The Thing must be feeling a powerful sense of deja vue all through John Carpenter’s The Thing. Almost everything that happens to it in that film has, it turns out, happened to it only a day before at the Norwegian camp. At least if you take The Thing (2011) as canon.
In reality this new The Thing is nothing more than an expensive fan film, a movie that lifts elements of Carpenter’s classic whole but has no understanding of or feeling for them. It’s a movie that seeks to up the ante with ‘extreme’ jump scares and long shots of the mutated Thing running up and down hallways at people. It tries to one up the landmark FX work of Rob Bottin, but only succeeds in slavishly imitating it, with extra CG thrown in.
Despite being much more ‘in your face’ than Carpenter’s original, The Thing 2011 is incredibly boring. There are no fleshed out characters, so the question of who is The Thing at any given moment carries no weight. It’s actually surprising how thin the characters are here; it isn’t like Carpenter’s film is some kind of complex character study, but his use of smart casting and small details brought levels of reality to the people at Outpost 31. This version, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr, is filled with bearded nobodies, characters I honestly couldn’t tell apart from scene to scene.
Even the leads are nondescript, no mean feat when we’re talking about Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton, actors I truly like. Edgerton is nothing more than a watered-down, impotent MacReady, while Winstead’s character is simply utilitarian. Because the film never truly gets down into psychological territory - there is some paranoia, but this The Thing is way too impatient to get to the monsters to do anything with it - Winstead simply runs around delivering exposition. And burning Things. Lots and lots of burning Things.
Despite being much more jump-oriented and much faster paced than the original, The Thing 2011 is profoundly dull. van Heijningen Jr doesn’t know how to build tension, so a scene that should be terrifying and exciting, like The Thing’s first attack on a human, is simply there. It just happens. There’s no build up, and while the scene goes on for a while - the entire crew of the Thule station sees the man being eaten by The Thing - there’s no sense of dread.
Halfway through I began wondering if it was even fair to compare this movie to John Carpenter’s The Thing. After all, fans of The Thing From Another World must have been aghast at what Carpenter had done to their monster, which had been a lumbering human vegetable. Each movie needs to be judged on its own merits.
Except that The Thing 2011 keeps on aping Carpenter’s original. There’s one dizzying section of the film that begins with the assembled group burning a Thing in an outdoor trench, deciding to do a blood test, having the test sabotaged by The Thing and then gathering in the rec room for a makeshift test that is lifted right from the original. Lifted and watered down - in the original MacReady stands with a specimen of each man’s blood, ready to burn it with a hot coil. This is a tense sequence, as Carpenter milks the moments before Mac plunges the coil into the blood, where it sizzles to show humanity. You don’t know what’s going to happen and you're on the edge of your seat. In the new The Thing Winstead’s character realizes since The Thing can’t copy inorganic material a humanized The Thing wouldn’t have fillings. So she puts a flashlight in everybody’s mouth to see if they have fillings. It's mind-boggling that this is how The Thing 2011 tries to replicate the tensest scene from the original. The difference between these two scenes is stunning, and sums up everything that’s wrong with The Thing 2011 - it’s the same movie, but robbed of any urgency or impact. Every choice made in Eric Heisserer’s script is one that reduces tension, that takes away any uneasiness the scenario needs.
It’s also a stupid script. It ends with our characters bumbling inside the crashed alien spaceship, the sort of scene that has been done in a hundred science fiction films but has never, for my money, worked right. It feels silly, especially because the interior design of the ship is so dull. The Thing seems to have no plan at all in this film; Carpenter’s original was scary because the alien was seemingly one step ahead of everyone. In this movie The Thing, hidden as one of the crew, is being airlifted out of the Thule camp when he suddenly, and for absolutely no good reason, explodes his face and crashes the helicopter. What the hell is the point of that?
That’s a big part of how The Thing 2011 doesn’t understand John Carpenter’s The Thing; van Heijningen Jr and Heisserer are fixated on the things a fan would fixate on - the cool chopper pilot, the awesomely disgusting alien FX - at the expense of what makes the movie actually work, which is the paranoid puzzle at the heart of it all. Thirty years after it came out people are still arguing and discussing who is The Thing at the end of Carpenter’s movie, and that’s because that film is filled with mystery and tension. All of that is missing in this new version, and I doubt that anyone will be talking about it in two years, let alone thirty.
We often throw around phrases like ‘pointless’ or ‘unnecessary’ when talking about remakes, and usually those phrases are kind of silly. Most movies are, by definition, unnecessary. But every now and again a film comes that truly embodies this concept, and The Thing 2011 is such a movie. Unable to distance itself enough from the plot mechanics of Carpenter’s original (despite being a prequel) and unable to forge its own identity in any meaningful way, all The Thing 2011 is good for is reminding you why you liked Carpenter’s film so much.