The 2011 prequel ‘The Thing’ follows a bit too closely in the footsteps of John Carpenter’s brilliant movie

March 2, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 2, 2018

John Carpenter’s The Thing, released in 1982, is widely considered a magnum opus in the science-fiction/horror subgenre. I’ve long been curious about The Thing, the prequel released in 2011, which I recently got a chance to see.

The bulk of the movie takes place at a remote Norwegian research outpost in the Antarctic. The geologists at Thule Station — the name is pronounced just like “tool” — have made a remarkable discovery, one which they wish to keep secret, but which they require biologists in order to examine properly. But the scientists soon find that the unearthly thing they’ve dug up from the ice could threaten the existence of every living creature on Earth…

The story is related from the point of view of Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a Columbia University paleontologist whom biologist Sander Halvorsen (Ulrich Thomsen) recruits on short notice to help extract the specimen found near Thule. The pair travel with Adam (Eric Christian Olsen), Halversen’s assistant and Lloyd’s friend, to the Norwegian station on a helicopter piloted by Carter (Joel Edgerton) and Jameson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).

Only there and then do the Thule personnel, led by Edvard Wolner (Trond Espen Seim), reveal to Lloyd and Finch what Halvorsen already knows. The scientists have stumbled upon a massive vessel, evidently a spacecraft, resting beneath layers of snow and ice that have accumulated over the past 100,000 years. And nearby, they’ve found…something…frozen in a block of ice.

About 45 minutes into the movie, the creature starts thawing; soon thereafter, it begins assimilating and assuming the shapes of various personnel. Lloyd figures out that something is wrong before almost anyone else, and she eventually devises a way to distinguish man from monster, but much violence ensues.

Understandably, The Thing borrows a lot of beats from Carpenter’s masterwork, notably in a tense scene in which Lloyd and a handful of trusted compatriots attempt to sort out who’s real and who’s infected; as in the original, this leads to a chaotic transformation and a panicked response that’s hampered by a flamethrower that fails to ignite on cue. Predictably, an impending storm cuts off all communications, and the last survivors attempt to destroy the monster with explosives.

The picture, scripted by American Eric Heisserer (the wonderful science-fiction adaptation Arrival and a handful of horror movies) and directed by Dutchman Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. (this is his only credit helming a feature), is well-paced and smoothly executed for the most part. The cast is fine, especially Winstead as a scientist who finds herself pushed to the limit and Jørgen Langhelle as a non-English-speaking mechanic who quickly comes to fear the monster.

The movie works quite well over the half-hour or so after the monster first thaws, but the tension falters in the climactic sequence when the survivors pursue the thing into the spaceship that carried it to Earth. With the exception of some kind of weird three-dimensional display, the vehicle’s interiors and props struck me as mundane and unimaginative.

A key challenge for the prequel was to depict the carnage that the Americans in John Carpenter’s movie found remnants of when they visited the ruined Norwegian base. Van Heijningen and company do this — here’s the twisted two-faced thing burned not quite to a crisp; there’s the frozen corpse resting in the chair where it appeared to have committed suicide — but the exercise feels inessential.

And that’s the main problem with this prequel: For too much of its running time, it just feels like more of the same. It’s not bad, exactly, but it suffers in comparison to Carpenter’s work, which was both scarier and more inventive.

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