Ceci N’est Pas John Carpenter’s The Thing

Once The Thing, which is a prequel to The Thing, was finished and I was able to reflect back on it, I liked it a lot more than I did while it was going on. For those who’ve seen John Carpenter’s 1982 horror/SF classic (which itself had a complicated origin, being partly a remake of the 1951 The Thing From Another World and partly an adaptation of the John W. Campbell story on which that movie was based), the prequel takes place at the Norwegian camp in the days immediately preceding the events in which Kurt Russell figured so prominently. That scene in Carpenter’s Thing seems to address the end of the Norwegian camp fairly unambiguously, so I had the unfortunate feeling, watching the new Thing, of thinking I knew exactly what was going to happen, thus removing most if not all of the movie’s suspense. I was, I came to find, wrong.

The prequel (one thing I’m still grumpy about is that they called it The Thing instead of something to indicate it being a different movie) opens with a very nice shot of the unimaginably vast Antarctic, being traversed by one small vehicle, with three Norwegians inside. They’re in pursuit of a signal, the source of which is Something They Can’t Explain. For clarity’s sake—and because she’s the most well-known actor in the cast—the Norwegians enlist paleontologist Mary Elizabeth Winstead to try and get to the bottom of things. The head Norwegian, Sander (Ulrich Thomsen) is pretty sure he knows the (titular) thing they’ve found is from another world, and once it’s confirmed, he starts showing a great deal of interest in his discovery’s importance to science. The only problem is, he was also pretty sure the thing was dead….

What happens next is a combination of “exactly what you’d expect” and the occasional, occasionally quite clever, variation. For one, having the point-of-view character being Mary Elizabeth Winstead rather than Kurt Russell not only changes the dominant perspective from male to female, but having her be a scientist who has to learn how to get her hands dirty and kill stuff is the opposite trajectory from Kurt Russell’s man of action who had to use his brain to figure stuff out. She does a good job in the lead, though the transition from shy nerd to angel of death is a little abrupt.

That’s more the script’s fault than it is hers. Ronald D. Moore (of recent Star Trek and Battlestar fame) initially scripted before Eric Heisserer, who wrote the recent Nightmare on Elm Street remake, was brought in for rewrites, and a handful of logical inconsistencies—mostly with regards to the rules by which the Thing operates—crop up now and again, largely the product of the differing goals of each writer.

It’s not all bad, though. We’re presented with a large-ish cast of characters, in Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the Norwegians, and American helicopter pilots Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (both completely credible as Americans despite, respectively, being Australian and English), all of whom seem fairly multi-dimensional human beings, even if we don’t have much time to get to know most of them. A lot of the credit for this has to go to director Matthjis van Heijningen Jr., whose angle on this movie, he’s said, was originally a curiosity as to just what happened in the Norwegian camp, as a fellow European. And he takes great pains to create that camp, and the people in it, as an actual thing, rather than just lining up one-dimensional characters like bowling pins to be knocked down. Van Heijningen is as much a fan of John Carpenter’s as Carpenter himself was of Howard Hawks, the un-credited co-director (at least) of The Thing From Another World, and it shows in the way van Heijningen builds suspense and paces the “scare” scenes.

The Thing (this one, the prequel…damn it, why couldn’t they have just called it The First Thing or some such?) is a very suspenseful movie, almost unbearably so in places, and quite scary. The Thing itself, in a movie directed by someone less invested in Carpenter’s picture (even the credits are in the same font), could very easily have been dumb-looking modern CG, and instead is a faithful recreation of Rob Bottin’s terrifying work on the original. The entire movie looks and (especially) sounds great, which results in it being a thoroughly satisfying horror movie experience.

There does come a point, though, with the prequel where it only makes sense if you’ve seen the original, and that point comes after a rather large stretch of movie where, if you’ve seen the original, you’re wondering how what you’re watching leads to the events of the original movie, if they do at all. The way in which the connection is made is very interesting, though will be totally lost on someone who hasn’t seen the original; this, after said hypothetical audience member probably enjoyed the first 95% of the movie a lot more than the nervous fan of the original who’s seen it dozens of times. This creates an uneasy balance, bordering on paradox, as far as the movie’s enjoyability, but it’s one I can clear up with a simple assurance to fellow fans of Carpenter’s picture, in two parts: 1) it’s a different movie than the original, be that for the better or worse, and 2) when the movie finishes setting up and knocking down all its dominoes, the ending is awesome. 

That second was my main worry, watching the movie, because I had no idea this movie could possibly be good, and yet, shockingly, it kind of is. It’s understandable that fans of Carpenter’s Thing might be too wary of van Heijningen’s Thing to check it out and risk being angered or disappointed (I certainly was), but those who are willing to take the leap of faith it requires will see a perfectly fine horror picture with the odd dumb element here and there but that is ultimately a quite interesting movie. Wonders truly never cease.

Danny Bowes is a playwright, filmmaker and blogger. He is also a contributor to nytheatre.com and Premiere.com.


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