Though it teeters between prequel, homage, and retread, the latest version of Carpenter's 1982 sci-fi flick manages to stay on its feet
If there's one advance we might have hoped for from the latest iteration of the sci-fi thriller The Thing, it's a touch of titular ingenuity: something along the lines of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Antarctica or And Another Thing… ; perhaps even a knowing reference to "Columbo" (There's Just One Thing That's Been Bothering Me) or Annie Hall (Remember? We Had That Thing? Oh, The Thing!). Alas, this latest variation on the theme has retained the succinct literality of its immediate forebear, John Carpenter's 1982 The Thing. (Howard Hawkes's 1951 original, The Thing from Another World, offered a tad more specificity.)
A trickier problem for this latest The Thing is that it is presented as a prequel to Carpenter's film. As anyone familiar with that movie will recall, it involved the discovery of a remote Norwegian research base, all of whose inhabitants had been gruesomely murdered by a shapeshifting monster. The narrative choices open to the prequel makers, therefore, exist on a spectrum from the unsurprising to the unfaithful.
Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. has managed this balancing act about as well as could be hoped. Though the story unfolds at the doomed Norwegian outpost in snowbound Antarctica, several Americans have been added to the mix—a franchise such as this being far to valuable to leave entirely in the hands of foreigners. Central among them is Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a Columbia paleontologist specializing in the removal of specimens from ice, who has been whisked to the extra-icy bottom of the world in order to assist in the removal of an extra-special (indeed, extraterrestrial) specimen.
The film unfolds along the same lines as its predecessor. Awakened from its frosty nap, the creature in question proves to be a gooey, toothy mass of fluctuating flesh, prone to popping out crab-legs and whippy tentacles, and unschooled in such human etiquette as the taboos on spearing, dismembering, and eating one's hosts. Worse, it has the ability to transform into exact replicas of its victims and thus multiply with viral secrecy. It's not long before the dozen or so inhabitants of the outpost fall into mutual, murderous suspicion: Who among them is still human, and who, a thing?
Working from a script by Eric Heisserer and Ronald D. Moore, van Heijningen offers a few sharp twists on what has come before. Winstead is able, if not quite indelible, as the woman-in-a-man's-world protagonist, a role clearly calculated to evoke Ellen Ripley and Clarice Starling. (In Carpenter's film, by contrast, Kurt Russell peddled his usual bluff, quasi-parodic '80s machismo, and the only female to be heard from was his chess computer, which he derided as a "cheating bitch" and short-circuited with a glassful of J&B.) And the "test" employed this time out to determine a subject's humanity or the lack thereof is a good deal cleverer than poking a hot wire into a blood sample. (Put it this way: Never before has poor dental hygiene been presented as so attractive a trait.)
The rest of the cast is divvied up among Americans real and pretend (Joel Edgerton, Eric Christian Olsen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) on the one hand, and a smattering of Scandinavians (Ulrich Thomsen, Jorgen Langhelle, Stig Henrik Hoff) on the other, offering opportunities for cross-cultural as well as cross-gender tension. The special effects are appropriately grotesque (if less groundbreaking than those in the 1982 version), and the movie nails a number of its prequel-obligated details: the red ax planted in a wall, the box of cylindrical hand grenades, etc.
The line between homage and apery is a fine one, though, and The Thing teeters on it at times—another white-out snowstorm, another scene of huskies howling and pawing at chicken-wire cages, a few alien gross-outs a little too grossly familiar. Moreover, though the film is set in 1982, it never feels of the era. (Yes, "Who Can It Be Now?" plays on a radio; no, computer displays didn't look like that.) The shift from understated thriller to monster movie also takes place earlier than would be ideal, and the movie's final act ranges rather far afield.
Still, in our age of steady knockoffs, retreads, and loosely branded money grabs, The Thing stands out as a competent entertainment, capably executed if not particularly inspired. It may not be the best thing out there, but it's hardly the worst.