This latest mutation of The Thing is a movie that seems to be aiming for nothing higher than adequacy. In that regard, I suppose you could say it succeeds. Whether or not you’ll care remains an entirely separate matter. It’s relatively slick, it’s efficient, it’s splattery—and it has no particular identity of its own. What it purports to be is a prequel (the filmmakers call it a “prelude”) to the 1982 John Carpenter movie of the same title, which, in turn, makes it more like a remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks-Christian Nyby picture. The big differences—apart from the splattery goodness—is that it uses the monster as seen in the Carpenter movie, and that it has a different ending, which allows it to lead up to the Carpenter film.
I should note straight off that I am not that wild about the Carpenter film. It’s good in its own right, but I’ve never thought it was some classic of the genre. Watching it again for a review almost exactly a year ago, my opinion hadn’t changed—except that I found the effects held up a lot less well than did the simpler ones (and a simpler monster) from 1951 film. Apart from paranoia and gore, the thing Carpenter’s version has going for it is that it’s nearer to the Joseph W. Campbell short story “Who Goes There?” from 1938. The question that then arises is whether or not that really matters in terms of the movie itself. That, I’ll leave as a personal call.
If you remember the Carpenter version, it starts with a helicopter in the Antarctic, with those on board desperate to shoot a fleeing sled dog before it can escape. Unfortunately, the dog survives and gets in with dogs at another outpost. Getting to that opening scene is the whole point of this film. It’s all the result, you see, of something unearthed by a team of Norwegian scientists at a nearby scientific outpost. All this backstory—which carefully brings in some female characters (notably absent from Carpenter’s film)—details the discovery of a spaceship that crashed a couple of hundred thousand years ago (give or take) and its nearby flash-frozen occupant. The latter is ill-advisedly transferred—in a block of ice—to the Norwegian outpost. Assuming you know something about either of the earlier films, you pretty much know where this is going. For that matter, if you know anything at all about the genre, you’re certainly aware that “The Thing” has somehow survived all these years and was just wanting a good defrosting before mayhem and a pretty vague bid for world domination could ensue.
Following the story—and the 1982 film—this “Thing” is a shape-shifter that can take on not just the exact appearance, but mannerisms and characteristics of anyone or anything it ingests. You never know for sure, then, whether the person next to you is who you think they are—or even if it’s a person at all. It’s a tasty bit of paranoia, and it works every time. This round, however, they invent a new wrinkle—that it can only duplicate organic matter. That would be fine, except it never answers just how the creatures manages to assimilate its victim’s clothing. (Then again, neither this, nor Carpenter’s movie, makes a compelling case for how something like this could fly—let alone build—a spaceship.) Since most of the transformations are left at a gruesome partial stage, I guess it doesn’t matter much.
The upshot of all this is a movie that is, at best, OK. At worst, it’s a little dull for all its running around and flame-throwing action. The idea that the Carpenter film would have been more successful on its original release had it had some female characters may or may not be sound, but there seems little advantage to the Mary Elizabeth Winstead character because it’s hard to care much about her or anyone else in the film. A lead who’s a kind of flame-thrower-packin’-mama doesn’t overcome that kind of problem. Final call: It’s here, it’s easy enough to sit through, it’ll be even easier to forget in a few weeks. If you want horror and Norwegians, stick with TrollHunter. Rated R for strong creature violence and gore, disturbing images, and language.