Friday, October 14, 2011
Two remakes of 80s films compete at the box office this weekend: "Footloose" and "The Thing" (opening October 14 throughout San Diego). If you don't mind I will just pass over "Footloose" and focus on "The Thing," which technically is a prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 film.
John Carpenter's 1982 film "The Thing" is actually a remake itself, a remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic "The Thing From Another World." Carpenter's film, however, is one of the rare examples of a remake that genuinely works on its own. Carpenter was smart enough to realize that if you remake a film you need to do so for a reason. Carpenter's reason was that he had a new take on the story of an Antarctic group of researchers who thaw out a creature from another planet. The first film was made during the Cold War and reflected the mood of the times. So you could read the dangerous alien as an alien incarnation of the Communist threat. And the characters, like good patriotic Americans, bonded together to fight off an invading menace that was devoid of morality and humanity.
Now when Carpenter and writer Bill Lancaster took up the John W. Campbell, Jr. story "Who Goes There?" they were living in a very different social and political climate. So instead of the Antarctic scientists being a likable bunch that bonded together in crisis, Carpenter presented us with a group of paranoid individuals facing a shape-shifting alien that could look like them. It was a brilliant re-imagining. Carpenter also took advantage of the advances in technology to create a more menacing and believable creature. All-in-all it was a smart remake. Plus it had Kurt Russell. Nobody puts Russell to work as effectively as Carpenter. (Check out the trailers for each version of "The Thing."
Now along comes Matthijs van Heijningen Jr with not a remake but a prequel to Carpenter's remake. But that's really just semantics. The new film is meant to take place immediately before Carpenter's in terms of chronology and it plays out the exact same storyline -- an alien being is thawed out of the ice and proves to be exceptionally lethal, provoking a deep sense of mistrust among the Antarctic team of scientists since they can no longer tell who's human and who isn't.
So it's merely a pretense to say this isn't a remake. Since it's set in the same time period, the film can't tap into any different social or political ideas than Carpenter. Since it's supposed to be dealing with the same alien that Kurt Russell faced, there is no real surprise in terms of the opponent these people are dealing with. And since it leads into the 1982 film we already know what happened and how it ends. That's not very helpful for a horror thriller that's trying to create suspense.
The film is not so much badly made as it is just uninspired and brings nothing new or clever to the table. It's bland and that's pretty deadly for a sci-fi, horror thriller. I will give it props for bringing the ending neatly around to where Carpenter's film began, even using a bit of Carpenter's lean score. But neither Joel Edgerton nor Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a decent stand in for Kurt Russell's MacCready. The effects are decent with a couple of nice gore shots and some nice tentacley-things, but again it's taking most of its ideas from Carpenter's film and in a sense it has too since this is meant to be the same creature in both films.. There's even the same set up about trying to figure out who's still human, locking some people up, trying to create a scientific test... You can call this a prequel but it's a carbon copy of Carpenter's film.
Another minor problem is that they don't seem to pay any heed to is the size of the spacecraft that they discover. If this is supposed to be the same craft that the Carpenter team of characters discover then it's far too big and too technologically different.
"The Thing" (R for strong creature violence and gore, disturbing images, and language) doesn't put its R rating to very good use nor does it come up with any clever way of revisiting the plot basics of Carpenter's film. It's passable entertainment but nothing more. It's also completely unnecessary.
Companion viewing: "The Thing from Another World," "The Thing," (1982), "The X-Files Episode: Ice"