There are few things that get a devoted horror fan’s blood up more than news of another genre favourite undergoing the remake treatment. And it doesn’t have to be a classic – within the last week, news of a potential remake of Chopping Mall emerged, causing fans of Jim Wynorski’s 80s killer robot favourite to frown and grumble across the net. But of course, there are a handful of movies that have managed to transcend their remake status by either being radically altered takes – or by simply being much better. The Fly and The Blob feature in this select group, but the grandaddy of them all is The Thing. Directed in 1982 by John Carpenter, the shape-shifting alien shocker returned to John W. Campbell’s source material, emerging with a movie very different but every bit as effective as Christian Nyby’s 1951 original. Carpenter’s film bombed on original release of course, but now stands as an unimpeachable sci-fi horror classic.
Which all makes the 2011 rendering of The Thing a curious proposition. Officially this isn’t a remake, but a prequel. And even if it is a remake – more on that later – it’s remaking a film that was already a reworking of an earlier movie that was itself adapted from a novel. And let’s face it, fans have wanted another Thing for many years – but the dismal original box office meant that it’s only relatively recently that this became a possibility.
The film kicks off shortly before the events in Carpenter’s movie. A Norwegian scientific team stationed in the Antarctic stumble upon a huge metallic structure buried deep in the ice for seemingly thousands of years. American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is recruited to help with the discovery – in particular, examining the inhabitant of the craft, some sort of creature frozen solid in a giant ice block. Of course, the beast gets loose and unleashes a trail of mayhem throughout the base, assimilating and impersonating the scientists with gooey, tentacled results.
Ultimately all the arguments about the rights and wrongs of remaking become irrelevant if a film works; unfortunately The Thing 2011 rarely does. It’s an entirely functional studio monster movie, with all the beats, clichés and conventions you would expect from that, but in trying to keep everyone happy – the studio, hardcore Carpenter fans, younger mainstream audiences – director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. and writer Eric Heisserer have produced a strange, misshapen movie suffering from a major identity crisis. The story of the Norwegian team – which dovetails with the events in the ’82 film – was a natural choice for another Thing. And while there are a few moments that will please fans and keep the chronology solid, the look, style and narrative flow is so close to that of Carpenter’s film that they ultimately become redundant. If we are to take it as a prequel, we have to accept that a few days earlier, a nearby Norwegian team were reacting to alien infiltration in almost exactly the same way with the same results – as if in some strange parallel universe. I think the only way to make a prequel work on its own terms would have been to make a film that looked and felt nothing like The Thing ’82 – but of course, Sony would have been unlikely to stump up $35 million for such a radical departure.
Better then I think that it’s treated as a straight remake. Which is fine, but unfortunately, nothing works as well as it once did. In order to get round the language issue, American characters – Winstead and Joel Edgerton most notably – are introduced, forcing the Norwegians to talk in heavily accented English. Winstead is fine as a snowbound Ripley, but unlike Kurt Russell – who is a mean motherfucker from the very start – it makes little sense why this nice, shy scientist would suddenly transform into a kick-ass action heroine ordering all the men round. The characters can largely be divided into ‘American victims’ and “Norwegian victims’, and while van Heijningen Jr does film the snow-blasted Antarctic wastes well, there is none of the sense of claustrophobic terror that Carpenter evoked so well.
As for the effects, this is predominantly a CG-show. The quality is variable, but for the most part they are inventively effective – nevertheless, it’s hard not to constantly compare them to Rob Bottin’s dazzling 30-year-old physical creations. Back then, Bottin and his team were pushing the envelope with what could be realised with animatronics and prosthetics – now, pretty much anything can be put together in a computer. The wow factor simply isn’t there any more.
That all said, I have to concede that I write this from the perspective of a man in his 30s who has consistently watched and loved Carpenter’s film for well over two decades. What a kid just discovering horror movies, who has never seen that earlier picture, will make of The Thing 2011 is not a question I can answer, but there’s good a chance that, freed from the weight of history and expectation, they might enjoy the hell out of it. But for this fan, it’s just another forgettable production-line Hollywood horror flick that just happens to share a few similarities with one of the genre’s true masterpieces.