find it.
Two-Disc Blu-ray Review:
Universal’s Blu-ray release of "The Thing" boasts a pretty traditional spread of bonus material, including the studio’s trademark U-Control feature (a picture-in-picture video track with interviews and behind the scenes footage), an audio commentary by director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. and producer Eric Newman, and just under 10 minutes of deleted scenes. There’s also a decent making-of featurette (“The Thing Evolves”) that briefly touches on the filmmakers' incredible attention to detail in maintaining the continuity between the prequel and the 1982 original, a short stunt featurette about using flamethrowers on the set (“Fire and Ice”), and a DVD and digital copy of the film.