November 29, 2011

The Thing (2011)

Released in 1982, John Carpenter's "The Thing" was a suspenseful and somber apocalyptic tale of the first contact with a dangerous and aggressive alien lifeform. A remake of Howard Hawks' "The Thing from Another World" (and itself an adaptation of John W. Campbell Jr.'s novella "Who Goes There?"), the film had a cold reception from audiences who preferred Steven Spielberg's friendlier take on aliens: "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial". While it ended up being a box office failure upon release, Carpenter's "The Thing" is nothing short of a masterpiece of horror filmmaking, showcasing Carpenter's talent for handling suspense and some of the most amazing special effects ever done (by Rob Bottin). Twenty nine years later, producers Marc Abraham and Eric Newman got the chance to make a remake of "The Thing", but found the task of surpassing it too overwhelming. Instead, production began for a prequel, dealing with the events that precede John Carpenter's film: the initial discovery of the Thing.

Set in 1982, "The Thing" begins with the discovery of a crashed extraterrestrial spaceship buried in Antarctica. The Norwegian scientific team that made the discovery contacts Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) to lead the research, and he in turn recruits paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), as the spaceship wasn't the only thing they found: there is also frozen corpse of a creature that seemed to have been frozen after exiting the spaceship. Kate joins Dr. Halvorson and his assistant Adam (Eric Christian Olsen) and travel to Antarctica to begin the excavation. Taking the block of ice to their station, the crew celebrates the discovery, but the warmth of the base has resurrected the frozen thing and it escapes from its ice prison. The Thing murders a member of the crew, Henrik (Jo Adrian Haavind) before it's burned to death by the rest of the team. Nevertheless, while the nightmare seems to be over, Kate discovers that the Thing is still with them, as it's able to replicate any life form. And it could be any of them.

As written above, in "The Thing", scriptwriter Eric Heisserer chronicles what happens before Carpenter's film. Around this premise, Heisserer builds up a story that, while following the pattern of Carpenter's film, it showcases a significantly different scenario. For starters, the story now has a female character in the lead role, which offers a different perspective with Kate being a young woman trying to make herself heard amongst a group of older men who also happen to be from a different country. This difference of nationalities also plays a big role in setting up the mood of distrust between the characters in the story, as it plays on the tension felt between the American and Norwegian members of the team. Heisserer's screenplay recovers elements from Hawk's film, like having scientists as main characters, and the dilemma of being forced to destroy what could be the discovery of the century. This results in a slightly different tone, as less paranoid (the scientists know what they are facing) and with greater emphasis on visceral horror.

Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. (son of famous Dutch producer Matthijs van Heijningen), this new take on "The Thing" goes to a great extent to replicate the look and atmosphere of Carpenter's film. In this aspect, the work done by production designer Sean Haworth and cinematographer Michel Abramowicz is remarkable, as they fully capture Carpenter's visual look. Like Campbell's novella, "The Thing" is a tale of isolation, and director van Heijningen captures this element nicely, particularly by having Kate alone with a dozen of men who may be against her. Van Heijningen adds his own touch with the shift in tone the screenplay demands: his horror is not fueled by paranoia, but by the horrid vision of the monster. The scientists' battle against the alien is a more direct affair and the Thing itself, this time designed by Michael Broom, is a formidable creature done by a mix of practical effects and CGI. Unfortunately, this approach comes with the bane of showing a bit too much of the monster for its own good.

The cast in "The Thing" is remarkably good, with May Elizabeth Winstead doing a great job leading the cast. As Kate Lloyd, she conveys the right mix of natural charm and strong presence her character requires, and she does a great job in making believable the development of her role from confused newcomer to the leader of the group. Ulrich Thomsen is equally as good as Dr. Sander Halvorson, the leader of the expedition, who feels his position threatened by Kate's leadership. Joel Edgerton plays American pilot Carter, a Vietnam veteran not really convinced with the way the scientists are handling the situation. Edgerton is a tad weak in his role, though certainly his character wasn't as developed as the others. Jørgen Langhelle who plays Lars (incidentally another soldier) is the polar opposite. Stealing every scene with his portrayal of the pragmatic Lars, Langhelle is a highlight of the film. As the other female in the team, Kim Bubbs is effective, though her character also suffers from being underwritten.

This lack of development in the characters is perhaps one of the film's problems, as some of the team members are left as mere stock characters meant to be canon fodder for the alien. Nevertheless, perhaps the greatest problem "The Thing" has is the existence of Carpenter's "The Thing" itself. Making a prequel of a masterpiece is a difficult task, and Van Heijningen certainly deserves kudos for making such a brave effort in delivering the film. He certainly succeeds in capturing perfectly the visual style of Carpenter's movie. Nevertheless, unlike its title character, Van Heijningen's "The Thing" isn't really an entirely perfect duplicate of the remarkable 1982's film. The shift in tone is a welcomed change, as is the female lead character; however, Van Heijningen's decision of showing a lot of his Thing may not be entirely fortunate. It's not that the monster doesn't look good (it does), but like all monsters, the more it's exposed, the less scary it becomes. And that's something Carpenter knew well.

On a lesser note, Van Heijningen's version of "The Thing" shows a certain American patriotism that feels a bit unnecessary; however, this is also something that could be traced back to Hawks' version. As it is, Van Heijningen's remake/prequel of Carpenter's "The Thing" can be seen as a heartfelt homage to two classics of horror cinema, and one that truly succeeds in actually being a fitting companion piece to the film it pays tribute. Certainly, Van Heijningen's film may not be entirely a true original, but it succeeds in bringing something different to the table, and in its use of suspense and graphic horror, it's easily one of the best horror films of this second decade of the century. Maybe not a perfect replica, but a remarkable attempt nonetheless.


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