Rip-Off Artist

''The Thing'' is a plodding mess, adding nothing of consequence to its predecessor and taking away anything meaningful

by Chris Heller
Published on October 14, 2011, 10:48am | Comments

Say, do you like John Carpenter's The Thing? Or maybe its '50s predecessor, The Thing From Another World? I bet you'd be thrilled to hear that Hollywood's dusting off that trapped-in-Antarctica-with-an-otherworldly-beast concept for another round, right? Well, this is not The Thing you're looking for.

Ostensibly a prequel to the 1982 cult classic, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.'s take on sci-fi's favorite shape-shifting, scientist-terrorizing extraterrestrial somehow rips off its source material while forgetting all of the elements that made it memorable. Sure, its hackneyed narrative avoids any oh-so-important continuity lapses -- screenwriter Eric Heisserer even bragged in an interview about recreating the smallest of set details to have it all "make sense" -- but it seems to forget that success is more than a nerdy attention to detail.

''The Thing''

''The Thing''

For the uninitiated, The Thing picks up at a Norwegian camp in the South Pole days before Carpenter's story began. A handful of oft-bearded Scandinavians discover a spaceship buried underneath the ice, so they hire a helicopter pilot (Joel Edgerton) to fly in an American paleontologist (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), as well as a scientist (Ulrich Thomsen) and his dopey assistant (Eric Christian Olsen). The gang hauls a frozen block of alien out of the ground, lug it back to base, and everybody pats themselves on the back -- until the invading meanie breaks loose, then starts killing and imitating the crew. Cue 90 minutes of tense paranoia, throw in a few gratuitous shots of flamethrowers, and this could be a serviceable companion to an already great collection of movies.

Instead, The Thing plays out like a game of scriptwriting roulette: The alien can't mimic metal! Some ominous Norwegian guy just introduced a box of Chekhov's grenades! A 100,000-year-old spaceship is completely functional! There's not much to do but squirm while Heijningen and Heisserer burn through these ideas -- they try on the slow-burning, psychological look at first, decide they'd rather wear a monster-movie costume, and then, desperately ditch it all in the 11th hour for a pair of generic sci-fi Zubaz.

What happened to Carpenter's blueprint? He practically laid out the right method three decades ago -- use tight camerawork and cramped sets to build an anxious strain, then blow it all up in the third act with a blood, guts and a killer nihilistic ending. When the eponym changes faces this time around, the effects appear digitally and unbelievably sterile. As characters get dispatched, there's rarely a sense of serious loss. Even Winstead, who's a perfectly believable lead, feels expendable. For a movie set in a whiteout storm in Antarctica, The Thing was the wrong kind of cold.

Without the former's vital elements -- namely, a creeping paranoia that erupts into full-blown terror -- The Thing is a remake without a purpose, a scattershot money-grabber that adds neither message nor image that hasn't been seen before. Its only strength -- and really, it's as minor as it gets in horror -- is a flair for comedy that crops up during lulls. When the movie finally ends with a tidy credit sequence that explains how stuff gets to where it got, there's no satisfaction or driving anticipation to see what's next. This is the real scary stuff; it's what horror looks like defanged.

Luckily, there's plenty to be done to fix this problem. The Thing -- you know, the one worth watching -- is readily available on DVD and Internet streaming services. It's campy and violent and brilliant in all the ways horror needs to be, without time for pretty young faces and shoehorned crowd pleasers. Save yourself a few dollars and stick with what's proven itself over time.

All other advice aside, this is a movie to be avoided. It plods and panders to those who know the story and those who don't, adding nothing of consequence and taking away anything meaningful. Only one word wholly captures the gross failure of this Thing -- thunk.