Fans of John Carpenter's 1982 exercise in claustrophobic tension and FX mayhem — itself a reworking of the '51 Red Scare allegory The Thing from Another Planet — haven't been sure what to make of the latest Thing. Is it a prequel? Is it a remake? Advance news assured us it was the former, but the trailers look a hell of a lot like the latter. And while the first 15 minutes make it clear we're watching the events leading up to the famous helicopter-chasing-husky scene that opens the '82 film, the majority of those events unfold so damnably similarly to the ones in Carpenter's movie that direct comparison is unavoidable.
Which means writer Eric Heisserer (Final Destination 5, the Nightmare on Elm Street reboot) and first-time feature director Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr. are at a distinct disadvantage here.
From the moment capable grad student Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) accepts the out-of-nowhere invitation of Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) to go off to Antarctica on a secret expedition concerning a buried structure and its frozen occupant, we are aware we're watching a Modern Horror Movie. Sure, it's better than most; but it's often tough to shake the feeling that this Thing is only better than most contemporary scare flicks because the cast is solid (as opposed to the standard: beautiful and talentless), the soundtrack isn't made up of grating generic groove-metal and the material that inspired it is top-notch.
The traditional character cliches manifest themselves in the Arrogant Scientist, the Clever Girl Torn Between Speaking Her Mind And Losing Her Job and the Grizzled Hero (Joel Edgerton). The scenery careens from realistic mountain vistas and manipulative tight spaces to tacky ice-cavern set pieces. A few inconvenient points of reality are ground underfoot during the march to propel the plot toward a climax that, in true Modern Horror Movie form, bets it all on one big reveal and loses, letting all the momentum and goodwill slip away.
To its credit, The Thing tries gamely to one-up the effects of the 1982 film, and scores an A for effort; its CGI-heavy shocks can't match the sheer mind-blowing originality of Rob Bottin's old-school prosthetics and animatronics, but they are impressive and unsettling. It also occasionally approaches the xenophobic suspense of its predecessor, albeit without the same weight or stamina.
In fact, van Heijningen's Thing is at its best when it seems to be simultaneously paying homage and comparing itself to Carpenter's film. In the end, though, it simply can't compete with the contextual memory and impact of a unique film made before classic elements tipped over into stereotype, when disbelief was so much easier for a less sophisticated and experienced audience to suspend. And ironically, the prequel is at its absolute worst when it indulges most fully in those standard elements of the Modern Horror Movie studios are so sure contemporary moviegoers want to see time and time again. For all its crazy visuals, at its core Carpenter's Thing is about the characters more than it is the monster, and this one tries to follow that path, only to wander off-course at a crucial moment. A little more of the original's spirit, and a little (or a lot) less of its actual storyline, might've paid off handsomely here. Even at its absolute worst, however, it still manages to come off as an above-average experience — if only barely, and if only for a ... well, you know.