Written by: Matt Molgaard
Directed by: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen
Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s 2011 prequel to John Carpenter’s classic 1982 pic, The Thing caught a horrendous rep right out of the gate. That was, in large part, a direct result of the dreadful CGI that fans were promised wouldn’t be present in the film. The final product left the work of Amalgamated Dynamics practically invisible, drenched in miserable visual effects at the call of both the studio and Heijningen Jr.
According to the filmmaker the effects simply didn’t hold up, and the movie looked like “an ‘80s movie.” Sadly, the filmmaker as well as the studio totally and completely misread the audience: we all kind of wanted it to look like a flick that crawled out of the ‘80s, not an uneven blend of cartoonish animation and live action. We wanted those tangible visuals, creatures that looked as though we could reach through the screen and touch them, if we were brave enough.
We ended up receiving a piece of work that was suffocated by technology, computer generated images that consistently let viewers down. Heijningen’s assessment that the pic wouldn’t hold up as a result of the special effects proved accurate – ironically, for all the wrong reasons.
Visually speaking, The Thing feels like more of a joke than a bona fide monster movie designed to creep viewers out. The really depressing thing is that the rest of the flick is actually pretty good. It’s loaded with countless nods to Carpenter’s film (the final credits segue seamlessly into Carpenter’s film, making back-to-back viewings feel like more of an epic experience than a double feature; the axe seen lodged in the wall in Carpenter’s film is featured; the suicide case is featured, etc., etc.), the dialogue is solid and there are some fine performances on hand. It really does have a lot going for it, including the tone of the picture as a whole.
I understand that practical effects can be a director’s nightmare, and they’re extremely difficult to pull off in impressive fashion. Practical effects, especially of the caliber needed for a film like this, create an entirely new and unique challenge. Things go wrong, improvisation is often required, and when you’re shooting a film, deadlines must be met in order to keep studios comfortable. That’s all part of the business and I get it, but every once in a while those headaches result in big success for a filmmaker. To stand back and say, you know what, we’re just going to “fix” this in post-production feels lazy, uninspired and, again, in a case such as this, a slap in the face of fans. You want to please the legion of fanatics that worship Carpenter’s film? March through those headaches, deal with them as you will, but travel the extra mile to deliver on the promised goods.
Heijningen Jr., who on a number of occasions hyped fans up with the claims of a practical effects heavy feature, left most of us feeling betrayed when the movie landed in theaters. If Matthijs had stuck to his guns and toed the line with the studio, insistent on keeping those practical effects intact and essentially untouched, we’d have not only witnessed something great, we probably would have also seen a horror remake (prequel) pull off the rarity of becoming a commercial success at the box office.
There’s really no need to spend a wealth of time breaking down the story, as you pretty much know it if you know Carpenter’s film. A Norwegian camp discovers something frozen in the ice. They cut that frozen creature from ice and bring the entire slab back to camp. It takes just minutes before the monster bursts free of its icy confines and begins absorbing and subsequently imitating the humans, killing most in the process.
It’s the same story that Carpenter gave is in 1982, and a lack of creativity in regards to plot details is really the only other weakness of the picture. Watching it, it’s hard not to feel as though we’ve already seen it, with a more impressive cast and stunning special effects. But, following in the footprints left by Carpenter, that fate feels inevitable. Carpenter all but wrote the prequel for Heijningen Jr. when you think about it.
All the same, Mary Elizabeth Winstead was great in the movie. Joel Edgerton was rarely utilized, despite having a great rugged heroic look about him, and Ulrich Thomsen is top notch as the determined doctor fascinated with his find. Thomsen couldn’t have been cast any better, as he even resembles Robert Cornthwaite, who played the very same role in the original pic, The Thing from Another World. There are no loose ends hanging about the ensemble – that much is certain.
It’s a damn shame that the studio and the filmmaker were so set in underestimating and misreading the desires of fans. We wanted a film that felt simultaneously vintage and contemporary, and had Heijningen Jr. actually stuck to his guns and brought out the animatronics and slick prosthetics, we probably would have gotten exactly what we’d all hoped for. As it is, we were treated as peasants, incapable of handling practical special effects in 2011. That was an enormous mistake, and the box office numbers proved it.
As the film stands, it’s certainly worthy of a 2.5 star rating. Had we actually seen the promise practical effects, it likely would have been much closer to a 4 star rating.