For those of us who were avid filmgoers in 1982, the last few years have been very strange. First they made a sequel to “TRON” that cost several hundred million dollars, which is just plain strange considering the way the first film fizzled at the box-office. They recently announced plans for a return to the world of “Blade Runner,” another movie that just didn’t work at the box-office, and now we’ve got this weekend’s release of a prequel to John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” another choice that makes no logical business sense.
I love Carpenter’s film. I loved it when I saw it in 1982. As time has passed, I’ve grown more and more impressed by what Carpenter accomplished, and I’ve also come to view it as a bit of a miracle. It is one of the bleakest films I’ve ever seen, completely pessimistic. It features some of the most disturbingly surreal imagery in any horror film, but it is also a model of restraint. I love that time has been kind to Carpenter’s movie, and I love the way it’s grown in time just like “Blade Runner” has, slowly but surely pushing the film’s overall reputation from “bomb” to “overlooked gem.”
I think the film deserves it, but I wish it had happened when the film came out the first time, when it could have made a big difference in the way John Carpenter’s overall career went. Instead of getting fired off of “Firestarter” as a way of punishing him for the commercial success, maybe he could have built something at Universal, an overall relationship like Spielberg’s. Maybe he could have been the horror equivalent of Amblin’. I know that over the years, Universal has repeatedly looked for that person, that figurehead who could take control of the horror end of the business as a sort of walking talking brand name for them. When “The Thing” tanked, that was the end of that chance for Carpenter, and I think it’s one of the defining studio mistakes of the ’80s.
Now, here we are almost 30 years later, and while I respect the attempt made by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. and Eric Heisserer, I think it is a miss almost across the board. I think it is technically well-made, I think there are strong performers in most of the key roles, and I think it is a mistake from start to finish in the choices it makes. It is a case of over-reverence towards the previous material combined with a misunderstanding of the fundamental appeal. Just by virtue of looking at how they approached this film and what creative decisions were made, I would argue that what interests them about the Carpenter film is not what interests me about it, and that is such a core disagreement that there’s no way for me to enjoy this film.
In Carpenter’s film, the Thing is defined by its desire to hide. It doesn’t want to fight. It doesn’t want to confront anyone. It just wants to blend in and get the hell out of there. It is desperate to become human and get somewhere it can vanish. It knows how vulnerable it is. And if it can’t hide forever, at least it can hide long enough to build something it can use to escape. It is not a bloodthirsty mindless beast. It is alien. It is totally different than us, a long way from home, and terrified. It is equipped with an ability that is insane to us, beyond comprehension even when we’re looking directly at it. But the glimpses we get are only when the Thing is backed into a corner. The changes are involuntary. Part of the process. Shock and reaction.
In the new film, the Thing is pretty much a monster all the way through. It’s a monster so often that the few moments where it tries to hide as a human being, it’s just not very good at it. If you took this creature out of the movie, replaced it with Giger’s Alien and facehuggers instead of the runaway hands this film features, and made the exact same movie otherwise, it would be a perfectly serviceable and forgettable “Alien” sequel, about what I’d expect after a few pro-wrestling matches with the Predator and a generally devalued franchise. It is not embarrassing, and I think it feels like everyone involved was trying to strike the right tone. But Carpenter’s film is scary. This film is just loud.
My favorite moments in the Carpenter film are character moments. The combination of Bill Lancaster’s script, the performances by the cast including Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur, and Donald Moffat, and the sardonic tone that Carpenter strikes in much of his filmography is what makes “The Thing” work. That film feels cold. Those people feel real. That place feels lived in. There’s nothing extraordinary until they’re confronted by the most unimaginable nightmare, and they respond the way real people would respond. When they break, they break the way real people would break. The most horrible scene in that film for me is when MacReady goes to speak with Blair, who’s been locked up in his room away from everyone else. They speak through a small sliding window in the door, and Blair, played by Brimley, begs to be let back inside. It’s a fairly unemotional conversation, but it’s terrifying because of everything going on subtextual, and also because of what it means these men now must accept as normal and real, and also because of the noose hanging behind Brimley the entire time, unremarked upon but impossible to miss. It’s an impeccably staged scene, perfectly shot by Dean Cundey, and Kurt Russell and Wilford Brimley are just incredible together. You could play the drama of Carpenter’s film as a play in a small 99-seat theater and it would be just as compelling.
This new movie is too busy having its monster pop out and scream “BOOGEDY BOOGEDY” in every scene to bother scaring you in any other way. It’s too busy hustling to the monster stuff to really spend much time setting up characters. You’ve got Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrhich Thomsen, Eric Christan Olsen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and a fairly dense cast of Norwegian and Canadian character actors, so why not give them something to do besides look at a creature? Things are sort of suggested for a few scenes up front, but any character groundwork that’s done is dropped immediately. There’s no real investment in any of these people because we never see them register that it matters if they live or die. The men in Carpenter’s film are desperate to live, just as desperate as the Thing itself, and when they’re pushed, they fight. They do what they can to protect themselves. In this film, it feels far more like an engineered kill list, a supporting cast that exists to die in spectacular and frequent fashion. None of the characters register, and none of the actors are really given room to make much impression either.
Before you tell me that I have to judge this film separately, please understand that this film is 100% dependent on Carpenter’s film if it is to succeed at all. There has obviously been a fair amount of time and energy spent making sure things connect, and it’s built so that you could theoretically put on Carpenter’s movie right after this ends and they’d connect up like jigsaw puzzle pieces. I think it’s perfectly fair to consider them as connected. This feels sort of like “Superman Returns,” where I recognize that the people making the movie made the best version of what they thought people loved about the thing they were following up, but I just don’t like the film they made. It feels too considered, too false. And the ways it connects up just irritate me. It feels like getting nudged in the ribs. “Hey, you remember that axe in the wall? Remember that? Remember thinking ‘Wow, some terrible shit must have happened there’? Well, we’re going to show you how THAT AXE got stuck in THAT WALL!! Mind blown! Ka-pow!” The things it explains, I never needed to see explained, and it robs the film of any real tension it might hope to have. That’s a danger with a prequel. You’re telling a story where we already know the ending, so unless you have a pretty fascinating tale about the journey, your audience knows what the stakes are and what the outcome is. This entire film is like a CSI recreation of a crime scene that we explore in the Carpenter film, and it felt to me like the spinning of wheels and little else.
If all you want is a noisy FX reel, a fashion parade of monster shapes from the Thing, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead looking heroic and adorable in heavy snow gear, then you might give this one a pass or even enjoy it. I found myself so distanced from the experience that it never played as a film for me. It is a catalog of moments that are reactions to the 1982 film with nothing new to contribute. It is far from the worst film I’ve seen this year or the worst remake of an older film, but it is disappointing in terms of what it does and how it does it.
“The Thing” opens in theaters tomorrow, October 14, 2011.