Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Advancements in special effects don’t always push cinema forward. In the case of the new sci-fi/horror prequel The Thing, progressive visuals actually set the proceedings back several pegs, an odd example of the past leapfrogging over the present. And that’s not the film’s only fault. Set up as the “before” to the “after” of John Carpenter’s 1982 masterwork of the same title, itself an ostensible remake of the 1951 film The Thing From Another World, first-time director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s product is a frustrating watch.
Van Heijningen and screenwriter Eric Heisserer make good with the feeling of isolation, projecting the characters’ claustrophobic unease caused by the shape-shifting alien picking them off inside an Antarctic research bunker, with tangible dread. In look and structure, the prequel has much in common with Carpenter’s film, mimicking the original’s permeating sense of anyone-can-be-the-monster paranoia. But that’s also the problem: The Thing 2011 follows its vastly superior predecessor almost to the tee. The only noticeable difference is the addition of two females here, a welcome change from Carpenter’s sausage bash. Not that the ladies get to do much at all, though; in van Heijningen’s film, there aren’t any real characters, just actors reacting to overdone CGI in wide-eyed ways.
There’s a sequence where the main protagonist, a paleontologist played rather flatly by the usually appealing Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World), forces her bunk-mates to perform a test to prove whether they’re an alien or not, this time focusing on dental fillings instead of tying the co-stars down to chairs for an impromptu blood test. The scene exemplifies one of The Thing’s main issues: It’s far too concerned with standard creature feature action to develop any of its characters well enough for the whole “are they alien or human” to have any emotional impact whatsoever.
The Thing 1982 milked its paralyzing tension for cerebral thrills, parceling its practical-effects-heavy scares and sick imagery out with a master’s patience, which, in turn, allowed for character growth and audience connections; The Thing 2011, however, trips through lightweight exposition before settling into a frantic, ultimately meaningless action-horror pace, and that’s when the film’s most damaging blunder repeatedly surfaces. Attempting to update Carpenter’s man-made effects into today’s point-and-click CGI universe, van Heijningen lets video game-like graphics take over. The ambitiously wild ideas are in place, especially a shot of the face of the alien’s current human host grafting onto the side of an unlucky victim’s head, but the effects are distractingly fake-looking. Such an image isn’t all that possible with practical tools, of course, yet a blood-and-tentacles spectacle like The Thing demands better execution.
In this Hollywood day and age of lazy reboots and catatonic imagination, it’s tough to condemn a movie for trying too hard, but there’s no way around it: The makers behind The Thing, hoping to trump their Carpenter-owned prototype with next-level monster shots and a higher body count, have failed upwards. Now 29 years old, Carpenter’s The Thing is still celebrated within cinephile sects and respectfully dissected by film historians and critics; the flick hitting theaters now will most likely exit the public’s conversations in about two weeks’ time. So much for advancement.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)