The monster at the heart of The Thing is a curious contraption. It has flown to Earth in a massive starship whose interiors look as if they were furnished by the Ikea in Hell. After smashing into an Antarctic ice shelf, the visitor promptly galumphs from its craft and ends up getting frozen for a thousand years. When the E.T. finally does wake up, it’s surrounded by a bunch of grubby Norwegians and a cute-as-a-button American scientist. This monster has the ability to absorb and mimic any life-form it chooses, and yet here’s the curious part. It would rather wallow around in the none-too-hygienic Nordic brawlers than assimilate Mary Elizabeth Winstead; instead of grabbing the least suspicious body and just making a break for the spacecraft, it spends most of its time writhing about in a form that reminded me of a busted human Hot Pocket. For a supposedly covert menace, it’s a bit of a diva.
But, you know, I’ve always liked this particular monster. He/She/It is sort of the granddaddy of most modern extraterrestrial menaces, creeping to life in John W. Campbell Jr’s short story ‘Who Goes There?’ and then giving two separate generations of kids nightmares in two different movie versions. I’m fond of both of those movies, including the Howard Hawks pic from 1951 where James Arness played the beastie like a humanoid vegetable from space and the John Carpenter remake that gave us a more explicit, vile and terrifying alien. It makes an effective villain because of the unnerving ability to be any one of us, at the same time that its secret form (waiting to manifest any time ) is an alien combination of things we find familiar. One minute he’s your friend Sven, the next a harmless pet, and suddenly, before you know what you’re about, his toothy proboscis is embedded deep inside your eye socket.
This newest incarnation of The Thing, directed with style by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., doesn’t care much about Campbell’s short story or Hawks movie. It’s been pitched as a prequel to the Carpenter film, which has now been widely regarded as the most memorable version. That’s not wrong. Carpenter peered into the tangled nightmares of the short story and found a keeper; a tense mix between psychological/paranoid thriller and a big gloppy, glorious creature feature. It had great characters, impeccable special effects and thick, brooding atmosphere as far as the eye could see. The new movie is annoyingly reverent towards it, and of that trifecta of positive attributes, Thing 2011 only has the good special effects to its name.
There’s no really good reason for the movie to exist other than to evoke the spirit of Carpenter’s film and lure in a second demographic beyond the built-in horror audience of bloodthirsty teenagers; nostalgic fans who want another tussle with Carpenter’s take on the monster. As imitation goes, this movie is much like the thing itself, posing as its assimilated target with enough plausible detail that it could visually pass for the original. The interiors of the base camp look eerily similar, and the sense of empty, cold desolation is the same. The characters—if they can be called such—don’t have the distinction of Carpenter’s crew, but have been handpicked to mostly resemble them. The monster is just the same, although now he spends much more time in his Cronenbergian form of clacking tentacles, mandibles and human attributes. This mimicry is admirable but it doesn’t go anywhere, and like the titular monster, can never sustain its form; it keeps breaking down into a flailing mass of its inspirations and the tension is consistently broken.
There’s no one scene in this movie that generates anywhere near the suspense of that moment in 82 where Kurt and Keith and the rest take turns testing their blood to oust the monster from their ranks; or that sequence where the shape-shifter infiltrates a kennel of dogs and goes wild. It has none of its own imagination. As a genre exercise for novice monster fans, it’s a harmless, fitfully entertaining creature feature. But, it either should have been more or not been at all. The resources expended here are wasted on those who have watched, studied and marveled at any previous iteration of this story.
There are things to like about it. For example, I enjoyed the opening scene where the Norwegians get their vehicle lodged in the crevasse that houses the spaceship. One minute they sharing a particularly bawdy joke and the next, the hapless louts are suddenly staring straight down a midnight abyss, humorously jammed between two glaciers like something out of a comic strip. I also liked Mary Elizabeth Winstead and the perkiness she brings to the all-male team. I enjoyed her appropriation of a flame-thrower in the second half and the way she uses the detail of an earring to one-up the monster. And I had much fun with the monster, who isn’t scary but wonderfully gross. The advance in special effects has caused the director and his team to linger more on the absorption scenes, and I got an icky jolt from the appendages that grow fangs and pincers and then wander off, looking for a warm mucky place to hide.
I could go on about The Thing, but there doesn’t seem to be much point. It has achieved the basic goal; string together special effects with a basic premise lifted from an existing source. At the end of the day, it sort of plays like one of those Halloween themed horror tribute shows they would run on television in the 80s, made up of all the best clips from other films. Aside from the obvious inspiration of The Thing, there’s also a riff on the raptors in the kitchen from Jurassic Park, the meeting with the Queen Alien from Aliens, the biological hokey pokey of From Beyond. Even the end is borrowed from X-Files: Fight the Future, as Winstead and Joel Edgerton run through the alien spacecraft like Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny before them. The final scenes of the movie go to pains to connect the dots to the The Thing 1982. This really only succeeds in reminding us of how good that one was, and how unnecessary this one is.