It’s almost impossible to talk about director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s take on The Thing without talking about John Carpenter’s 1982 film. Matthjis seems to be inviting the comparison with his movie, crafting it so that his story isn’t just another installment but a direct extension of Carpenter’s movie.
This 2011 film is a prequel and by the time it’s over you’ll know everything there is to know about what happened to the Norwegians only mentioned casually in the 1982 freakishly horrifying thriller. In the process of connecting itself to Carpenter’s film this one demands you compare it, and by doing so pales in that comparison. So rather than review The Thing 2011 on its own, I’ve decided to analyze The Thing the way it seems to want us to see it: by comparing it to the movie that came before.
No matter how much it wants to be, here’s 5 reasons the new The Thing just isn’t as good as Carpenter’s.
The Freakish Effects
John Carpenter’s version of The Thing was shot in 1982, long before anyone was really using computer animation. That means every single special effect shot in the film is a practical effect. It’s all puppetry and goo and hideous, horrifying makeup. The new one resorts, all too often, to computer generated effects and… those just are never as scary. It’s especially true, though, when it comes to The Thing where the awkward, strange, herky-jerky motion of those practical effects actually adds to the whole bizarreness of what’s going on in Kurt Russell’s movie. You look at those writhing masses of flesh and ichor and it’s as though your brain can’t process what’s going on. All you can really do is look at it and think… oh god what is that thing. In the new movie you look at the screen and, at best think “hey there’s some really gross computer generated tentacles”. They don’t move the way those freakish practical effects do, they don’t ooze the way those practical effects did. They don’t because they can’t, because much of what made those practical effects so freakish was a product of their limitations as much as it was an intention of their design.
The Oh God What Is That Thing
Speaking of special effects, a lot of the terror of Carpenter’s film is derived from the shock and horror of the creature itself. Rarely does Carpenter’s movie ever resort to jump scares, because it doesn’t have to. Instead all the terror the movie could ever need is generated by the horror on its characters faces as they attempt to comprehend this unimaginable horror confronting them. Its awful, it rips at your soul, and the way the film’s characters deal with it isn’t by a lot of running around but by standing in shock or locking themselves away, or tying themselves up out of fear of each other. It delves into deep paranoia and confusion, people rendered mentally unstable by encountering something evil beyond comprehension. Most of Carpenter’s The Thing’s best moments are spent with everyone simply wondering who’s the monster. This new The Thing can’t do any of that. Instead this one turns out to be more of a straight up monster movie. Carpenter’s feature would only reveal the monster when it was on the attack, this one literally has ten or fifteen minutes with the creature in monster form chasing people around the base. A lot of the new movie works more on the level of those chase sequences in Jurassic Park involving in-door velociraptors. Carpenter’s movie was just different.
The Kurt Russell
Kurt Russell was John Carpenter’s leading man. As R.J. MacReady he’s all bearded determination and weird, sombrero wearing swagger. He wasn’t like anyone else you’d seen on screen anywhere else, he kept his cool, he fucked things up when he had to. He was a badass who carried whisky with him everywhere he went. The new version has replaced him with Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate Lloyd, who’s chief asset seems to be that she’s a bit more clever than everyone else. Kate’s a plucky little girl but she’s not exactly quick to action. It takes her awhile to even decide that something needs to be done about the Thing, once she realizes what’s going on. MacReady never fucking hesitated. You’d expect that, from the kind of guy who’d wear a sombrero in Antarctica. As a character he’s weird, as are just about all the other characters in Carpenter’s film. The new one fills the cast with a sort of clever girl and a bunch of surly Norwegions. There’s not a Windows or an elderly, nose-ring wearing doctor anywhere among them. This new movie needs a little Wilford Brimley and instead it has the trying very hard to be Kurt Russell, but not hard enough, Joel Edgerton.
The Bum bum.
The new version of The Thing starts out with an homage to that dark, screwed up, utterly simple yet frightening score of Carpenter’s movies. You remember it: bum bum. Bum bum. The sound hammered in the background of Carpenter’s masterpiece at key moments, like a heart beat, pumping it’s last pint of blood. But the new movie quickly abandons that to go with a proper, standard, Hollywood musical score. It’s not a bad score and if I’d never seen the Carpenter version there’d be no reason to suspect that the score could be any better, but I have seen it and I know. This 2011 movie has the kind of score that’s meant to tell you how to feel. Carpenter’s score never told you how to feel, it just kept beating, as if to tell you that somewhere in this movie, someone was still breathing. That bum bum told you movie was still happening and that you should be ready, because there’s no way to know what fucked up direction this thing will go in next. With the new film, you know. You always know where it will go.
Carpenter’s film ends with a question mark. You never really know for sure who’s The Thing and who isn’t. The credits roll and we’re left with two men slowly freezing to death. Either one of them could be The Thing. Maybe they both are. Maybe neither of them is. You don’t know. Bum bum. The new version leaves no such ambiguity. In part this is because it’s a prequel, but in spite of that it does find a way to leave at least one door open. But there’s never any question of who’s the Thing and who isn’t. By the end of the new movie you know who’s who and what’s what and which little doggie is about to run over to the Americans and royally fuck things up. Part of the genius of Carpenter’s movie is that you’re never really sure who’s the Thing and who isn’t at any given minute. The new one tries, but it’s never as ambiguous, and that’s just not as fun.
Still, you’ve got to admire the balls of a film willing to go toe to toe with an iconic classic like this, and the truth is that this new Thing is a decent enough piece of horror. If you’re a fan of the 1982 movie, I’d even recommend seeing it, if only for another look at how the background of Carpenter’s story fits together. But that 1982 movie, that was special. Really special. If ever anyone needed evidence that Carpenter’s movie is the definitive take on this story, the only one we’ll ever need, The Thing 2011 provides it.