The Thing

Movie Information

The Story: A prequel to the 1982 The Thing, detailing the discovery of the creature. The Lowdown: It won't harm you or rot your brain -- but unless you're easily amused by gory creature antics for their own sake, there's nothing new here.
Score:

Genre: Sci-Fi Horror
Director: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen, Eric Christian Olsen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Rated: R

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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

11 thoughts on “The Thing

  1. DrSerizawa

    I thought Carpenter’s version to be an entertaining romp if you can get by the idea that a research station in the Antarctic would keep a supply of flamethrowers… and that’s just for starters. This new one is as I suspected it would be – snowbound Sunday fare on cable. Though I’m not surprised that the Norwegians have flamethrowers too. What’s with these people who do research in Antarctica? Do they practice some sport that requires flamethrowers?

    However regardless of accuracy to Campbell’s story the Hawks version is top notch and if you were intending to introduce a newbie to the 50s sci-fi genre it would be an excellent choice.

  2. Ken Hanke

    What’s with these people who do research in Antarctica? Do they practice some sport that requires flamethrowers?

    Yetti.

    The Hawks’ version is really quite perfect for the kind of film it is, and its effects really do hold up much better than the ones in Carpenter’s picture. (I’ve noted elsewhere that one is perhaps more apt to accept the later effects if they were first seen at an impressionable age.) And really, how often is there a movie that you can describe by saying, “It’s kinda like His Girl Friday, but with an alien running loose.”

  3. Daniel Withrow

    I don’t remember a lot from Carpenter’s movie, but the final sequence is one of my favorite horror-movie endings, up there with the last few moments of The Vanishing (no need to say which version surely). It was, despite being from 1982, the perfect 1970s ending to a movie.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I hate to say this, but I don’t have the slightest clue what the exact last scene was!

  5. Daniel Withrow

    Spoiler, obviously. It’s been forever since I’ve seen it, but my memory is of two exhausted guys slumped outside a destroyed station, knowing that death by exposure is imminent for any human. Neither of them knows whether the other is human, though, and doesn’t want the thing to escape, so they’re wearily holding onto weapons, ready to kill the other if necessary. Something like that. Great hopeless paranoia.

  6. DrSerizawa

    I saw a version once where the last scene was a dog making it’s way across the Antarctic. I guess it was supposed to signal that the alien would eventually take over the world. However the dog/alien would eventually freeze in the ice and there would be no way to detect it. A pretty stupid ending IMHO. I think it was on a TV broadcast.

  7. Jeremy Dylan

    It’s a shame the director of this couldn’t come up with a more convincing pseudonym. Looks like they just mashed they hands on the keyboard a couple of times.

  8. clem

    Oh Ken… you just killed me a little. I’m usually right with you in regards to your take/opinion on horror movies, but to find out that you’re not a big fan of Carpenter’s The Thing bums me out. I don’t want to challenge you or anything, but you really don’t think those special effects hold up today?! And don’t you think the mood and atmosphere was effective? I don’t know… I just thought Carpenter did a good job making us feel a certain coldness, isolation and dread. Just thought I’d vent a little. Sorry.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Oh Ken… you just killed me a little. I’m usually right with you in regards to your take/opinion on horror movies, but to find out that you’re not a big fan of Carpenter’s The Thing bums me out.

    Well, I’m not trying to suggest you shouldn’t like it. And most people do call it a “modern classic,” and quite a few think it better than the 1951 film. But it doesn’t work all that well for me. And, yes, the effects — even with the advantage of solidity unlike their CGI counterparts — look pretty clunky to me. But I’m certainly not suggesting that anyone is “wrong” for liking it.

  10. Dionysis

    “memory is of two exhausted guys slumped outside a destroyed station, knowing that death by exposure is imminent for any human. Neither of them knows whether the other is human, though, and doesn’t want the thing to escape, so they’re wearily holding onto weapons, ready to kill the other if necessary.”

    Having watched it again a few weeks ago, you’re about right, except that the last lines the surviving two said to one another was “it doesn’t look like we’re getting out of here alive”, to which Kurt Russell’s character responds “maybe we shouldn’t.” Then they began to polish off the last bottle of whiskey.

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