review: The Thing (2011)

The Thing
2.5 out of 5 stars

Say what you will about Hollywood’s lack of creativity, the fact of the matter is they continue to steamroll ahead with reboots, remakes and excessive numbers of sequels. (Did anyone ask for Step Up 3D? Bueller?) This past weekend brought two more in the form of a Footloose remake – which I refuse to comment on – and a long-awaited prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic The Thing.

Directed by relative newcomer Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., this companion movie – also simply titled The Thing – follows the events at the Norwegian camp that are alluded to at the beginning of the original. Our heroine, paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), is recruited for an Antarctica dig where a team has just discovered a spaceship and an alien creature buried in the ice. But if you know anything about the first movie, you know that it’s not as simple as that, and what starts as a discovery expedition becomes a survival expedition.

I can’t say I was especially impressed with this film – not that it was dismal by any means. I think, though, that Heijningen and his crew weren’t really sure what they wanted to accomplish with the prequel, and that lack of focus grossly muddied their efforts. Should it be its own story? Should it be a prequel that’s also an almost shot-for-shot remake? Do they make the Alien-to-Aliens jump from psychological horror to science-fiction action?

Unfortunately, they try to do all of the above and succeed at none of them.

Where the film is at its strongest is when it’s setting up the scenes referred to in the original – the axe in the door, the block of ice in the shed, the dead man in the chair – but the rest is a mess. When they mimic almost-exact scenes and dialogue from the first movie, it doesn’t hold up. When they branch out and try to expand on the alien and its spaceship, it just ends up silly. And when they’re all out of cheap tricks, they go for the cheap scares – every time.

The 1982 film succeeded because it was so focused and psychological – you never left the arctic; you felt trapped in that tiny, stranded camp with nowhere to go and a terrible creature on the loose. It’s horrifying. Heijningen can’t recapture that atmosphere. He gets close sometimes, but then he gets distracted by something shiny and everything falls apart.

The actors are competent, and if we had stayed trained on their faces instead of the bad CGI effects, things might have been improved. As it is, they’re all hollow copies of the 1982 characters. They’ve even cast Joel Edgerton as a Kurt Russell fill-in helicopter pilot to play foil for Winstead’s scientist, and they’re both … fine. We spend most of our time with Winstead, though, and she’s too steady, too calm. Russell’s Mac was going just as crazy as the rest of them – we could see it in his eyes – and that ratcheted up the tension to 11.

The Thing 2011 isn’t a terrible film, and if you’re a sci-fi fan, it’s one you may want to have at least as a companion to your copy of The Thing 1982. Still, its awkward identity crisis puts it on the wrong footing, making it just another failed cog in the Hollywood machine.