Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Thing (2011)




Thingin’ In The Brain

The Thing 2011 US
Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
Screening at UK cinemas.

Warning: There’s probably a thing or two in here that will mimic "slight" spoilers... but which ones are the spoilers?

Back in 1951, director Christian Nyby, under the assured production of one Mr. Howard Hawks, released into the world a science fiction/horror movie called THE THING From Another World and, quite frankly, no modern version has ever bettered this. I will probably watch this again next year some time and review it, along with Carpenter’s excellent 1982 homage, so I won’t go into too much detail about it here. However, I will need to reference these two films quite a bit for this review, I suspect, so beg the reader’s forgiveness a little about possibly carping on about the 1951 version a fair bit, with it’s tremendous quick-fire and often overlapping dialogue and portrayal of the camaraderie of the human spirit in a claustrophobic, survival situation.

I also need to make the reader aware that, although I’m familiar with the movie versions of this little landmark of the combined genres, I’ve never actually read John W. Campbell Jr’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? on which the three movies were based (it was originally published as part of an issue of the famous pulp magazine Astounding Stories)... so I can’t really give an accurate assessment of which, of any, of the movies is the most successful adaptation of this. However, it’s generally accepted that the original version strayed a fair bit from the source material... it goes as far as to make The Thing a humanoid alien and so the important paranoia element of a shape-changer who could be any one of the protagonists at any time is missing. The movie still manages to kick all kinds of ass even without that ingredient though.

John Carpenter’s version, just called THE THING, but with an opening title logo that aped the original version (and is in turn aped by the new movie, but only in it’s method of appearance and not the actual font, I think), is generally regarded as a much more closer adaptation of the novella and, to be fair to one of the great directors of the genre, Carpenter’s version also kicks all kinds of ass... and really ramps up the terror and gore effects. All in all though, I still prefer the original... but that’s not to detract from Carpenter’s homage, which I could also watch at least once a year if I didn’t have such a big backlog of movies to get through.

And now we have a new version of THE THING for 2011 and, to quote Amy Pond in Doctor Who... “This is where it gets complicated.”

Here we go then... first thing you have to understand is that John Carpenter’s THE THING is as much an homage to the original 1951 version of the story as it is an adaptation of the original novella. In some ways, in fact, it can be seen as “kind of” a sequel to it because the titular alien entity which is dug up from the ice in the original and accidentally thawed out is already on the loose right at the start of Carpenter’s version (albeit the shape shiftin variant). And when Kurt Russell’s main protagonist, McReady, goes to investigate why they suddenly have two dead Norwegians on their hands and why they came to the American base camp in Antarctica, aggressively pursuing and shooting at a dog from a helicopter, he discovers the carnage of a deserted Norwegian base camp where a battle against the creature has already taken place. It also includes some video footage of the Norwegians circling around the ice, trying to get some sense of scale and shape of the crashed alien spaceship beneath them and this, itself, is a recreation of an iconic moment from the original THE THING From Another World. Some of the stuff McReady finds is recreated during the course of this new 2011 version of it but it’s just a shame that the iconic, circling around the ice moment was not recreated for this third version... it would have been a very welcome moment for fans of the previous two.

Now the new 2011 version is pitched to audiences as a prequel to Carpenter’s 1982 remake/homage/adaptation, even going as far to have Marco Beltrami’s score echoing the two note pulse of the Morricone/Carpenter/Howarth mash-up score in a couple of notable places... although I noticed that some of the audience I saw it with seemed to be oblivious that there were any previous versions of the movie. However, it could also be classed just as much as a remake of the original 1951 version of the movie and an adaptation in its own right of the novella because it has elements from both the previous two versions in it.

Since this is a prequel, of course, the movie makers have been quite blatant in making sure all the action and paraphernalia of the 1982 version (which is when this modern version is also, of course, set) is retrofitted in this incarnation and matches up or works towards matching up with it by the end of the movie (more on that later). However, some of the elements from the original are also quite blatant... if you’re are old enough or well versed enough in film to have bothered to watch the original. Three things I noticed which are of note in this and the 1951 version are...

1. Both the 1951 version and this new version have a couple of female characters... Carpenter’s has none (as I suspect the original novella didn’t, but don’t know that for sure at time of writing this... I’ll grab it next year and have a read).

2. Another thing the first and last versions have in common is the fact that they both dig up a big block of ice holding the alien creature in it... and of course, it’s not too long before that creature is on the loose!

3. Okay, there’s an actual, proper scientist in both versions (not including the female lead of the new version). They are both different characters but both are blinded by their need to research THE THING in the name of science and to the endangerment of the other characters in the movie... and there’s even a scene in the new one where the scientist is wearing exactly the same kind of silly hat that his predecessor did in 1951. Nice little reference right there which I’m sure a lot of fans didn’t fail to notice.

So how does the new version measure up to the previous two? Well I’ll make no bones about it, and this is not a negative review by the way, but the new version is neither as good as the original or the 1982 version it is “prequeling”. However, that being said, the new one is definitely still a great little gem of a movie... a scifi/horror movie which will probably get just as much play on my DVD player when it comes out as the previous two... so even though it’s not as great as those two... it’s well worth a watch for any genre fan out there.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the main female lead is absolutely excellent and certainly does a good deal to carry the movie all on her own (and there’s no way I would have pegged her as the girl who played Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim Vs The World unless I’d just looked her up on the internet)... but even if she wasn’t such a strong and charismatic lead (which, again I stress, she is), she wouldn’t have to be as this is a real ensemble piece... like the two versions before it. It’s got more in common with its 1951 predecessor though, on that level, because everyone really gets on well for most of the time and seem to be enjoying themselves and having a great time where they are... as opposed to Carpenter’s take where everyone seems isolated and alienated from each other in their day-to-day life, even before the paranoia begins to set in.

The weak points are that the creature and gore effects are, as a necessity, inspired by Carpenter’s and very similar... and although they are actually better executed than those in Carpenter’s version to some degree, they are not nearly as creative as the 1982 version and so don’t seem quite as interesting as those ones. Not quite by the numbers either, though, and the way the characters and creatures are moved and manipulated to eventually match up with the carnage that McReady discovers in the next/previous film in the sequence is rather cleverly done. They’ve even got a character which bears a strong resemblance to Kurt Russels character in this one... who ends up throwing his lot in with Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character by the end of the movie (as you knew he would).

It also has some fairly weak points. When one character is revealed at the end to be an offshoot of the creature... it makes absolutely no sense given that character’s actions and motivations up to that point... right then, that’s it for specific weak points... only one that I can see at the moment then.

The film has two endings. The first, natural ending sets it up for a sequel. When the idea of a sequel to this was first mooted before the filming of the “prequel” was even under way, people assumed that this sequel would just be a cash-in remake of Carpenter’s version. But here we have an ending which allows for a new, original sequel involving the Russian base camp. And it’s also at this point that fans of the Carpenter version will want to know what the heck is going on... this can’t be the ending, surely, if it’s supposed to be a prequel. Fear not, wait until the credits have started playing out and we get a mini additional ending intercut with the end credits... so a few credits... another bit of the movie... a few more credits... then another bit of the movie... an so on. And it’s here that the writers brilliantly bring in a brand new character and another character from the movie, who by now I had completely forgotten was still alive and on the loose somewhere, returns into the narrative. The two characters meet and then we see... the dog/thing. It runs... the two Norwegian characters pursue in a helicopter trying to shoot the dog and... well, watch the 1982 movie to see what happens next.

At the end of the day, the new version of THE THING is a great little scifi/horror movie which is nowhere near as good as the previous two but also, in no way, drags the other two down... it’s a good little genre movie. Take a look at it because, if this kind of movie is your thing, you won’t be disappointed.

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