Review: "The Thing"

 By: Heather Seebach

Pleasing horror fans is no easy task. For a film such as The Thing, a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 horror film of the same name, half the naysayers will complain it is too much of a re-hash, while the other half will complain it is too different from its predecessor. In reality, the new film has a little from each column. The story, the characters, the special effects – everything is an amalgam of old and new. If you go in expecting Carpenter’s film, you will be disappointed; however, there are enough visual and narrative references to it to make fans giddy. The film gets a bit sloppy in its third act but overall it delivers a fun, suspenseful throw-back to the 80s classic.

In Carpenter’s The Thing, the crew of Outpost 31 visited a Norwegian base camp ravaged by an alien menace. This prequel explores what happened at that ill-fated Thule Station. After the Norwegians find a space craft and excavate a creature buried in the ice, they consult an American paleontologist (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The crew soon discovers, however, that the creature in the ice is still alive, and once free, it begins killing and replicating the humans. As with the 1982 film, paranoia runs rampant among the survivors as anyone could be “the thing.”

Let us put some worries to rest right now – yes, the Norwegians speak Norwegian; yes, there are practical FX as well as CGI; and no, this is not a remake. As both films share the same setting and monster, the scenario at the Thule Station is going to be similar to that of Outpost 31. Just because the situation looks familiar does not make it a remake. Just because Friday the 13th sequels repeatedly feature Jason killing teenagers does not make each successive film a remake. In fact, the Thing prequel is so different from its predecessor that it is bound to worry hard-core fans. The lead is a female (gasp!), the “thing” spends more time in creature form than in human form, and the FX have been modernized with some computer-generated tweaking.

The biggest complaint about this film will surely be the visual FX. The 1982 film was known for its ground-breaking practical creature FX by Rob Bottin. The prequel, while utilizing a large amount of practical FX (animatronics, creature suits, etc.), does also use digital enhancement courtesy of Image Engine (District 9). There are a few shots in the film where the “thing” looks overly CG, especially when it is on the move, but largely the FX look good. They are likely the closest thing to capturing the look of Carpenter’s creature. Sure, if Bottin were still working today, it would be amazing if he had handled this project. Can you imagine?! But alas, that is not possible. And let’s face it – if anyone else (even the great Tom Woodruff Jr. who worked on this movie) attempted to replicate Bottin’s Thing FX, they would have failed. Not to mention modern mainstream audiences would roll their eyes at the muppet-like movement of those creatures.

100% practical creature FX are hard to come by these days, and frankly, The Thing handles the delicate topic better than most by largely utilizing good ol’ make-up and monster suits. The creature designs themselves still look fantastic and capture the disfigured horrors we saw in Carpenter’s film. The FX team themselves have admitted the advances in digital FX have allowed them to expand upon possible creature conceptions and thus deliver bigger, nastier mutations this time around. Furthermore, there is no shortage of gore and it appears to be practical. If any of it was computer-generated, it is hardly noticeable.

Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr and writer Eric Heisserer were faced with the difficult task of capturing what we love about Carpenter’s film while still creating something new. The result is akin to how James Cameron’s Aliens complemented Ridley Scott’s Alien. The follow-up moved away from a dark, suspenseful sci-fi and into action-horror territory. Likewise, the Thing prequel moves at a faster pace and shows a lot more of the alien. While Carpenter’s movie played out like a murder mystery, in van Heijningen’s film, everything is up front and visible. The creature exposes itself in ways it never would have in the 1982 film. Is this a flaw in the writing, or merely evidence that the newly-escaped alien was disoriented and panicked? Did the “thing” learn from its mistakes after exposing itself to the Norwegians? Or is this just a fan’s wishful thinking? As a mere viewer, we cannot say for sure, but we can hope for the former.

The prequel explains a lot more about the creature, whereas Carpenter’s film focused more on the human drama it created. We get a glimpse at its form before it arrived on Earth, how it assimilates human beings, and a previously unknown limitation on its replication abilities (which gives way to an interesting twist on the famous blood test). Some fans might be bothered by this abundance of new information but that is what sets this prequel apart from its predecessor – the two films serve very different purposes.

One of the most impressive aspects of the prequel is the level of detail put into the story and production design. The filmmakers carefully worked backwards to re-create the Norwegian station and the state of its dead crew. The set looks remarkably like the original, and even some of the actors resemble the original Norwegians. They also document their discovery on video just like the Norwegians did in the original. And best of all, we get to see the stories behind every little horrific detail MacReady witnessed in Carpenter’s film. Just make sure you don’t throw a hissy fit and march out of the theatre the moment the credits roll. The film ties nicely into the 1982 film, so much so that you could watch them back-to-back and they appear almost seamless. The prequel also has a faint Ennio Morricone-like score, albeit less dominating than the original. Even the classic Universal logo at the start of the prequel gives you a good nostalgic feeling.
Winstead and Joel Edgerton fill their roles nicely but are nothing to write home about. Fortunately, there is no BS romantic subtext here, and Winstead is purely a Ripley-like heroine (though not as badass). The film has some great nail-biting horror sequences. The third act is a bit dull and sloppy. The penultimate scene is predictable (not to mention shown in the trailer), but the very end provides a nice payoff.

As a huge fan of Carpenter’s film, I could watch the prequel again just to scour for all the little details that tie the two films together. For all those details, hard-core fans of Carpenter's film will be able to appreciate this movie in ways that non-fans cannot, and that is precisely why the stubborn fans ("No remake! rabblerabblerabble!") need to get off their high horse and give it a chance. The film is not without its flaws but overall it is a fitting modern take on the creature and a solid prequel. In my wildest fantasies, the FX would have been handled by Rob Bottin but this isn’t the 1980s - nor is this John Carpenter. His The Thing is easily one of the greatest horror films – nay, films - ever made, so don’t expect this one to live up. But for a fun little expansion pack, give the prequel a chance.

out of  5
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