Like the long cycle of recurring comets, we get another Thing movie about every 30 years or so, to take the temperature of our times. Seen the new sci-fi movie? It’s the latest Thing.
The first film, based on John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella, Who Goes There? was 1951’s The Thing From Another World, credited to Christian Nyby but apparently directed by the great Howard Hawks. One of Hawks’s crisp workplace dramas, it stands up: There are the post-Hiroshima meditations on the dangers of technology, as well as its campy dialogue (“Holy cat! What a weird-looking thing!”), sexy exchanges between stars Kenneth Tobey and Margaret Sheridan, and the looming presence of future Gunsmoke star James Arness in a monster suit.
John Carpenter’s The Thing, in 1982, returned to the novel’s original premise about a shape-shifting alien life form. Carpenter’s film offers up the typical eighties’ mixture of claustrophobic setting and gooey, explosive spectacle. This was the era when sci-fi horror was Hollywood’s favourite lab for special effects.
And what of our new Thing, a prequel to Carpenter’s film by Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.? If it speaks to our times, it’s only in its fetish for nostalgia. The new Thing is soooo 1980s. In the Alien tradition, it features a butt-kicking, Ripley-like female lead in Mary Elizabeth Winstead ( Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World), as the smartest scientist at a Norwegian-American Antarctic space station. Well, there’s a bossy-pants, unctuous Norwegian snob (Ulrich Thomsen), but really, he’s just pretentious monster meat waiting to happen.
The creature is, literally, hard to get a read on. It’s a writhing pink and brown mixture of squealing piglet, sack of guts, octopus and giant lobster, that pokes its sticky tentacles around corners, lands on people’s faces and explodes out of their stomachs and faces in a sort of icky creature highlight reel.
Early scenes go through the motions (spaceship in ice, the discovery of the frozen creature and then the what-happened-to-the-dog moment). Soon, the drama turns into a kind of locked-room murder mystery story as everyone tries to figure out which of them is the creature in disguise. Among the retro-style special effects, the most entertaining is the way the creature can incorporate bits of the human anatomy into its body like some mythic monster: Think of an animated pile of chocolate Jell-O adorned with a couple of half-eaten human heads.
In its final half, the film mostly devolves into a series of attacks and counter-attacks with an overused flame-thrower. There are moments of ominous Spielbergian tension, like when Kate enters the alien’s frozen craft, but not much in the way of inventive action.
There’s a temptation to feel almost too grateful for the slickness of van Heijningen’s film, because horror movie remakes in the past decade have been so dreadfully cheap and ugly. The Thing was made with care, but there is only one memorable character, and a script by Eric Heisserer that seems allergic to originality. If you caught it on a sci-fi channel one night, you’d definitely pay attention, even while wondering, ‘What’s this one called again?” It’s no great thing, just a better Thing than expected.
- Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
- Written by Eric Heisserer
- Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead
- Classification: 14A