I went into this prequel to John Carpenter's version of The Thing with very low expectations. I felt pretty confident that a prequel, even if it was picking up honest threads from Carpenter's film, was mainly just clever way of disguising a remake, and it seemed very unlikely it'd even come within shouting distance of the tension Carpenter was able to generate. Now that I've seen it, I still don't think it comes that close to the 1982 movie, and it gets all of its mileage out of a viewer familiar with that film, but it still packs considerably more tension than expected, and there are more chronological hat tips than expected (the movie matches up in a few surprising ways, while leaving a few other moments out).
As some readers can already deduce, the story concerns a group of scientists living in Antarctica who stumble upon an incredible find: a spaceship, buried underneath the ice, and its ill-fated driver nearby. In charge of the recovery efforts is Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), who flies in from America with his assistant Adam (Eric Christian Olsen) and a paleontologist named Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The group hoists the creature out of the ground and gets ready to transport it somewhere for further testing, when an antsy Halvorson demands to take a tissue sample, and the creature -- which can, of course, photocopy and pose as its victims -- starts wreaking havoc.
Through the first and second acts, Winstead goes a long way to quelling skepticism about the project; she's an appealing, intelligent heroine that wastes little time in assessing the problem and taking action, and doesn't succumb to too many horror cliches (although she sure turns around really slowly). Most of the other characters are pretty thinly sketched, with Adam and Joel Edgerton's helicopter pilot (who has a name on IMDb I swear is not mentioned in the film) standing out merely because they're more recognizable as actors and have more screen time. The rest only manage to stand out by their quirks, like the reliable Lars (Jørgen Langhelle) one of the Swedes...er, Norwegians who can't even speak English.
What's far less effective is The Thing itself. Although there are a few creepy moments here and there (like the creature attaching itself to someone's face), the Thing of 2011 is a loud, obnoxious creature that refuses to move with any of the sneakiness or subtlety of the Thing from 1982. One might argue that this version is learning the ropes, but I think that'd be giving the movie a little too much credit. There is hardly a scene in the movie that doesn't end with the creature tearing out of a replicated victim and howling at the top of its lungs, which seems like a poor way to stay on the down-low. To the movie's credit, although much of the action is underwhelming CG, there are a few good moments that might involve it -- I suspect there's a blend of the techniques going on from time to time.
Beyond the potential for makeup and props, there are elements to appreciate in writer Eric Heisserer's conscious efforts to avoid repeating the original. Despite their look, Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje are not playing the same roles as Kurt Russell and Keith David, there's no scene in the dog pen, and most relievingly, no blood test (instead, Heisserer devises a reasonably clever substitute). In some of these bits, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. actually captures some of the "are they or aren't they" tension of Carpenter's film, and the film works despite an inherent understanding of what's going to happen. Ultimately, even if Heinjningen can't quite live up to the standard set by The Thing 1982, he manages to outshines the average horror sequel/remake/reboot business. The truly skeptical fans can skip it, and newcomers would be better served by renting the 1982 film, but fans of the original who are curious to see how this one plays out should find something to enjoy in a project that only the horror genre -- always looking for ways to mimic and replicate what's come before it -- can genrate.
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