Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Thing (2011): That Which Should Not Be

(Note: If you haven’t seen John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, go remedy that immediately, then come back and red this. because I’m probably going to lightly spoil that film, and it’s excellent.)

I have a sort of quasi-tradition where I try to make a point of watching John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing after the first real snowfall of the winter. It’s one of my favorite horror films, and goes perfectly with the freezing cold and snow piled high outside. Well, the first snow we’ve had this winter was pretty anemic, so it made perfect sense for me to take a look at the 2011 prequel to that film, which also shares its title.

Okay, that’s kind of a cheap shot, but honestly, I think it’s a fair summation. The Thing (2011) shares some features with the film it simultaneously precedes and follows, but it’s all in surface details and it misses a lot of what makes its inspiration so good.

We start off with a bunch of Norwegian researchers at Thule Station, in Antarctica. They’re out for a drive, swapping dirty jokes, running some kind of errand, when their vehicle crashes into a crevasse in the ice. A crevasse which, at its bottom, holds what appears to be some kind of enormous, well, let’s just say it - spaceship. They find a UFO in the ice. Following their rescue, the crew of the station surveys the site, and some distance away from the craft, finds something else under the ice…a form.

Something that doesn’t look human, and does look like it was crawling away from the wreckage.

Right off the bat, this film’s an odd duck. It’s clear that it got made on the back of John Carpenter’s film, in the way that the inevitable churn of sequels and remakes and reboots seek to capitalize on the nostalgia we have for the original films. But it’s not a remake, per se, or a sequel - it’s a prequel, and one that is clearly trying to hew faithfully to elements of the original film. And it’s a prequel with a built-in narrative hook, in that it’s telling the story of the Norwegian camp that the protagonists of the original stumble upon early in the film. In the original film, we see aftermath, and here, we see those events as they play out. So it’s not a case where someone’s had to gin up an origin story or a reason for some antagonist to come back, it’s a story that takes place in a natural narrative context. Carpenter’s The Thing begins with a helicopter containing two Norwegians flying into their camp, shooting at a dog that they appear to be chasing. That’s what starts everything in the first film, and so here what we’re getting is everything that lead up to that moment.

And this was my first problem with the film - it’s telling a story that didn’t really need to be told. The sequences in the Norwegian camp in the first film were highly effective on their own, no elaboration necessary. I mean, it’s a less contrived addition to the story than a lot of sequels or prequels are, but sometimes less is more, and not knowing exactly what happened there was a lot creepier than knowing would be, especially since anyone who’s seen the first film has a pretty good idea of what probably happened there. In that sense, it’s a film that isn’t really telling us anything we didn’t already know. But even so, if it’s a well-told story, it could at least keep us engaged, even if we do have a pretty good idea of where it’s going and how it’s going to end. But that’s the next place it falls down - this is a film that knows the details of the first film well, but not why the first film was so good.

There were a couple of things that made the original as effective as it still is. First, the first film is ultimately more about people than the monster, the extraterrestrial that’s come into their camp and is assimilating everyone in the station, one by one. The monster is the instigating force that gets the men to turn on each other, since any one of them could be infected, but that’s really its central purpose. The majority of the original film is a story of paranoia and distrust, and how the already-contentious relationship between those men lead to their deaths. The monster only really shows up to reinforce their paranoia, to remind them it could be anyone or everyone, and that it would be extremely bad if it got loose. The characters in the first film aren’t necessarily explored in depth, but they’re distinct people with their own personalities and their own humanizing touches, so we’re invested in seeing what happens to them.

Second, when it does address the monster, it leaves a lot to the imagination, because the limitations of special effects at the time required it. For every vivid, well-lit instance of some horrible mutation, there are two or three of things barely glimpsed on-camera, or attacking from the shadows, and again, no special effect is ever going to be as horrifying as what you can cook up in your head. It’s pretty much all achieved through practical effects as well, which makes the original feel grounded, and why the creature effects (though certainly not flawless, and some are pretty dated at this point) are so disquieting - it’s something physical, it’s inhabiting the same space as the actors, but it’s so alien in design that we can’t quite get our heads around what we’re seeing. It’s as Lovecraftian as you’ll find outside of actual adaptations of Lovecraft.

This film, by contrast, invests a lot more in the monster than in the people. The protagonists in the original weren’t what you’d call fleshed-out, but they had distinct roles and personalities. In this film, you’ve got the leads and then…a lot of interchangeable Norwegian men. Half of them, I think, didn’t even really have names. Everyone’s an archetype, nobody has an inner life to speak of. We don’t really get to know them before the shit pops off, either. There’s a scene of a bunch of them drinking and singing, but that’s kind of it. We learn a lot more about life at the station in the original before things get really bad, and it makes a difference - there’s enough of a sense of them as people that the paranoia carries some weight once they realize what’s going on. Here, they’re mostly just…cannon fodder. And the monster begins its predations much sooner and in a much louder fashion than in the original. Yes, there are nods to the idea that they can’t trust each other, but here those moments really just serve as interstitials between monster attacks, rather than being what carries the film. So, even though it doesn’t end up being quite as rote as it could be, it comes close at many points. We don’t know these people, so we don’t care about them, and whether one of them has been assimilated or not is reduced to a guessing game, signposted by sequences that inevitably end in yet another gory reveal. You could almost set your watch by it.

And the monster in which they invest so much is a lot less effective than it is in the first film. The monster is clearly and plainly depicted, on-camera under well-lit conditions for extended periods of time. It’s clear that the filmmakers did their homework and tried to stick as closely to the design of the original creature as much as possible, so it’s at least a good design, but it’s also pretty clear that what we’re seeing is almost entirely digital effects. It’s not terrible CG work, but it’s also clear that that’s exactly what it is, and so all of those moments (and there are a lot of them) have an artificiality that the original film didn’t, and in some ways it makes the monster less frightening. I mean, it’s certainly gross, all waving tentacles and mouths where you wouldn’t expect mouths to be and limbs in equally unexpected places, but it never feels as real as the practical work did in the original film. So what we’re left with is a bunch of people we don’t care all that much about alternating between creeping around, yelling at each other, and shooting or burning creatures, and setpieces where an obviously-artificial monster chews on them in various disgusting ways. In some ways, it’s the more action-oriented Aliens to the original film’s slow-burn Alien, but the characters in Aliens had way more personality than these poor bastards do, so what we get is less a story and more a series of beats that happen in mostly-predictable sequence.

Otherwise, this film can best be described as competent, with a good eye for detail in terms of the original film. The acting is fine, nothing nuanced but nothing wooden or cringeworthy either. and the dialogue is perfectly serviceable, without being awful. Everything is well-lit and clean, which takes some of the atmosphere out of it. But the setting closely resembles the original sets from the original film, and everything plays out in a way that slots neatly into what the protagonists of the original film discover. If anything, one of this film’s bigger strengths is the degree to which it honors the source material (at least until the very end, which takes a goofy and unnecessary detour into the original spacecraft). The music cues call back to the score of the original, even the font for the credits and the animation for the opening title. So the filmmakers are at least respectful of the original and its legacy.

But the question remains: Why do this at all? The story of the ill-fated Norwegian camp was certainly untold, but does telling it really add anything to the original film? And if you haven’t seen the original film, well, now you have a pretty good idea of what you’re in for when you watch the original, at least in the broad strokes. I don’t necessarily blame the filmmakers for all of this - apparently, the director was so beset by studio interference that he swore he’d never work with an American studio again, and hasn’t since - but apart from being an opportunity to trade on the reputation of a much better film, there’s no reason for this to exist. This is the thing that should not be, largely well-executed but profoundly empty.

IMDB entry

Available on Amazon

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