Written by: Matt Molgaard
I find this film to be absurdly interesting for a multitude of reasons. The focal points that draw and repel me will be the only issues I tackle here, as I don’t really have a day to spare discussing a film that’s part prequel, part remake and seemingly a bit confused as to what it genuinely wants to be.
In my opinion, the film is deserving of its prequel label. Most sat back and felt as though they’d just soaked up John Carpenter’s original of the same name, sans Kurt Russell and the greatest practical effects ever executed on film, all over again. But part of that is actually Carpenter’s doing. I don’t fault the man in any way (he obviously didn’t intentionally set out to thwart an attempt to make a prequel; I doubt he ever imagined a prequel would be filmed), but the truth is he kind of put this film in a corner 30-plus years ago. He all but spelled out the fate of the Norwegian base camp as The Thing unfolded. From MacReady’s visit to the abandoned and burnt facility to the gradual assimilation of the American camp, we slowly but steadily learn that these scientists unearthed a frozen alien which subsequently escaped captivity, unleashed Hell and left the Norwegians dead.
In order for scribe Eric Heisserer and director Matthijs van Heijningen to remain faithful to the preexisting ground work, the “crazy Swedes” had to die. That’s just a fact. They also had to discover and excavate some form of ancient alien crash site, where they find an actual alien – ejected from the wreckage – long frozen in the ice. We know this because MacReady finds and retrieves the VHS tapes made during the Nordic crew’s life threatening journey, which documents all of the noted events. See, these are massively restricting details that Carpenter introduced more than three decades ago. And neither Heisserer nor Heijningen can do a damn thing about them if they hope to stay true to what we genre freaks know and expect. So, when you stop and say, hey, there’s nothing new here, these poor bastards just experience the same thing MacReady and his fellow crewmates endure, realize that you’re absolutely right.
But that’s not because the minds behind the 2011 installment of the franchise didn’t have the wit to make this one any different, it’s because history commands something preordained.
Now, having made all of that silly noise, let me say that there’re a shitload of elements that I didn’t dig about this flick. I understand the reasoning and necessity, but I wouldn’t have minded an all-English language flick. Forgive me, but when I’m watching a pic sporting the name, The Thing, I’ve got my eyes peeled waiting for some gnarly shit and nauseatingly realistic monster magic; I don’t want the distraction that comes with reading subtitles. And speaking of monster magic, it’s important to speak on one of the movie’s other huge downfalls, the special effects.
In the buildup to the release of this project we were fed a steady stream of news breaks and insider info about the film. The one resounding reverberation that had fanatics shaken to the core was the fact that damn near everyone involved was heaping praises on the effects work, and noting the heavy practical application. But what we saw on screen hardly fit the rumors from cast and crew. Yes, there are some practical effects on display, with a few really cool models to admire. But we don’t see too much of that stuff. What we see is a visual effects heavy production that saw enough post production tampering to all but mute the practical work. Half the time you can’t even see the tangible product, and not because it’s blended so seamlessly with CGI. It’s because the CGI totally dominates everything practical in the shot. When your CGI looks damn near on par with a “big budget” SyFy exclusive (for the record, a big budget SyFy exclusive probably doesn’t top a half mil, which in this business is crumbs, believe it or not), it’s not the one aspect of the shot you want consumers to walk away remembering.
But that’s what audiences discussed in the immediate wake of The Thing. They stammered disbelievingly around the water cooler, trying to figure out what the hell went wrong. Carpenter’s Thing boasted the finest practical special effects in history (no, that’s not hyperbole, I do believe that whole heartedly), but Heijningen’s telling features some of the more embarrassing you’ll find in a commercial release (topped by the Fright Night remake, which stumbled into theaters the same year). That’s a staggeringly massive fuck up. We’re talking a fuck up of epic, epic proportions. And consumers weren’t about to let that slide. Not an inch.
Fans didn’t take too kindly to the abandonment of an exclusively male cast either. I’ll admit the addition of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character, Kate Lloyd is initially a little off putting, but as the picture unfolds, Kate grows on us. She’s a likeable character, and she’s got the right look for the gig. She’s cute, but she doesn’t look like a Barbie Doll, thank the Hollywood gods. She’s intelligent, and relies on her instinct, which is essentially what MacReady did for Carpenter’s earlier production. As time passes and I squeeze in additional viewings of the movie, Winstead’s performance continues to appear stronger than it did during the previous viewing. Always a nice treat.
What may surprise many is the fact that The Thing (2011) actually gets a thumbs up from me. Despite the fact that the special effects – one of the staples of Carpenter’s pic – are generally trash and quite cheap looking (I guarantee they weren’t cheap), I can see the positives the feature offers. First off, unlike the general masses, I actually really respected the small details that Heijningen homes in on, and I’m big on the loyalty to Carpenter’s picture. From the axe stuck in the wall to the melted fusion corpse to the suicidal Norwegian – there are just a multitude of faithful scenes that worked to appease me. And you know what, The Thing was entertaining. I’ve seen it a half dozen times in the few years since release. Sure it is a heavily flawed film. And yes, it exercises some decisions and maneuvers that reach far beyond questionable. But at the end of the day the movie holds my attention and provides a couple memorable sequences as well as a small handful of quality performances. Perfect prequel? Nope, not by a really long shot. But I’m in it for a brief brainless thrill ride.
Oh, and just in case you misunderstood my stance, I’ll clearly address the question proposed in the review title: Matthijs van Heijningen’s, The Thing is definitely a prequel. It’s just not an overtly creative one, though it can make for a good time if you can look beyond a handful of issues.