The Thing (2011)

I’ve never understood the actual Thing, this creature that only cares to approximate stable carbon-based life until somebody sees it, at which point it explodes into an emo sketchpad of crab legs and baby heads and bloody genitals and mushrooms and lady fingers and teeth in teeth in teeth. How could that thing possibly pilot a flying saucer, with some kind of wheel and some kind of dashboard that from the looks of it wouldn’t activate by being oozed on? I’ve always assumed that the truth is that the Thing was in containment on the ship, and knows how to fly it only through the assimilation of its pilot who, for my sincerest hope for the continuity of this series, might in a previous life have looked at least passingly like James Arness.

You could be forgiven for not knowing right away how this 2011 The Thing fits into its series, or even exactly what I’m talking about. Know that as I break it down for you, I’m also getting it straight in my own head. This series is just that much fun.

In 1951, Howard Hawks directed an adaptation of a John W. Campbell short story called “Who Goes There?” and renamed it The Thing from Another World. Significantly, while the Campbell story featured an alien that could shapeshift into any organic material that it touched, copying people or animals almost perfectly (“almost” being the point where it starts to … ooze), the Hawks version featured James Arness as a 7ft Frankenstein’s monster-type fellow, who was actually a plant (I remember laughing as a kid when someone says, “An intellectual carrot. The mind boggles.”).

In 1982, John Carpenter’s The Thing did the creative and confusing thing by being both an adaptation of the short story and a sequel to the original film. The carrot apparently sojourned from the original arctic facility to terrorize this new cast disguised at first as a dog and then as themselves. The confusing part is to consider that the explorers view footage of the discovery of the alien’s ship from the 1951 original as though this is its sequel, even though the alien is the one from the book, not the Hawks movie. On a fuzzy screen, they watch a pantomime of a scene from the original, in which everyone walks to the edge of this thing under the ice, shocked to discover that it’s perfectly round. Apparently, according to Carpenter, James Arness was merely the creature’s literal form, before it could mutate into the lasagna of corpuscles and teeth that folds outside in, eats people with its nipples, and altogether undermines what we thought was possible with prosthetic effects.

Now, first time director and suspected Nord himself, Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., has made The Thing as a remake of the 1951 original, but in the tone and style of the Carpenter remake/ sequel. Do you see why I had to go through all that, just so that one sentence made sense? To John Carpenter’s The Thing this should be the literal prequel that gore-hounds have been waiting for, down to the escaped dog running across the ice towards unsuspecting Kurt Russell and a bunch of other guys who don’t know they’re dead yet. And then, against all hope for continuity, The Thing engineers the discovery of the spaceship in such a way that the footage Russell views in the 1982 version could not exist. In other words, while in 1982 they viewed a pantomime of the footage from 1951, in 2011 they do not recreate it to replace the original in continuity. Therefore, the 2011 The Thing is not actually a prequel to the remake/ sequel but a reboot connected to nothing except by pretension. And this review thus far is basically a bathroom I built for Heijningen’s benefit, which he used once and tore down. You didn’t need to know it, but it’s an effective taxonomy on how The Thing fails to be what it is, before it even starts.

Just so it doesn’t all go to waste, take this with you as we go on: to question The Thing (2011) within its series is tantamount to questioning its creature. Why, if its goal is secret world domination, does it pounce around and splooge eyeballs and never seem to realize what flamethrowers do to its face(s)? I don’t suppose it much matters. It’s the pretension of a series continuity that really grinds my genomes, when I have to approach a film basically entirely about stuff that goes “bump” as though it might get smart all of a sudden and start being scary and stop being the latest anatomy lesson sponsored by Cuisinart. This version gets scary the least often of the three.

The first thing immediately and apparently wrong with Heijningen’s The Thing is a matter of gender. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays a paleontologist named Kate, signed onto this expedition because she knows some biology, though in true horror fashion the fanciest thing she does is look grossed out as she “assists” in pulling a ligament off a big space bug. In the Hawks film, there was a female researcher who breathed some romantic tension into the barracks, such that when the monster started lumbering around there was a future nuclear family at stake as well as a bunch of salaried trench diggers. Since the dialogue was sparky, you never thought it should be any different. Then, in the 1982 version, there were no females at all. The effect was to make the station grungy and isolating – there were no women to protect or to go home to or to stay shaven for. There were just awkward, cold-eyed statues associating passingly and without warmth or pith behind grey eyes and vodka-stiffened beards.

The problem with the characters in the 2011 The Thing is that they, in the worst possible way, split the difference. Winstead adds sexual tension where such a thing is superficial without a clearer purpose or finer-pointed dialogue, while not adding anything as a character other than the most generic heroine’s journey. Winstead is tightlipped to the point of being burdensome – in one scene, men kill a non-infected person just because she apparently didn’t think to tell them that they could test for alien goo-balls if they’d all just stand still and show their teeth fillings (the Thing can’t copy inorganic matter). The comparison would be between Winstead’s Kate and Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien, a character whose sexual tension was meaningful and palpable, and yet whose course of action was also forcibly reasonable. In one of the slickest convergences of an idea with its image, the actual Alien was a physical form of repressive desire and the fear of being pursued. Winstead herself comes close in 10 Cloverfield Lane, a film directed with the seething tension of its thematic monster clearly in mind.

The Thing’s lack of a stable form worked for Carpenter, who was able to squeeze a pure palpable uncertainty out of never knowing who or what the Thing exactly was. But in Heijningen’s version, it seems to be more a matter of horror tradition than the transcription of a bold idea. You get such a good, clean view of the cartoon critters in The Thing that you really only have doubts, something that should be Heijningen’s greatest ally, about the director himself. I doubt for instance that it was really most effective to view the film’s big boss baddie as clumsily as the early-CGI spider form of Mr. Smith at the end of the 1997 Lost in Space. When the computer-generated face at the end of a long meat tube of cartoon veins comes lumbering out on an insect’s upright body, I should have been queasy at the least. Maybe the gloss has just gone over my eyes, but I laughed.

It seems to me like the Thing came an awful long way through space and endured a lot to its magnificent biology to meet its end by having me chuckle at it. And then I learned that it came with one of cinema’s epic historical tragedies and I stopped laughing. Heijningen not only wanted to do the film in full practical effects but he did: Amalgamated Dynamics, run by Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. of the late Stan Winston’s great effects studio, did The Thing (2011) in full prosthetic animatronics and beautiful makeup, only to have studio moguls swoop in and edit cartoons over every shot of finished footage. Apparently, they had to hire a psychiatrist to work full time at the effects studio to treat the staff’s epidemic depression when they found out that all of their creative toil had been covered up. Gillis should have provided one for the movie theaters too.

Cast & Crew

Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.

Eric Heisserer (screenplay)
John W. Campbell (book)

Kate Lloyd Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Sam Carter Joel Edgerton
Dr. Sander Halvorson Ulrich Thomsen
Derek Jameson Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Adam Finch Eric Christian Olsen
Edvard Wolner Trond Espen Seim
Juliette Kim Bubbs

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