Monday, February 29, 2016

The Thing (2011)

Many filmmakers I admire, particularly in the science fiction and horror genres, hold up The Thing from Another World (1951), produced by the legendary Howard Hawks, as a watershed movie, the film that was their favorite monster flick growing up. Watching it now, I can say it holds up remarkably well, even if a lot of its material has since become stock.

Likewise, John Carpenter's remake from 1982, while not warmly received in its time, is today regarded as one of his finest efforts and a masterpiece of claustrophobia, paranoia, and practical special effects. Carpenter did not direct a beat-by-beat redux of the original, instead pursuing a different story that was more faithful to the original novella, John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There."

Whether you prefer the Hawks version or the Carpenter version, I think we can agree that despite the similar set up - alien monster at an isolated, wintry scientific outpost - the two movies are their own entities with distinct styles, scares, and themes. Which brings me to the prequel/reboot version of The Thing produced in 2011. Apart from an increased emphasis on computer-generated special effects and pumped up action scenes, this most recent version does very little to distinguish itself from its forebears, resulting in an overwhelming sense of pointlessness.

If you remember in the Carpenter version, the thing, an alien lifeform with the ability to perfectly imitate any person it killed, infiltrated and wiped out a Norwegian camp in Antarctica before reaching Kurt Russell and company. We didn't see this, but when the American crew investigates the burned remains of the Norwegian outpost, prior to learning the true nature of the threat they're facing, there is an ominous foreboding, a notion that what happened here will soon happen at the American camp.

This version, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen, offers a depiction of what happened at the Norwegian base while finding a way to shoehorn in American characters, including a paleontologist played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a helicopter pilot played by Joel Edgerton, and a researcher played by Eric Christian Olsen. Right off the bat, I'm questioning this setup. Norwegian scientists discover a UFO in the Antarctic ice, and they bring in 20-something Americans? I'm all for international cooperation, but this feels like pandering to American audiences that might hesitate to see a film about a bunch of Scandinavians.

Still, as contrived as this feels, the idea of being one of only a few Americans at an isolated base where everyone else speaks a language you don't understand has potential, and the movie, to its credit, has some of that paranoia but not enough. The scenes of the characters becoming suspicious of each other and turning on one another feel perfunctory and rushed in this version, almost as if the filmmakers wanted to hurry along to the action scenes as soon as possible. Some scenarios and imagery from the original are repeated here without much variation (though I did like how they replaced the blood test with an examination for dental fillings), and they just feel overly familiar. These new characters discover what we in the audience already know from having seen the earlier movie.

In Carpenter's take, destroying the monster was relatively easy. Finding out who was who was the challenge. The thing transformed into hideous incarnations when exposed but never did so unless threatened. Here, the alien is not so opportunistic, attacking the humans out in the open and putting itself at risk for no real good reason. This leads to a lot of chase scenes, as the humans run, hide, and fight back, but this turns the alien into just another generic freak monster, no longer the cunning, elusive adversary.

Much of this version feels tailored to show off new CGI effects, and admittedly, some of the designs are cool. The monsters has all sorts of claws, tentacles, limbs, and other nasty features, and had they been done practically, with rubber and animatronics, they might have been truly terrifying. But even five years later, these CGI effects already look dated. Not once was I ever convinced the characters were really interacting with an alien creature. It looked like a cartoon superimposed over the film after the fact.

The actors do what they can; the Antarctic setting looks convincing isolated, cold, and rugged; and it is cool to finally get inside the UFO. There are some neat references to the Carpenter version, and the end credits reveal additional footage that perfectly ties into the opening of the original movie. The problem here is overfamiliarity. It's the same old thing.

No comments:

Post a Comment