Review: The Thing (2011)

It’s Not Human. Yet.

THE THING (2011)
Rated R / Color / 103 minutes
Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
Also Known As: The Thing: The Beginning
Purchase it: Amazon.com (DVD) | Amazon.com (Blu-ray)

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS!

It was August of 2010. Still relatively new to the world of Horror conventions, I had traveled with two friends to Cherry Hill, NJ to partake in Monster-Mania Con XV! Along with meeting the main cast members of THE BOONDOCK SAINTS (the fun-loving David Della Rocco, Sean Patrick Flannery, and Norman Reedus when his autograph was still just twenty bucks), I also met SLEEPAWAY CAMP’s Felissa Rose, the late and great Herschell Gordon Lewis, the eccentric Lloyd Kaufman, and acting chameleon William Forsythe.

But my main goal at that particular show was to meet legendary filmmaker John Carpenter, the man who gave us THEY LIVE, THE THING, HALLOWEEN, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, and many other cult classics! Being naive, I never anticipated that the line to meet John Carpenter would end up being a mile long! Dismayed, I went to my hotel room and got a good buzz going, then wandered about the vendors area for a while. Hours later, I strolled out front to take a peek at the Batmobile, and noticed a small line by the hotel’s main entrance. I thought to myself, “Could that possibly be…? Nah I’m never that lucky.”

Still, I sauntered over and inquired about the line, and discovered that it was indeed intended for John Carpenter! Elated, I immediately hopped at the back of the line, wishing that I had my autographed (by Tom Atkins) FOG DVD with me. But that wasn’t important, because I was soon going to meet one of my all-time favorite directors! A half-hour later,  I was inside the hotel, and standing in the back of a crowded room, waiting to meet the Master of Horror. Even with a healthy dose of “liquid courage” in my system, I was nervous!

As I patiently waited, my mind began to race: “What should I say to John Carpenter? What could I say to differentiate myself from everyone else?! What if I’m unintentionally rude? How hard should I shake his hand? How long should I shake it? Man I wish I had that FOG DVD with me… it would’ve been a great conversation starter!” All of these uncertainties (and more) scrolled through my booze-addled brain as I got closer to the front of the line. And then my entire train of thought derailed when I found myself face to face with the John Carpenter!

He had the blackest eyes. The Devil’s eyes.

But what was supposed to be my moment of triumph, quickly turned (in my eyes) to abject disappointment, as my brief encounter with John left me feeling a bit cold. To briefly describe it: I walked up, shook his hand (maybe a bit too forcefully), presented him with a small mini-poster of THE THING, then rambled on about how it was my favorite of his films. I gushed about it for a few minutes, finishing off the one-sided conversation with “Your film is perfect, I can’t believe they’re remaking it! Can’t you do anything to stop it?!”

Having signed my poster, Carpenter looked up at me from his seat, and matter-of-factly stated “I don’t have anything to do with it. Universal owns the rights.” I awkwardly replied “Well… at least we’ll always have yours, right?” before posing for a photo for what seemed like an eternity. (Mostly because a well-intentioned staff member couldn’t figure out how to use my cellphone.) And thus ended my fleeting encounter with John Carpenter and…. [dawning realization] HOLY HELL! I MET JOHN CARPENTER! I SHOOK HIS HAND! AND HE SHOOK MY HAND!

In retrospect John was courteous, attentive, and slightly amused by my drunken anxiety. I guess my disappointment stems from fact that he didn’t really engage with me, but that was most likely because I was vomiting words at him. As for his comment on the new THING, it automatically made me want to hate the film, and I maintained that frame of mind until I saw it a year later. I admit that I enjoyed Matthijs Van Heijningen’s THE THING upon my initial viewing, but that was (as of my writing this review) six years ago.

So now, as I finally reach the end of the Vault’s “THING-a-thon,” it is time for me to revisit the (thus far) final film adapted from John W. Campbell’s novella, Who Goes There? Set days before the events of John Carpenter’s THE THING, this prequel begins with a three-man team seeking the source of a strange signal in the Antarctic wastes. They manage to discover the epicenter of said signal, when suddenly, the ground beneath their Snowcat gives way.

“I think I left the stove on!”

Their vehicle miraculously gets lodged in an icy crevasse, and as the trio of men stare into the abyss, the Snowcat’s headlights illuminate part of what appears to be an enormous spacecraft. To study this amazing find, lead researcher Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), enlists the aid of American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). When she arrives at Thule Station, Kate pays a visit to the dig site where the Norwegians have additionally found the the spaceship’s pilot frozen beneath the ice. The alien is chiseled out, and brought back to the base for study.

Unsurprisingly, the “Thing” is still quite alive, and bursts out of its icy prison, then claws its way through the roof of the storage room! Everyone on base pairs off to seek out the rogue life form, which is obviously not a great idea. Team members Olav (Jan Gunnar Røise) and Henrik (Jo Adrian Haavind) discover the creature lurking beneath a storage shed, but before they can alert the others, the Thing attacks! It impales Henrik with a tentacle, then reels him in and begins devouring him. Moments later, the beast is killed when it is set aflame.

When the crispy remains are brought indoors for an autopsy, the scientists discover that poor Henrik was in the process of being digested. But only Kate begins to realize that it was actually attempting to replicate him as well. This revelation is worrisome, but clearly they managed to kill the creature before it could copy anyone else, right? Well after discovering a shower stall caked with gore, and someone’s dental fillings on the bathroom floor, Kate realizes that the Thing is still among them! (She also additionally realizes that the Thing cannot copy inorganic materials, leading to a clever method of figuring out who is definitely still human.)

Paranoia sweeps through the Norwegian base: Trust is shaken, attempts are made to flush out imposters, and flamethrowers are used to deal with anyone who becomes a misshapen monstrosity full of fangs, claws, and tentacles! Will the remaining survivors develop a test to see who is still human and destroy “The Thing” before it can copy them all? Well, if you’ve seen John Carpenter’s 1982 classic, you already know the answer to that!

Part man. Part Venus Fly Trap. All Nightmare.

While initially intended to be a remake, 2011’s THE THING eventually morphed into a prequel to the 1982 film. But I suspect that at one time, this version was actually planned as a reboot that would have lead to a full-on remake of Carpenter’s THE THING. Even if that was the intention, any thoughts of further Thing-flicks were surely abandoned after the movie flopped at the box office (its worldwide gross was nearly eleven million dollars less than its production budget), leaving us with this pale imitation of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD.

THE THING does boast some noticeable attempts at authenticity from the director and crew. Along with assembling an international cast (including numerous Norwegian and Danish actors), they built a painstaking recreation of the Norwegian base seen in the 1982 THING, and created an ending that almost seamlessly leads into Carpenter’s film. I absolutely loved all of that, but readily admit that THE THING does have its share of problems.

Aside from Winstead’s Kate Lloyd, I didn’t really give a damn about the other people in the film. There’s a distinct lack of both character development, and camaraderie between the cast members, which definitely hurts the proceedings. To put it into perspective: I can rattle off nearly all the characters from Carpenter’s THE THING, and not just because I’ve seen it numerous times. It’s because everyone had distinguishing characteristics, and unique personality traits. They felt like real people and played well off of each other! That is sorely missing here.

The only thing sorely missing in John Carpenter’s THING? Dental exams!

The film’s main attraction, the eponymous “Thing,” looks pretty cool for the most part. The transformations are gruesome and a tad unnerving, and we get to see the “birth” of the two-faced monstrosity that MacReady and Doc Copper bring back to Outpost 31! Still there are a few issues here that I must address. First off, how in the hell did the Thing manage to assimilate anyone in the short time frame between its exit from the block of ice, and its incineration?

I’m guessing that it mimicked Lars’ dog, and used its cuddly form to get close to other potential victims. The only problem with that theory is that we never see the dog until the movie’s end credits! (Just one little scene of the dog sneaking into someone’s room, could have totally fixed this minor nitpick!) If that’s not the case, then it must’ve gotten to Griggs while he was separated from everyone else, as they celebrated their scientific find. But it just didn’t seem like he was gone long enough for that to happen, as the Thing needs time to absorb, and imitate its prey.

Secondly, who made the terrible decision to paint over the film’s practical effects with CGI in post-production? And more importantly, WHY?! Matthijs van Heijningen (wisely) preferred the use of practical effects for the film, because he felt that people give better performances when they have something to react to on the set. To accomplish this, Alec Gillis and Amalgamated Dynamics were hired to create the creature designs, and construct the effects for the film. Gillis totally pulled it off, and developed some truly awesome animatronic suits and puppets. (Watch footage of Alec and his team testing them out HERE.) But in the end, the powers that be at Universal won out, and CGI was used to “enhance” the film’s effects.

“I know this looks bad but trust me… it’s NOT what it looks like.” – Digital f/x artist to Alec Gillis.

By some accounts, it seems that studio interference did more harm than good, leading to the excision of character-building moments, as well as the intrusive CGI effects. Despite the tampering, THE THING still pretty much works, though it’s a far cry from what it could have (i.e. should have) been. It’s not a bad movie, but definitely fails to live up to the greatness of its predecessors, which all proved to be worthy adaptations of Who Goes There?

I typically do not like prequels (I find them hard to justify), but readily admit that it is fun to watch the 2011 THING back to back with the 1982 film, if only to make comparisons. (“So that’s why there’s an axe in the wall when Mac and Doc investigate the ruins of Norwegian base!”) In spite of my conflicting feelings towards it, I’m going to give THE THING prequel a pass. It was made by Thing fans, for Thing fans, has a strong female lead (with whom I am totally infatuated with), and succeeds often enough to warrant a rating of: