“Reboot”, “reimagining” and “reinvisioning” are fashionable terms bandied around by studios to try and explain the presence of usually unnecessary quasi-remakes of classic films. Almost always shot through without due respect for the original work, keen only to exploit a new generation’s lack of awareness about cinema history and their appetite for the latest in quality visual effects, they are among the crassest calculations in Hollywood’s sizeable repertoire. A more disturbing trend may be emerging, then, with The Thing, a film so unimaginative that it not only mimics the title of its 1982 John Carpenter predecessor, but shamelessly remakes that film while disguising itself tenuously at best as a prequel.
The opening of Carpenter’s The Thing featured a Norwegian gunman trying to kill a fleeing dog, before the American crew of the Antarctic base discovered some disturbing and unusual remains, as well as the body of a man who appears to have committed suicide. This serves as the exit point for this new film – the final scene overlaps with the first scene of Carpenter’s – and we go back to see quite what caused this mayhem, as young palaeontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is recruited by Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Tomsen) to help examine an extraterrestrial craft found buried in the icy depths.
Carpenter’s The Thing stands as a rare remake that managed to outdo its predecessor – the 1951 Howard Hawks-Christian Nyby The Thing from Another World – in every way. The atmosphere of almost unbearable anxiety is accentuated by both the film’s horrifying make-up effects, and its restraint in not inundating the viewer with too much of it. Its true brilliance, however, comes with its bleak ending, an incredibly downbeat exercise in mutual futility, cementing the film’s deeply disquieting tone up to that point. Unfortunately, that isn’t something newcomer director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. has cared to replicate; this Thing is a visually sophisticated yet soulless retread of all the beats the Carpenter version did better, even if it thankfully does little to damage or interfere with the previous film’s legacy.
It’s difficult to think of this film as a prequel, for while it makes a cursory effort to reference the events of the last film, it repeats far too many scenes to be taken seriously as anything more than a trumped-up remake. The initial attack, the suspicion, and the climax are all far too familiar; there is little to consider as invention, except perhaps for a clever scene in which the blood test from the original is substituted for a check for teeth fillings, for the Thing can only replicate human tissue and not metal.
The kills, however, evoke of the film a rote slasher thriller; the monster morphs and mutates in grotesque and visually impressive ways, but too many characters we don’t care about are killed with a swift, cold impaling. Director Matthijs van Heijningen doesn’t seem able to work his way through the bland supporting players quickly enough, while only giving Winstead’s Kate the proper shrift of character development and personality.
While it does at least try a few different things in the final reel – such as a venture to the unthawed alien ship – it feels like a desperate Hail Mary pass to try and differentiate itself from Carpenter’s work, but the general messiness of the third act does little to acquit it from this. Furthermore, a generic ending – entirely opposed to the original’s creepy ambiguity – robs the film of any suspense that might last past the credits, ending with too much closure and making the audience feel too safe. That it concludes with the opening scene of the last film will likely irritate those who view Carpenter’s as superior (just about anyone over the age of 20), and fly far over the heads of those young enough not to have seen it, rendering it fairly pointless anyway.
Despite its visual sophistication and a good lead performance, there’s no escaping that this Thing is a pointless remake trying to convince itself that it is in fact a prequel.
The Thing is released on Friday in the UK