Tuesday 13 December 2011

Film Review | The Thing, dir. Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.

What an odd thing The Thing is.

All year long - further back than even that, in fact - I've been hoping that The Thing would be worth the wait, and the weight of my anticipation, as opposed to being some dreadful pretender to the throne I like to think the original film sits upon. It's personal preference in part, but I'm of the mind that the 1982 adaptation of John W. Campbell's Who Goes There? chronicled John Carpenter at the utmost peak of his powers, Halloween be damned; it is certainly the film of his that I've returned to most often, and if it doesn't all hold up today, then it's a testament to its essential greatness that so very much of it still does, thirty-odd years on.

So when news of this remake first broke, rather an age ago now, I was in two minds. Of all the classics that could do with a good updating, I could conceive of few worthier candidates than The Thing. On the other hand, how many of these modern-day takes on the good old horror movies of yore have truly had any business existing? Would The Thing be another in the long line of cold-blooded cash-grabs Hollywood is responsible for, or something more meaningful?

Well, as it happens, it's kind of both of those things. Both... and neither.

The Thing begins with Mary Elizabeth Winstead's new character, Kate Lloyd, a scientist specialising in the recovery of ancient remains. At the outset she's approached by the man in charge of an Antarctic research facility where, as Dr. Sander Halvorson explains, both a specimen and a structure have been found deep beneath the ice, many centuries old and largely intact. He senses a discovery that could change the way we see the world forever after, and asks Kate for her help.

She goes. Of course she goes! But things take a dark turn almost immediately after her arrival. There's an almighty storm coming in, and the Norwegian base is about to be completely cut off from the rest of the world. And then the specimen, safely extracted and awaiting a proper postmortem, goes missing. The only witness to its inexplicable disappearance claims to have seen a monster erupt from the ice... but that cannot be, can it?

We know what comes next: an alien that can replicate the shape of anyone it absorbs, in hiding amongst the scientists at this increasingly isolated camp. Paranoia follows. Tension rattling like a pot too long on the stove. There will be blood, more bodies than you can keep track of, and uncertainty on the fringes of every decision.

Oddly, what follows on from this new beginning to The Thing is a middle third lifted practically like-for-like from Carpenter's revered film; almost an hour of the same situations and the very same scares that fans of the original will be intimately familiar with. For the longest time there are no surprises at all, except for the thing itself, which the director recasts as - of all things - a spaghetti monster.

And then The Thing takes another turn, because its ending is original too, and very well done indeed. In fact it ties in wonderfully with the premise of Carpenter's masterful film, paying homage to both old and new in the same moment.

The thing about The Thing is, it can't seem to decide whether it's one thing or the other: a remake, or a prequel. It can't very well be both - there's really not so much to this story, at the end of the day - but god love it, it tries ever so hard to do just that... to serve two or more masters, and in the attempt, it only disappoints both.

Saying that, it fails neither entirely. The Thing inherits a great many of the original film's most potent moments, and short the spaghetti monster's all too frequent appearances, they are as effective now as they ever were. The Thing also serves to embellish the preexisting mythos with a few neat new kinks; it takes some unexpected turns here and there, smart twists that dovetail nicely with what we imagine may or may not have happened to the Norwegian crew. We learn more about how the thing got here, how it was awoken, and what it wants.

However absorbing all this is - and at times it absolutely is absorbing, particularly when it diverges from Carpenter's narrative - there's no getting away from the fact that if you're in the least familiar with the original film, you'll find the larger part of this iteration of The Thing a needless retread.

Sadly, sandwiched squarely between the old and the new, the fresh and the over-familiar, The Thing seems second-hand at best. But it's been well kept, I'll give it that. Newcomer Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. equips himself remarkably given the limitations of the script, and in the lead role Mary Elizabeth Winstead is suitably serious. The Thing isn't all it could have been, then, but it's enough - just - to warrant a watch.

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