20 October 2011

ONE DAMN THING AFTER ANOTHER

Here's what really, really frustrated me about the new The Thing: it's not completely thoughtless. On the contrary, it rather seems like the creators of this 29-years-later prequel to John Carpenter's exemplary horror film The Thing have a good reason for every single choice they made, except that every single choice is so damn wrong (like, for instance, reusing the title - the official reasoning, that the thing itself is timeless and unchanging & so the new film is not an "origin" story, but more of the same; reasonable, but that doesn't make it any less confusing). Plainly, the desire to pay tribute to a horror classic was sincere, but the new filmmakers go overboard and instead of making a fresh variation on the material, have embalmed it with every fussed-over shot and piece of set design.

The result is a piece of studio-produced fan fiction that indulges in an intensely close, even fetishistic extension of all the hints and details given in the original film, but misses the forest for the trees to an incredible extent: in attempting to foreground the narrative of The Thing '82 as accurately as possible, the filmmakers have accidentally forgotten not to make The Thing '11 a massively disposable retread of Alien peppered with some Jurassic Park just for the fun of it.

As any decent horror fan knows, the thing is an extraterrestrial biological entity that can through a process not completely described create a clone of any organic life form; it does this for reasons best known to itself, although one of the quiet undertones of the original movie - that is to say, the 1982 film, for of course the John W. Campbell story "Who Goes There?" was first turned into The Thing from Another World in 1951, a fetching bit of Howard Hawks apocrypha - I say, one of the most unsettling, though quietly-expressed ideas in the Carpenter film is that we never really learn if the thing "knows", or if it simply reacts, and if its mimicry of human expression is the learned behavior of a parrot, or the cagey deception of a sentient predator. In 1982, the thing tore its way through an American research outpost in Antarctica, after having been discovered by a Norwegian team that was violently killed immediately thereafter. In 2011, we find out what happened to the Norwegians - they are, as it turns out, violently killed. It's still more compelling than finding out that Darth Vader was a racecar driver.

The new film features Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate Lloyd, an American graduate student hired by expedition leader Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) to give the film an appealing protagonist because Jesus Christ, we can't have a middle-aged Norwegian man anchoring a big-budget horror movie. That would just be absurd and icky. Kate is ostensibly studying paleontology, but she is a classic Bad Movie Scientist, and therefore throughout the film suggests knowledge also of biology, archaeology, engineering, and an illustrious career in the military; that Winstead is able to put this tepid bundle of storytelling shortcuts over whatsoever is a serious testament to her resourcefulness as an actress.

Kate and Sander and a bunch of other people - the only one we really specially care about is helicopter pilot Sam "Not Even Remotely R.J. MacReady" Carter (Joel Edgerton), and we know that he's important on account of being a) American, and b) played by Joel Edgerton - dig up a spaceship hidden under the Antarctic ice, and they find a bonus in the form of a vaguely anthropoid creature some distance away. Taking the second of these back to the base proves a very terrible idea, given that it takes just a wee bit of thawing before it comes to life and from that moment, the film becomes just another sci-fi gloss on the basic slasher formula: one by one, people die hideous deaths - really hideous deaths, including one moment that is, all other misgivings I have about the movie aside, a really fantastic piece of body horror involving stretching and melting in ways just are not okay - and we do, in fact, get a Final Girl sequence, something that the original, with its all-male cast, noticeably lacked.

There are two separate questions that must be asked: is this a good horror movie, and is it a good companion piece to The Thing from 1982? The answers are, in order, "no", and "fuck no". Starting with the latter, it's a really horrible mixture of needless fidelity in the stupidest possible ways (there is a single shot in the original in which we see a box of grenades, with one missing. Do you wish to guess how many grenades are used in this movie?) with a completely generic monster that doesn't play by the same rules as the thing in the first picture; though this is something of a petty complaint, given that screenwriter Eric Heisserer can't even be bothered to keep the rules consistent throughout just this one movie. The ending is so eager to set up the opening of Carpenter's film that it fails to do the more important task of ending this movie; people with no knowledge of the original thus get a anticlimactic sequel hook, while fans of the original are hardly going to give much credit to a crypto-remake that virtually identical territory in a considerably less imaginative way.

Attending to The Thing as just a movie by itself, it's really not more than a completely undistinguished collection of people screaming and running from CGI effects - very good CGI effects for the most part, but not a patch on the unpleasantly sticky, moist gore created by Rob Bottin in 1982. The screaming is sometimes in Norwegian; that makes it a bit more original. But when he is not directly referencing Carpenter, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. demonstrates no particular sense of how to create tension, or even stage something as basic as a scare scene; everything is so deliberately paced (and look, I am thrilled to see a CGI-driven thriller as unhurried as this one, at least conceptually) that we get too much time to cool down in-between the explosions of gore, robbing them of any momentum in the pursuit of what was plainly meant to be a nice slow boil, and since none of the characters but Kate are particularly well-defined as personalities, we don't care about their deaths any more than in any given Jason Voorhees adventure; and that certainly does not help in the tension department.

The Antarctic setting is uncanny enough to work; the Marco Beltrami score is disturbing and unconventional and keeps us from getting comfortable even when the plot structure all but begs us to take a five minute nap in between setpieces. These are the two things about The Thing that work. Everything else is just boilerplate filmmaking, and that is maybe the worst of all: that the loving tribute to a film as groundbreaking and aggressive as Carpenter's Thing should be itself so standard and formulaic. Of course, it gets there on account of being so in love that it simply hews to the exact template that a thousand Thing knock-offs have already used up - the idea that the proper homage to a radical film is an even more radical film has no place in the cannibalistic reference-heavy cinema of the modern day, and thus do we end up with a movie whose complete lack of imagination almost feels like an insult.

4/10, but 3/10 - even 2/10! - in reference to the original.

3 comments:

a famous historian said...

Oh, that's not good news. I was hoping against hope, but I suppose I can bury that. What annoys me most is that they felt the need to shoehorn in Americans.

Chris D said...

The thing that absolutely upset me most about this new movie was the implication that it's actually intended to be the middle part of a trilogy. Dear god, I hope I misread it something fierce.

Beyond that yeah, I couldn't shake the feeling throughout that I was watching a Jason Voorhees vehicle, something that nobody wants to see at the best of times and certainly not in the context of one of the finest horror films of all time.

There's also a gaping plot hole involving snowmobiles that has been bugging me in retrospect for two days now.

The.Watcher said...

"It's still more compelling than finding out that Darth Vader was a racecar driver."

My dear Tim, I think you have just created the justification for every bad movie ever.