The Thing (2011) both exceeded my expectations and proved a massive disappointment, and while that statement may seem paradoxical it is nonetheless true.
Let me say first, that I consider John Carpenter’s The Thing to be a masterpiece of science fiction horror. It is creepy, it is subtle, it is a slow burn into a grand conflagration of awesome that leaves an afterimage from an ending that is truly ambiguous. When this new version was announced I just rolled my eyes at the lunacy of trying to replicate greatness, knew I would see it anyway, and felt grateful the producers at least had the decency to make it a prologue rather than a direct remake. But when the previews hit, I began to wonder if they had scrapped the prologue idea in favor of a true remake, because if you know the original then you know the Norwegians found the Thing, and that they didn’t speak English—at least, not the two who survived to reach the American outpost at the beginning of Carpenter’s film—and yet the previews showed a movie in English.
After seeing the film, I can confirm that it is a prologue, but one that tracks closer to a remake than I would prefer due to the recreation of several scenes from the original (too many and too extensive to be considered homage sequences).
If you don’t know the Carpenter movie and are looking to know if you will enjoy this film: probably, if you like studio SF-horror. It’s a monster movie, it has a few gruesome deaths, the effects were pretty good, and it has some choice jumps. You can also stop reading here, because the rest of my review is going to focus on how it stacks up to the first one and to what I wanted it to be.
Also, there will be spoilers. Massive ones, for both films, and I don’t intend to stop and call them out. You have been warned.
So this movie actually started out very promising: for about the first half hour, the film seemed kind of slow and like it might actually do the old school slow build the way Carpenter’s version did. The initial discovery of the thing’s spacecraft was handled well, and that opening was entirely in Norwegian, with subtitles. I disliked the excuse they used for bringing the movie into English—the expedition leader for the Norwegian research team called in a friend of his, who was an American, who brought two other researchers with him; and then for some reason the Norwegian base was relying on Americans to pilot their helicopters? A scene at the end (which I will come back to) implies perhaps the Norwegian chopper pilot was on leave or away, but that was never really explained, so then suddenly half the cast is American, and the Norwegians accommodated that by speaking English.
Despite a promising opening (other than the switch to English), the film became a jumpy monster movie full of near-misses and narrow saves (did the first one have a single narrow save?) basically from the moment the thing wakes up from the block of ice. The use of typical monster/slasher movie editing completely destroys the momentum of the psychological horror, since the film cannot properly build the paranoia and distrust amongst the humans because it’s too busy being a jumpy monster movie.
This new film also breaks the rules of the first one in several key ways. First, as I alluded to above, from the moment we see the thing the movie turns into an adrenaline rush. That’s because the thing jumps out of an ice block and surprises everyone. Huh? I thought it had to slowly thaw and wake up as it warmed by degrees and twitches? Also, here, the thing needs only a minute to consume something…I thought it was more like 10-30 minutes? It’s like the thing is on speed, everything going super-fast because the filmmakers don’t trust their narrative to hold the audience’s interest if they let the monster operate at its old speed.
But those aren’t even the worst of the errors. In fact, what makes the worst of the errors so terrible is that the filmmakers actually made a point to explain some of the scenes the first one shows, such as the bloody axe stuck in the door. So clearly the filmmakers took some time to try and get the continuity established between this prologue and the original. And then they go full studio and throw that care to the wind in favor of some effects. Remember that footage of the Norwegians standing around the rim of the site about to detonate it? They opened the crater. They exposed the ship. They filmed it. MacReady saw the fucking footage. And yet somehow, in this one, the ship is excavated under the ice and then emerges to the top when it turns on (WTF, seriously, I KNOW RIGHT).
Um…how about no. In the first place, it violates video evidence from the first one about how events happened. More importantly, it makes no fucking sense. If the ship can just turn right back on, then why the fuck did it crash land into Antarctica 100,000 years ago in the first place? I thought the whole point of the thing crawling from the ship was that the ship was broken, and it was trying to find a safe haven on foot. But now you’re telling me it wasn’t really broken, that, what, the alien just crashed into us for shits and giggles, and oh, hey girl, I was just kidding about that whole out of gas thing? Fuck you. The film was over for me the second that ship turned on.
In addition to the inconsistencies with the first film, I didn’t get the same sense of care with this plotting and world-building. I mean, if you watch Carpenter’s film enough times, you see the moment where each person who is infected gets infected. This movie did not give me that feeling—looking back I could not recall the scene that implied where the first human infected gets caught alone with the thing…and even if the movie does have the same care, it doesn’t have the same impact to make you watch it over and over again until you pick up on those subtleties, so it fails anyway.
One final complaint is the ending, where it blends with the first one. Okay, I will say, they did the actual blend into the opening scene of John Carpenter’s The Thing really well. But getting there was mind-bogglingly unbelievable. One guy is left at the camp when the Nordge helicopter shows up with the Norwegian pilot (again, with no real explanation as to where he was during the crisis or why he wasn’t there the whole time). The pilot is friends with the one guy left and just goes right along with his manic, “We have to track that dog across the glacier and kill it!” speech. Um, are you kidding? I don’t think anyone who was not there, who did not see what had happened, could possibly be as gung-ho about killing the dog as the pilot was in the original. In the opening of Carpenter’s film the pilot gets out of the helicopter to go after the dog on the American base right along with the gunner. I just can’t buy a pilot who was not witness to the horror of the Thing doing that. He might have taken his friend up in the sky, but I can’t believe he would have sacrificed his life trying to kill what looked ot him like a dog just on someone’s word. I don’t care who is telling you the story or how well you know them. If you come back from a week’s absence to find everyone in the camp dead and one person ranting about a shapechanging monster, and you’re all out in the middle of nowhere in Antarctica…you don’t believe them; you think someone had a fucking psychotic break. So while this pilot might have thought it better to humor his newly psycho friend and go for a ride…no fucking way is he getting out of the vehicle to face down the Americans for the sake of a story. If he wasn’t there, he wouldn’t believe it. Period.
I refuse to believe this is what happened at the Norwegian camp. I know it would be tough to make a prequel that would please fans of the original and be watchable for a modern audience—or what studios think would be watchable for a modern audience; I personally have more faith in modern audiences. But if you are going to try and please the old-school fans, then nothing can really happen for at least an hour, and the film has to be psychological, as much about the enemies this Thing makes of other people as it is about the thing itself. I am sure it would be hard to make a movie tense and engaging when everyone knows going in how it will end—with everybody dead except two guys and a dog. And with a second film in a series, you can’t rely on the tension of the mystery to carry the story because the audience already knows what is going on.
But this movie didn’t even try. It offered lip service to forging links between the two films, but ultimately failed to be either engaging on its own terms or a worthy successor to Carpenter’s masterpiece.
We still don’t know what happened out there on the ice. Perhaps we never will. And perhaps that is for the best, because the unknown is always going to be more horrifying than any quantified scenario. The Thing (2011) certainly does its part to prove that.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.