The Thing Review
The Thing 2011 is neither the disaster that everyone rightfully expected, nor the equal of its illustrious predecessors. Instead it’s just an exceedingly average sci-fi horror of which there have been far too many in recent years. Apparently unable to decide whether to follow-up John Carpenter’s popular 1982 version of John W. Campbell’s tale with a sequel or a remake, Universal try to have their cake and eat it by telling the story of the Norwegian base briefly glimpsed at the beginning of Carpenter’s version. This probably seemed like a stroke of genius in the boardroom, as this would in effect retell the original story (first seen in the 1951 Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby classic) whilst pacifying the hardcore geek crowd by linking in with Carpenter’s take. Everybody wins, right? Well, yes and no. In referencing its sequel so faithfully, the film forgets to focus on the chilling core of the original story - its sense of paranoia and fatalism, which Carpenter, for all the twisted horrors he showcased, so memorably brought to the fore.
Comparing the opening scenes of the original with its companion piece reveals a good deal about the style and intentions of the filmmakers. Carpenter’s film begins with a helicopter appearing in the distance, flying across the icy wilderness as it chases a lone and seemingly helpless dog, while one of the passengers tries to shoot it dead. It’s bleak, disturbing, disorientating and it grabs you by the throat. Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. starts his take with three Norwegian scientists telling jokes as they drive across the frozen landscape before the vehicle suddenly plunges into a deep crevasse, inside which they discover an enormous circular alien spacecraft. It’s impressive, predictable and largely computer-generated. At least the film’s title and opening credits are faithfully recreated.
What was apparently a Norwegian base is here tweaked to become a nominally Norwegian base that also houses a few other international scientists, including American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who is jetted there at top speed after the discovery of the flying saucer. Who would have guessed? Still, you can’t blame a major studio for wanting to avoid making a big-budget sci-fi horror whose dialogue is entirely Norwegian. To their credit, a decent portion actually is in Norwegian, though naturally conversation reverts to English whenever Kate is around. Quite why an American paleontologist had to be recruited is left unexplained - does no-one in Norway study prehistory?
Plot contrivances aside, the film settles down to the business of gruesome deaths and weird alien SFX quite nicely. Something of the earlier film’s unsettling atmosphere occasionally creeps out from the screen: the equivalent of the blood test scene, this time involving teeth and fillings, works well, and Kate’s battle with lead Norwegian scientist Ulrich Thomsen, who seems to have his own plans for the creature, recalls a key sub-plot from the 1951 original. It ticks off the references to Carpenter’s film in occasionally unexpected ways: the reason for the axe left in the wall is neatly explained, and the origins of the two-headed man-thing found by Kurt Russell provides what is probably the highlight of the entire venture.
After that the flaws become increasingly more apparent. To be fair the 1982 film has its own problems - it certainly cannot be accused of an excess of characterisation - but Carpenter neatly disguised this by casting a bunch of strong character actors around his star, thereby making it easier to differentiate between them and so care if they lived or died. Not so here, where most of the cast blur in to each other to the point that you’re not sure how many are left alive, never mind being able to tell them apart. Its predecessor made up for its weaknesses with a tangible atmosphere of dread, something that only intermittently emerges in this version.
The other chief issue is the reliance on computer-generated effects. Again, to be fair, there does appear to be a good deal of practical effects on display which re-enforces its claim to be a “prelude” to the earlier film - who can forget Rob Bottin's disturbing creations? But by the finale CGI has clearly taken over, shattering any such illusion. The Thing itself looks rather disappointing by this point, nothing more than an end-of-level bad guy from any one of a million console games. It’s a shame, because if it had the conviction of its old-school horror beliefs, The Thing 2011 might have morphed in to something more enjoyable. As it is, though it sometimes shows signs of life, this new Thing doesn’t quite succeed in mimicking the original’s memorable looks and vitality.