I’m not sure what I expected from the new prequel to The Thing; like its infamous monster, it could have morphed into anything from an indisputable classic to complete garbage and no one would have been surprised. Now that it’s here, it certainly gives one food for thought. It can’t stand up to its predecessor – not by a long shot – but it seems to understand that, and instead repackages the basic scenario for younger fans who may not be familiar with the brilliant John Carpenter original. A certain repetitiveness ultimately dooms its efforts, but at least it delivers them with honor and respect.
Carpenter began his film with an ending: the last two survivors of a Norwegian Antarctic expedition chasing what appeared to be a dog towards a nearby American camp. They were quickly dispatched, but the Americans soon inherited their problems, and thus was a modern horror classic born. The new Thing makes overt what the first film only hinted at: the events that transpired in that Norwegian camp and how they led inexorably into the Carpenter film.
That proves a double-edged sword: we know how it’s all going to end and key moments are necessary in order to fit into existing continuity. Director Matthijs van Heijningen acknowledges the straitjacket he’s fitting himself into, and even embraces it to a certain extent. The Norwegians stumble across a flying saucer deep in the ice, buried for 100,000 years along with its apparent pilot. They fly in a few American experts to examine the craft (and to provide a ready excuse to toss away those scary subtitles), including plucky young paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who can study the frozen alien at length.
As it turns out, said alien is a lot less frozen than it seems. It also has a nasty habit of absorbing other beings and shifting its form to match them perfectly: a self-replicating doppelganger capable of creating entire worlds of flawless imitations. Lloyd soon picks up on the danger, but by then several expedition members are not who they appear to be.
That’s to be expected, of course, and doing otherwise would short-change the cache of goodwill it presumably hopes to access. Van Heijningen possesses solid horror instincts and adopts a quieter, more measured tone than Carpenter’s brash intensity, which helps the film find its own identity. It also does exceptionally well in the geek show department. The Carpenter film pushed the boundaries of grotesque special effects, and while the follow-up can’t stay completely away from CGI, it endeavors to honor that older school as much as it can. The creature itself lives up to our every expectations, with shocking surprises coming out of left field and some body horror gags that should keep gorehounds cackling with glee.
For some people, that may be enough: a respectful tone and a few good shots of adrenaline delivered in an imaginative way. Unfortunately, The Thing still clings too closely to its predecessor for comfort. Individual beats and plot developments arrive with such accurate duplication that it ends up drastically short-changing the suspense. The simple fact is that what happens in the Norwegian camp is exactly, precisely what happens in the American camp, and the prequel ultimately can’t escape that reality.
The film suffers from a less imposing cast as well. They all do fine, with requisite amounts of terror and determination, but the first film had performers that could instantly grab us by the shirt lapels. We care about figures here, but they tend to blur together, and smack more of stock horror movie figures than they should. Universal also finds a crude way to set up further sequels that diminishes the nihilistic tone of the series and reminds us that this project stems from economic factors rather than creative ones.
It’s a pity too, because van Heijningen has the chops to carry this one a lot further. The Thing will probably play well with newcomers, and hopefully turn them on to the Carpenter film in the bargain. It’s respectful, it’s honorable and it endeavors to upload the legacy that came before it. Yet it can’t shake the notion that it’s ultimately just a rehash: a shadow of its predecessor rather than a true companion piece. That disparity haunts the film throughout, sabotaging its best intentions and leaving a noble near-miss in its wake.