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The Thing

October 15, 2011
The Thing

I think it’s safe to say that the Thing is no longer a standalone property to be remade, but rather an archetypal story to be retold. Just as vampires and mummies and wolf-men and Frankenstein’s monsters have become subgenres in and of themselves, so the Thing is a story about paranoia; about liars and traitors and the enemy within, with a serious overlay of body horror. And so the latest version of The Thing, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. in his feature film debut, isn’t quite a prequel of John Carpenter’s version, but it owes much to its predecessor. It simply takes the same story and tells it in a different way.

That said, this film does start before Carpenter’s, and it almost sets up the events for that film’s beginning. Maybe I’m being picky on the details of the ending, but it seems hard not to be picky when Heijningen is so consistent about his homage to Carpenter’s version. In any event, we again find ourselves in an isolated research station in Antarctica, though evidently far enough north for there to be days and nights, even in the winter. A Norwegian team drilling for ice cores has found what seems to be a distress signal; following it, they found an enormous buried structure which seems to be an alien spacecraft, which crashed about a hundred thousand years ago, at about the same time humans were just coming on the scene in Africa. What’s more, they’ve found a biological specimen encased in ice.

The leader of the research effort, Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), has called in an American team to assist in extracting the specimen, including Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a biologist specializing in such frozen finds, and Braxton (Joel Edgerton), a helicopter pilot to get people and materiel in and out of this barren wasteland. But Dr. Halvorson has an ego, and he recklessly decides to take a tissue sample right away, over Kate’s objections. The drill-hole evidently weakens the ice block, which releases The Thing into the midst of the camp.

They soon manage to put it down with fire — the only effective weapon, it seems — but then they find that it absorbs its prey and learns to imitate it on a cellular level. And so for all they know any of them could be a secret Thing, and if they leave they could release it onto an unprepared world where it would certainly run amok. Paranoid suspicions — punctuated by incredibly disturbing body horror attacks — ensue.

Now despite happening before the events in Carpenter’s version, this film follows almost step for step in its footsteps. There’s the improvised test, the separated stragglers, the mistaken identities, and all the same turns, up until the final sequence, which is new to this version. If you’ve seen the previous version you know pretty much what to expect. It also recaptures the way that with one or two exceptions the characters are pretty much nameless Thing-fodder. I wouldn’t be able to tell you any of their names except for Kate’s without looking them up.

But Kate deserves some attention; she’s in the Ellen Ripley Hall of Fame of great female sci-fi/horror characters. She’s smart and strong, ready to do what needs to be done. Even better, she’s a scientist, and not a frizzy-haired bespectacled stereotype either. And the crown is that it’s precisely her lack of the reckless male ego Dr. Halvorson displays that makes her the heroine. In short: she’s not just a great female character; she’s a character who’s great because she’s female.

As to the film’s core, Heijningen is great at evoking the same sort of paranoid tension that Carpenter did. The one nit I would pick is that Carpenter created his thing exclusively through “practical” effects. Heijningen does use a lot of puppetry and such, but his Thing is clearly punched up with plenty of CGI as well. Of course, this isn’t really a bad thing in and of itself, but it’s just not quite as impressive an achievement. On the upside, it frees Heijningen to give us much more horrific action than might otherwise be possible. Given that it’s body horror that separates the Thing as a genre from pod-people and the like, that can’t be all bad.

Worth It: yes, if you’ve got a sufficiently strong stomach.
Bechdel Test: This is another close call, and I’m going to give it a pass based on a strong conversation with one of the all-but-nameless Norwegians. She’s not a great character, but none of them besides Kate really are, anyway.

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