Written by Eric Heisserer (of a Final Destination sequel and the Elm Street remake) and directed by Dutch first-timer Matthias van Heijningen Jr, this is one of those ‘oh, really?’ projects it’s hard not to resent going in. But in 1982, I wasn’t convinced – even as a John Carpenter fan – that The Thing From Another World needed a remake; to this day, I slightly prefer the Hawks-Nyby film to Carpenter’s version, though the 1982 movie (originally, a box office disappointment) is masterly in its own right. Getting over that hump, the new Thing is still average to ordinary.
Being at once a prequel and a remake is a hindrance to creativity – forcibly reminding you that most Hollywood sf lacks the rigour a Nigel Kneale would bring to similar premises. This Thing’s m.o. makes no sense at all, going so far as to point out flaws in the Carpenter film’s adaptation of the story: if the Thingians can build and fly an interstellar ship, why is this one so mindlessly and stupidly violent? If it wants to take over the world, it only has to play dead for a few more days after a 1,000,000 year hibernation and yet it starts pouncing on people in Antarctica before it’s been removed to a civilised area where it would be unstoppable. In the 1951 film, the character who tries to communicate with the vegetable vampire from outer space is wrongheaded; here, I kept wondering why no one even tries to talk to the monster when it’s in possession of human vocal cords. There’s a new plot wrinkle which seems clever but leads to foolish scenes – and would mean that in 1982 the Thing couldn’t ever imitate Richard A Dysart because of his nose piercing – as the Thing can imitate people perfectly but not their fillings, artificial hips or other inorganic inserts (though it manages their clothes, down to zips, pretty well).
It tells the story of what happened at ‘the Norwegian base’, and naturally pays off with a recreation of the helicopter-pursuit-of-the-dog scene from the earlier film – also showing how that two-folks-twisted-together thing happened, and a few other details Thing obsessives will pick up on if they’re not too blinded by rage to concentrate. The problem is that ‘what happened at the Norwegian base’ is more or less the same at what happens to the Americans, with some added bits about finding the flying saucer and the Thing getting out of the ice that fill in video bits Carpenter staged in homage to Hawks. Since a cast of hairy Norwegians speaking in subtitles might scupper the commercial chances of a special effects monster movie, the top boffin (Ulrich Thomsen, who seems to approximate the fur-hatted, misguided scientist from 1951 but isn’t as interesting) has paelofrostologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and a wannabe kurtrussellian chopper pilot (Joel Edgerton) come along to the base to make everyone speak English and recreate scenes from The Thing. Early on, we get a feint as one character looks sweaty and suspicious and incipiently thingish only for someone friendly and normal to swell open and sprout tentacles – and then this simple misdirection gag is repeated over and over. Instead of the hot wire in the blood, the Thing test involves shining a torch in the mouth to see if the fillings are still there, prompting a handsome dude (Eric Christian Olsen) to complain ‘so I’m going to get killed because I floss’. Nobody makes a ‘British teeth’ gag about the token sneaky Brit (Jonathan Lloyd Walker), though he gives one of the more eye-rollingly suspicious performances (with no payoff).
We spend some time in the Thing’s spaceship before it blows up – in a way that doesn’t quite square with what we saw – and there are a lot of CGI change-o, monster-o effects that don’t have the ‘you gotta be fuckin’ kiddin’ charge of Rob Bottin working in rubber. They’re not bad and some of the designs are imaginative, but it still seems too smooth, too easy to be properly horrifying. The ending is a fudge, with the heroine alive but sidelined as the dog and the chopper set up the older movie – as if this hopes there’ll be a Thing II (or III) to pick up the story after the ends of both these films. Controversial as the finish of Carpenter’s film is (I think it’s perfect), it was designed to end the story – on an ambiguous note – as opposed to being a sequel hook. I guess everyone involved will go on to get more gigs, since they all do their jobs properly without really excelling – Winstead, likeable in other films, is stuck with being an annoying nag of a heroine – but, really, what was the point?
I liked the Norwegian song, though.