Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Thing / *** (R)

Kate Lloyd: Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Braxton Carter: Joel Edgerton
Dr. Sander Halvorson: Ulrich Thomsen
Adam Goodman: Eric Christian Olsen
Jameson: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Colin: Jonathan Lloyd Walker
Griggs: Paul Braunstein
Edvard Volner: Trond Espen Seim
Lars: Jørgen Langhelle

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Mattijs van Heinjningen Jr. Written by Eric Heisserer. Based on the short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr. Running time: 103 min. Rated R (for strong creature violence and gore, disturbing images, and language).

I went into the latest cinematic version of John W. Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?” without much thought about the previous versions. 80’s horror maestro John Carpenter famously remade the Cold War horror analogy “The Thing from Another World” as simply “The Thing” with considerable changes to the anti-communist story. It was one of the rare examples of a remake being better than the original. It is also one of our greatest horror director’s best films. I didn’t want all of this weighing too heavily on the new movie’s shoulders, so I put Carpenter’s movie out of my mind going into this new one. This made discovering some of the new movie’s secrets a surprising pleasure.

2011’s “The Thing” is good, not great, sci-fi horror. But, noting where it relates to the 1982 version makes it a little bit more interesting. Made with a mostly Norwegian cast and crew, save for a few key leading roles, the makers of this new version appear to have studied the earlier movie intently, yet set out to make their own individual story.

The movie opens in a cold barren landscape. Antarctica, 1982. Some scientists in a snow cat are searching for something. They find it. Soon a young American paleontologist is being recruited for a top-secret project. This is Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, “Live Free or Die Hard”). She’s being recruited by Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen, “Season of the Witch”) to extract some type of animal from the ice. It’s all very hush hush.

These opening passages are done with patience, allowing the audience to understand the situation and get to know the characters. Kate doesn’t come across as a strong woman and doesn’t seem to be respected by Sander for any more than her experience at extracting things from ice. There’s even a sense that as an American she’s looked down upon by the Norwegians. For a moment, I thought all this was the start of a thematic statement by the filmmakers, but I think it has more to do with setting the time period. Women were becoming more prominent in the workforce in the early eighties but were not highly respected. The globalization of the work force had not quite gotten into gear then either. The world was more segregated in terms of nationality at that time.

The helicopter pilots at the snow bound research station are also Americans.  One, Braxton Carter (Joel Edgerton, “Warrior”), reaches out to Kate, but there seems to be a class separation there as well. By the time the movie ends, none of these things will matter anymore, and Kate will be in charge.

What the Norwegians have found frozen in the ice is an alien spacecraft and an alien specimen. As it turns out, they don’t need as much of Kate’s expertise in extracting the alien as they first though, since it eventually extracts itself from the ice. But, what is the nature of this alien life form? Anyone familiar with the previous versions will know that it can replicate any life form it comes into contact with. Out in the isolated Antarctic, it has the people in the research station and their sled dogs. That’s about it, but it’s a start for an entity that acts as a kind of virus, spreading from host to host.

The filmmakers don’t rush the characters into any leaps of logic in their conclusions about what will happen once the creature escapes. It’s interesting how these characters take slightly different approaches to reach their conclusions about the alien than the characters in the previous film. It all amounts to the same thrilling story, but with different beats, different details. What cannot change between the versions is that no one can trust anyone else to be who they think they are. This is a story built upon a heightened paranoia that may well just be a natural part of the human condition.

This new “The Thing” doesn’t just tell a similar story to the previous incarnations, however. There are many plot point quotes in this movie’s homage to the 1982 movie. In the ‘82 movie the scientists knew at least one of them had been infected by the alien when ripped underwear was found, in this one they find tooth fillings made of inorganic material that the creature couldn’t replicate. Braxton is a pilot, like the Kurt Russell character in the previous movie. Both characters go missing at one point, and when they return no one trusts them. A test is developed by both research crews to determine who is still human. Even some of the images are duplicated, like the double-faced creature and the crewmember who is burned by a flamethrower while sitting at a book shelf.

It seems, however, as if the movie is needlessly held back by its 1982 setting. It doesn’t really seem to have much to say about our current world, playing mostly as homage to the earlier movie. If you’ve seen the earlier movie, however, it will become apparent that the new version is no mere homage. It acts as more than just a stand-alone version of the movie. That works in its favor for those who are fans of the 1982 film, but not so much for those who aren’t familiar with that movie. Still, it is a patient sci-fi horror film that pays off in terms of scares and tension. Its winter location and isolation fuel the paranoia felt by the characters and impress the ramifications should the alien find its way to the main population of the planet. Since it takes place in 1982, we know it didn’t. Or do we?

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