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October 15, 2011

The Thing: The Phantom Menace

(2011, Dir. by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.)

(Had to change the title of the review just so we know it's a prequel...and Attack of the Clones would have been too easy.)

The dreaded task of following a classic falls squarely on the shoulders of The Thing this October, despite the filmmakers' insisting that the film is actually a prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 masterpiece that basically everyone who's ever watched a horror movie loves.  As is the case with every horror movie that comes down with a case of same-title-itis, comparisons to the preceding film are near impossible to avoid.  I certainly won't be able to write any of this without referencing Carpenter's film, and I apologize for that in advance.

The thing about The Thing - and when I say The Thing in this review I mean the 2011 version of The Thing, not the 1982 or 1951 versions which FMWL has already talked up - is that I want to say nice things about The Thing.  The idea of showing us what happened before the creature made its way to U.S. Outpost 31 where it encountered Kurt Russell's beard is a good one, and the first act of the prequel really had me convinced that this film could pull off something on its own.  The characters are decently developed, we're given a strong-willed female protagonist (who is played well by Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and the film retains a lot of the atmosphere of Carpenter's film.  Most of that retention comes from simple things - ranging from the use of what I call "Carpenter font" for titles to the wardrobe and set design to the original film's musical score - but these little things go a long way to making us feel comfortable about the film.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of flaws in the film too - and you don't need to know the original film to see them.  The most blatant offense comes from the overuse of computer generated effects, which are - for lack of a better term - pretty terrible.  Viewers who aren't familiar with Carpenter's film will most likely be put off by the monsters that the film creates with these effects, and they're even more likely to have a negative effect on those who are familiar with Rob Bottin's work on Carpenter's film.  The practical Thing of that film is long gone, and the prequel overdoses on tentacle-fu throughout the film.

While the film goes overboard on monster action, it loses a lot of the paranoid frenzy of Carpenter's film.  Winstead's character tries to be a ringleader in pointing out the fact that no one can trust each other throughout the film - perhaps because she's listening to Men At Work's classic hit "Who Can It Be Now?" when we meet her - but the film often tips its hand by simply having a character explode into a mass of tentacles and teeth.  The film states that it is an adaptation of the novella "Who Goes There?" and not the films that preceded it, but it troubles me that this Thing is so quick to step away from the psychological tension that Carpenter's film took from that story.  To be fair, I haven't read that story....but I doubt it had so many scenes that feel like badly mutated scenes from Jurassic Park.

I really wanted to come home and defend this movie. It's a good idea that's mostly well acted (Eric Christian Olson should have never been allowed on set) and is well produced and feels like a unique take on the story that's already produced two unique classics.  Oh, and it sounds really good too - the music and sound effects had me in chills a couple of times, particularly when the Thing started shrieking.  Regardless, the movie loses its way as it moves on and just becomes an effects movie - which is a bad thing when the visual effects aren't any good.

Honestly, I think fans of Carpenter's movie might be more forgiving to this film than the general public.  There's a lot of nostalgia to be had in those little things - including a nice mid-credits sequence that ties the film to U.S. Outpost 31 - and the fans will surely get a kick out of those moments.  I really think there is a place for this script in The Thing universe, and that a story headed by Winstead's strong character and the Norwegian outpost's crew could have worked as its own film - it's just frustrating to see that the film couldn't put everything together and hold its early momentum.

So yeah, I can't defend this Thing.  If I squint really hard I can see the charm of Carpenter's classic behind it, but the overuse of the creature's alien form and the dumbed down scientific and psychological sides of the film are a bit insulting.  The film sums itself up perfectly when it suggests a blood test like the one that was one of the highlights of the original film, then cuts corners and uses discussion of dental hygiene to separate the real from the unreal.  The folks behind the movie didn't give the audience the credit they deserved, and their simplified version of The Thing's story falls flat due to their missteps.


Chris Hewson said...

Ugh, Eric Christian Olson is so annoying! I semi-regularly watch NCIS: Los Angeles and I watched an episode after not watching it for about a month or two and I saw that half of the prior main characters (who I'd liked) had vanished and been replaced with 'this annoying blonde guy'. So...yeah, switch semi-regularly to not-regularly now!

jervaise brooke hamster said...

This film is destined to become a cult classic just like the 1951 and 1982 versions. By the way, i want to bugger Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Hey, The Mike, have you read the hilarious com-girl-ts section over on Soiled Sinema's reveiw of "DAYLIGHT" ?, (the com-girl-ts section remember).

: said...

While I don't hate this one by any means -- I really do think the folks behind it had their hearts in the right place -- it still pisses me off. Why? Because I find myself thinking, every time I watch something like this, "Did they REALLY think that looked GOOD? Who signed off on that CGI? Did anybody in the production stop and ask their co-workers if maybe they shouldn't TRY to make it look even SLIGHTLY more real?" It's just pathetic, some of the stuff that makes it on-screen. I just don't get it.

THE MIST did it right (and I think the "tentacles under the bay door" scene wasn't perfect . . . however, everything after it was).