The Thing, a prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 gory scifi thriller of the same name, is a solid horror movie with a great leading performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a heroic scientist with a flamethrower. It's tense, creepy, and even has a pretty well-developed sense of wonder. Though it's definitely worth seeing, the movie suffers from one fatal flaw, and no — it's not prequelitis.
Though most people have heard of The Thing from watching John Carpenter's intense, gory 1982 film, the story goes back to 1938, when it was first published as a short story called "Who Goes There?" by scifi legend John W. Campbell. It was made into a famous horror flick in the 1950s, and then spectacularly remade by Carpenter in the 1980s. (Apologies to fans of the 1950s movie, but I saw the 80s movie when I was a kid and it made a huge impression on me as The Awesomest Thing Ever.) My point is that, for whatever reason, The Thing is well on its way to becoming a classic tale like Frankenstein, that gets retold for every generation. So just as it's stupid to complain about "yet another Frankenstein remake," it's equally foolish to worry about whether this version of The Thing is worthy of its predecessors.
That said, first-time feature director Matthijs van Heijiningen Jr. takes pains to make his version of The Thing fit into the chronology of Carpenter's film, and you'll want to stay through the credits for some nice fan service that links the two movies together seamlessly. He also borrows a detail from Campbell's original story that Carpenter never showed us, which is the alien ship. And a pretty cool alien ship it is.
Here's the now-legendary plot, in a nutshell. A group of scientists and explorers in Antarctica follow a strange signal that leads them to a massive ship buried deep beneath the ice. In some versions of the story, this ship is millions of years old, but in Heijiningen's movie it's only 100,000 years old — meaning it crashed right around the time that Homo sapiens evolved. In this version, it's discovered by Norwegians who quickly call their scientist buddy Sander in the States, who grabs his research assistant Adam, and Kate, a paleontologist who specializes in vertebrates. They zoom down, and check out the spaceship in a series of completely awesome scenes that are tense and intriguing. And of course, they bring back what we assume was the ship's pilot, a giant bug-looking thing frozen in a block of ice.
Kate is immediately weirded out by Sander's unorthodox research practices - he grabs a tissue sample by drilling into the ice, and isn't worried about any kind of potential contamination of the humans by the alien, or vice versa. Of course the ice melts, the alien escapes, and we discover that it survives by consuming and then imitating its prey. Thankfully, Heijiningen doesn't waste our time with any pseudo-science babble trying to explain how this works. The Thing just does it, and that's enough to set up act two and three, in which we have no idea who has gone alien and who hasn't.
It's this aspect of The Thing story that has always been the most important, and which I think is probably why it has endured for so long. The idea that your friends and colleagues have turned into scary, insect-tentacle yuckbeasts, and that you're stuck with them in a remote outpost, is a timeless source of terror. At its root, The Thing is a story of paranoia, and the alien is just an occasion to stage a very human story about fear and scapegoating.
This version of The Thing does a pretty good job telling this aspect of the story — we get to know a pretty big cast of characters fairly quickly, and alternate between horror and schadenfreude as the nice guys and the mean guys get tentacled one by one. Kate is the one person who figures out what's going on right away, and tries her best to kill or quarantine the alien. She's stymied first by Sander's push to just keep studying the thing, and later by the other men trying to get the hell back to civilization (which of course they can't do, because they risk infecting the world). Like I said, it's a fun, tense flick and delivers some good scares.
But there's one big problem. Though I argued earlier that this is really a story about human paranoia, it's also about an actual threat. The alien isn't in our characters' minds — it's really out there. And that means it needs to be compellingly badass, and if not comprehensible at least coherent in its motivations. In Carpenter's version of the movie, the Thing just wants to replicate itself, sort of like a virus. A simple motivation, but just fine. In Campbell's original short story, the Thing is trying to build a spaceship, presumably to continue its invasion of the solar system.
What does the Thing want in this movie? First, it seems to want to kill and replicate. But then it seems to want to torture the human characters. In one disgustingly inspired scene, the Thing distorts its current human form into a fleshy bear-insect who essentially rapes and then half-merges with Adam. Gross and cool, but totally unnecessary if its goal is just to infect and spread. And then, just when we think that this is a vengeful beast, it suddenly wants nothing more than to return to its spaceship. So, what's the deal here? Is this Alien, Predator, or E.T.? I don't care which one it is, but please pick. It really doesn't make sense for the Thing to be all three.
Adding to the basic alien problem were the movie's extremely uneven special effects. Certainly this movie could do just fine with really minimal effects, but Carpenter's version was a gore effects masterpiece. The practical effects in that movie (pre-CGI era) are legendary. They're gooey, tentacled, fangy, crawly body horror effects where humans deconstruct before your eyes and severed heads sprout bug legs to scuttle away. So it's no surprise that this film's effects crew tried to duplicate some of the eye-gouging psychosis of the 1982 film here - after all, it's what most people in the audience are expecting. And they even went to the effort to mix a generous portion of practical effects in with their CG. Sadly, it didn't work out. The monster isn't embarrassingly silly ala Syfy Original Movies, but it's almost never surprising and barely adequate as a grossout.
Then, when we finally get to the (beautifully designed) Thingship, we are confronted with what I hope goes down in history as the worst special effect ever created with no doubt good intentions. All I will say to you is "glowing alien Tetris tower." Draw your own conclusions when you see it.
OK, look, I know I sound like a whiny nitpicker here when I snark about the effects like that. Usually, mediocre effects don't bother me. I love the Tom Baker era Doctor Who and thought Mega-Piranha was genuinely fun to watch. But in The Thing, where the alien was already being bungled so badly, the poorly-crafted effects added insult to injury.
Still, there really is only one flaw in this film, which is the Thing itself. The truly important parts of the plot, where we see the humans plunged into cosmic paranoia, are just what you want from an scary escapist flick. I suspect that fans of the underlying Thing story will enjoy this movie — but fans of the Carpenter version, with its mind-blowing effects, will be left unsatisfied. As long as you remember that this is really a timeless tale of human paranoia, and not strictly a prequel to a specific movie from the 1980s, you'll have a damn good time.