14 December 2014

THE THING/2011

I just finally had the chance to watch the new version of The Thing and over all I really did not find it to be that terrible a film. I can surely recommend it, but the movie certainly, for me, has the issue of remakes lingering in the front of my brain at the moment. I am reading through a book called American Horror Film; The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium by Steffen Hanke who deals with various dilemmas facing American horror films not the least being the sudden rash of films that are high tech but low brow remakes either of Asian horror films or, more recently, of older more successful and influential American films. Someone should tell Mr. Hanke though that film books with rambling 27 page introductions is another one of the new millennium’s concerns as well. No doubt American horror, once the innovator and standard bearer of the genre, is in a creative slump. The reliance on remakes, on the one hand, and shoddy straight to DVD drivel on the other does not help matters much and the whole remake issue is something I want to explore as a topic in another article later, but the issue cannot be side-stepped with this 2011 remake (or prequel more accurately) of the 1982 classic by John Carpenter. I would easily go so far as to say this was Carpenter’s best film and if I pressed to name my all-time favorite horror/sci-fi film -I feel the movie is a successful melding of the horror and sci-fi genres, much like Ridley Scott’s Alien was- I would not hesitate to name The Thing.

There is an element in some reviews on online of acting like films like The Thing is some sort sacred matter and to redo it even as a prequel (a euphemism of sorts for remake in this case since some scenes are obviously meant to be modern redoings of the same scenes from Carpenter’s film) is tantamount to heresy. The problem here is that Carpenter’s film itself is a remake, and one that was not received with open arms when it was first released and not it did it fare well at the box office when originally released. Many people felt there was no way the movie could top Howard Hawk’s original film, 1951’s The Thing From Another World. As time has gone on I think people would say that Carpenter’s film did not in fact “top” Hawke’s film (which is also a great movie in every sense) but it took the same story and retold it in a new a way and added to the story by not only making it in color –though there is nothing wrong with the original’s black and white- but by also adding then state of the art special effects by Rob Bottin and a classic music score by Carpenter and Ennio Morricone. Carpenter did with his version of The Thing what any filmmaker worth his weight in salt is supposed to do with a remake, and that is make the story his own and take it to a new level. Not one that has to outdo the original but at least equal it in some sense.

And now my two cents worth on the raging debate on the Internet these days: does the new The Thing at least equal its predecessors in retelling the story of a hostile alien life form that can take on the appearance of creature it absorbs, those creatures currently being dogs and humans stationed at some remote and ultimately claustrophobic base somewhere in Antarctica. Well, my answer is that, no it does not match up to either Carpenter’s or Hawke’s films. It falls short. But is it a bad movie and one that should be avoided or loathed? I would say it is an okay movie, entertaining enough for the times we live in when half way decent horror fare is typically lacking. Of course where this article is going to be heading eventually is in dealing with yet another culprit damaging modern day horror films, and that is the murky matter of CGI effects. Carpenter used what was then state of the art special effects in creating still outstanding scenes in his movie that was simply not possible in the original. Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. has the same right to push the effects of the new version into the 21st century, and the film may have not worked without CGI in some capacity, but is newer always better and were the CGI effects overused? I had read before seeing the film that the filmmakers had opted to use only minimal CGI effects but all I saw were computer effects. I will get to that a little later on and share my feelings about it, but for now lets look at the basic storyline. And as always, if you hate spoilers you had best skip the next paragraph or two. I, too, hate to read them but I love to write them. I will try to keep them at a minimum however. I will just introduce the general story then critique afterwards.

Mary Elizabeth Winsted plays paleoanthropologist Kate Lloyd who is offered the chance to fly to Antarctica by one Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) to examine the remains of what turns out to be an alien creature that has been frozen in the ice for about 100,000 years. She is soon at a Norwegian base surrounded by chauvinistic Norwegian guys and one other female. Later some Americans (including Joel Edgerton as Sam Carter) arrive to mix things up a bit and to allow more of the film’s dialog to be spoken in English. As well as the alien creature there is a huge space craft buried under the thick ice and snow. The creature is transported in a block of ice back to the Norwegian base where further tests reveal the creature’s cells are still alive. The creature wastes little time in bursting free of the ice and since we know the Thing can assume the appearance of other life forms we can safely assume that soon enough some people at the base are not who they appear to be. Sure enough people we least suspect start mutating into a monster that makes quick work of its victims one way or the other. Either by simply killing them or by absorbing them and thereby taking on its victim’s appearance. Paranoia mounts and nobody is sure who is and who is not themselves or actually the space alien that is intent on killing or absorbing everybody at the frozen base. To make matters worse a serious Antarctic storm is blowing in and no one can leave the base until the creature and its imitations are isolated. There are chases by the creature and confrontations between the crew in the building where they are all huddled for survival, but by the film’s final scenes the action shifts to the interior of the space craft itself. The film ends in a way that is supposed to open the door to the John Carpenter film but I am not so sure about that as there seems to be some loose ends in my opinion. If this movie is actually a prequel then a few scenes in the other film are left completely unexplained and I will touch on those but not make a major issue out of it all.



But before that I will have to give Mary Elizabeth Winsted a little credit for stepping into the impossible to fill shoes of Kurt Russell as R.J. McReady from Carpenter’s film. The role was iconic and I don’t feel she was trying to become any sort of “McRipley” character. One could question whether it was really necessary to have the lead role be filled by a female character but that is really the way modern action and horror films goes. People want to see a tough woman nowadays, and not only tough but attractive. That Carpenter’s film told its story without either a female character or a single teenager is yet one more reason to admire that story. To be fair the Howard Hawks film had a female character but we can still question the need to make this radical change in the mood and tone of the film. The Carpenter film achieved its classic levels of paranoia and claustrophobia from a few unique story conventions, one of them being the absence of a female character. The film does not exploit this too much really though a line is made about the last thing one wants to be is a woman in a camp of Norwegians in the middle of winter. Winstead plays Kate Lloyd a little shaky and insecure at first, but of course by the film’s end she is just another “Final Girl” being chased by the monster or killer through the scary house –or spaceship- and she is soon roasting anything and anybody that threatens her in true modern film heroine fashion. While she survives the film we assume she does not survive the continuing story, the same way we assume McReady and Childs do not survive the ending of the 1982 film.

A couple issues with the loose ends here. There is more than a couple issues but I address some that left me wondering why the prequel did not cover these better, or did I miss something. The film covers the “melded two-faced” creature that is brought to the American base in Carpenter’s film with its still living cells. But the Carpenter film opens with a husky being chased by Norwegians in a helicopter and the dog is taken in by the crew after the Norwegians all are killed off one way or another. Now in the 2011 film we see a dog escape, biting the chain cage in a manner that harkens back to the 1982 film, but we are never informed as to who the Norwegians are that would be chasing the dog across the snow into the American camp, or if there is even a working helicopter left. Another scene in the Carpenter film says the Americans watching video footage of the Norwegians using thermite charges to open the ice up around the space craft, but in the 2011 film they just walk down through an ice cavern. There are also unexplained scenes such as a suicide in the Carpenter film where a man is sitting in a chair with blood, now frozen, running from his wrists to the floor. There is no such suicide in the new film and I am left wondering if there are more Norwegians who come to the camp later or something. I am not going to beat my brains out trying to figure it out because it may be obvious here that I have seen the 1982 film several times and wonder if I will rewatch the new one even once more. Maybe as it was not really that bad. (NOTE: This article is actually rather old and I have since seen the film twice more.)

And a word, of course, on the CGI effects. This is the way of the future I guess, for better or worse. Films will only be employing more and more CGI effects and not less and less and it is something we have to learn to live with. And I am not against this really but there is certainly something lacking in this film from the 1982 one by having the special FX all done in CGI. And they do all seem to be CGI. In one scene a guy on the helicopter begins to transform in the creature and his human face breaks away, and it just does not look that cool at all. Not as cool as Rob Bottin’s FX from about thirty years ago anyway. That you can just tell it is computer generated is the problem. And in the scenes where somebody bursts open and the creature’s tentacles come flying out and sloshing about all over it simply looks like computer generated images. You can say they are well done, and they are, but you are never unaware that you looking at something computer generated. And of course in the first film you are aware many times that you are looking at a puppet or artificial creation that is being manipulated by a crew of stagehands with little wires and pumps, but that was thirty years ago. Shouldn't something made in the 21st century blow that all away? Seems like it should, but it never does.

The film never creates the atmosphere of paranoia the Carpenter film does as well though it seems like it should be able to. The story becomes just a series of set-ups for another scene with slick CGI effects. We don’t really connect with the Norwegians or the few American’s who show up later the way we did with the characters in the Carpenter film. We don’t ever really connect with the character of Kate Lloyd either but I am warning you not to surprised if her character does not wind up being written in a future film where she goes back to the American base after she has had time to recuperate somewhere, and there she and a team face the monster all over again. Mark my words, this is a possibility I have not seen anybody explore yet. This remake/prequel may well become a remake/sequel at some time in the near future.

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