Monday, October 17, 2011

Here's The Thing With THE THING ...


- For a certain period in the 80's, director John Carpenter could do no wrong. His movies were simple yet ambitious, dark yet grimly humorous, overflowing with moody atmosphere, cast with larger-than-life stars, scored with iconic, memorable soundtracks, and were, at the end of the day, just plain badass. That is why the flurry of proposed or in-development Carpenter remakes in the last several years has been so troubling for film fans. Sure, many of Carpenter's movies had a great premise or hook. But more so than that, they are beloved because of the director's unique style - something that can't be replicated in a remake or reboot. This is true of THE THING. In many ways, the new THE THING is a direct homage to the Carpenter version (itself a remake of a 50's sci-fi classic). The new version rips whole sequences directly from its 80's predecessor, and even functions as a prequel. Having this film be set in 1982 (the year that Carpenter's version was released) and lead directly into the events of that film at least show some respect for that movie, and works as a nice bonus for its fans. But this is a case study of how, without a visionary like Carpenter at the helm, a movie like The Thing can go from ultra-badass sci-fi horror film to generic, tone-deaf tedium. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate just a bit. The new THING isn't that bad. But when it's directly tied-in to such a badass, iconic horror film, well, it's just hard to get that excited about a movie that's so very much like the 80's version, just, you know, nowhere near as cool. This is like the cover version of a kickass rock song done by a lame pop band.

With that in mind, plot-wise, this new THING follows the exact template of the 80's version. A team of researchers heads to the arctic to examine a mysterious, possibly alien lifeform that's been excavated in the frozen tundra. The creature, preserved in ice, jumps (in this case, literally) at the chance for freedom and goes about its business of systematically dispatching with the various people stationed at the research base. The twist? The creature can - often in gruesome, horrific fashion - assume the form of any lifeform that it kills. So anyone on the remote station *could* be the creature in disguise, you just never know. And so the paranoia begins, with everyone suspecting that everyone else may, in fact, be the alien killer.

Now, what should ensue here is all kinds of nail-biting tension, as we and the characters try to figure out who's legit and who's a murderous alien that's assumed human form. And we do get some of that. The problem is that these characters, as written, are just not that great. The Carpenter version was populated with all sorts of uber-badass dudes, chief among them a Wolverine-esque Kurt Russell. Here, actor Joel Edgerton is tasked with a similar role, but he just isn't given much to work with. Edgerton absolutely wowed me in the recent Warrior, and his natural charisma is an asset here. But his character, the resident pilot, is rail-thin. The role did made me think that Edgerton would have been a great choice to play Green Lantern, but, well, I guess that shows how my mind was led to wander during the film. In a similar boat is Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the lead role of Kate Lloyd - a young researcher who gets recruited for the arctic mission. Winstead has so much potential, and honestly, she does a great job with what she has to work with, showing legit leading-lady chops. I'd love to see her star in more of these types of roles. That said, her character is another one that's basically formless, going from reluctant assistant to alpha female without much in the way of explanation. Eventually, the movie tries to morph her into a Ripley-esque badass, but it just seems a bit contrived. Winstead is great and makes it work, but from a plot perspective, we're not given much to lend credence to the idea that this meek-seeming scientist is actually an uber-resourceful survivor who can evade and take out aliens like a boss. Again though, the former Ms. Ramona Flowers has a natural screen presence and it-factor that allows her to elevate the role. She and Edgerton are always watchable, even if the script does their talents a disservice.

The rest of the cast is sprinkled with a couple of good character actor types, and some random Norwegian locals who, if nothing else, have some pretty crazy beard-action going on. But, there just aren't enough great characters or character arcs to really keep us invested in the action.

The lack of badass characters ultimately made me think - probably more than I should have - about the internal logic of the plot. And what I determined is that little of it makes any sort of sense. For example, the whole premise here is that The Thing can mimic people or animals in a physical sense. Okay, simple enough. But in the film, people possessed by the alien act *no different* than they would normally. How is it that the creature takes on not just the physical forms of its prey, but their memories, mannerisms, speaking patterns, etc? It makes no sense, and is never explained at all. Meanwhile, a huge deal is made of the fact that The Thing can replicate only organic matter, not inorganic. In that case, how is it replicating people's clothes? The movie takes place in 1982, I'm sure there were some polyester blends being worn here.

Aside from the almost total lack of science in the science fiction, the movie seems only half-invested in the whole concept of a creature that can mimic people. As if to say "yeah, we realize this doesn't make much sense," the movie mostly abandons the conceit for its third act, instead morphing into a more standard, Alien-esque scenario where our heroes are flat-out being chased by the monsterous creature in full-on monster form.

Now, I do think that critics have been piling on a bit too much on the film for its use of CG, comparing the f/x in unfavorable terms to the Carpenter flick's memorably grotesque practical ones. I thought the CG in the film looked pretty good, and even though it presented essentially more elaborate takes on the 80's version's weird-ass human-to-alien transformations, the result was still more weirdly creative than what you see in most horror or sci-fi films these days. I found some of the creature f/x in the film to be pretty pleasingly insane and memorably disturbing. I thought the film did a pretty decent job of using CGI to replicate the anything-goes feel of the original's nightmarish creatures.

Still, I do think that director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. relies on all that crazy CGI just a little too much. In doing so, he loses out on the creeping sensation of dread that permeated Carpenter's movie. This one has plenty of tense moments, but a lot of that tension is relieved via too-easy jump-scares. Carpenter's film just felt cold, desolate, dangerous. The unforgiving arctic wasteland felt as deadly if not moreso than The Thing. Here, there just isn't that same sense of atmosphere. It mimics the overall aesthetics of the 80's movie - even utilizing similar sets to maintain a visual continuity. But it misses the nuance, that intangible quality of dread and danger and foreboding.

Despite all of my complaints, I found The Thing to be decently entertaining and surprisingly watchable - largely thanks to Edgerton and Winstead, and also thanks to a couple of, admittedly, pretty exciting action sequences. It's not a bad film, just an unnecessary one. Like I said, it's an only-okay cover version of a great bit of rock n' roll - perhaps worth a listen, but not something you'd ever pick over the original classic. And the film's various homages and story references to Carpenter's classic - including that film's kickass theme over the closing credits - only serve as a reminder of how badass the 1982 version was. Personally, I'd much rather that we have new voices who put their own stamp on genre films as Carpenter did back in the day. Leave the guy's films alone, and create something new. Like the characters in The Thing, we can detect when we're dealing with the real deal, and when we're dealing with an imitation.

My Grade: C+

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