Stop me if you heard this before: An Antarctic base is under attack by a shape-shifting alien…
As with the last two Sci-Fi Saturdays, this week I continue to look at the tellings and retellings of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s story “Who Goes There.” Debuting 60 years after the original The Thing From Another World, and 29 years after John Carpenter’s version, this prequel to the 1982 version of The Thing attempts to recapture the horror and tension of that version. Does it succeed?
The beginning of this trailer could be for any snowbound adventure film, but once the audience sees the shot of the creature in the ice block, it’s unmistakably a reboot of The Thing. Kate Lloyd is a scientist that has come to the arctic research post, when the crew discovers a creature. Yay! Everybody celebrate a great scientific discovery. That is, until the monster is unleashed. The film does not indicate whether it’s a remake, a reboot or a prequel. But it does hit many of the same beats as the 1982 version. The creature can look like anyone, it’s killing people, and if it gets out – that’s bad news for everyone! Cue the iconic Ennio Morricone bass score…
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
A trio of Noreweigian researchers in Antarctica, 1982, drive into a crevice and discover the crash site of a giant spaceship. At Columbia University Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) and his research assistant Adam Finch (Eric Christian Olsen) offer Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) a chance to come to the Antarctic base with them for the find of a lifetime. She agrees. They are transported to Thule Station in a helicopter piloted by Sam Carter (Joel Edgerton), with co-pilot Derek Jameson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and crew-chief Griggs (Paul Braunstein).
Once there Kate, Sander and Adam are immediately taken to the crash site to meet with Dr. Edvard Wolner (Trond Espen Seim) and his team. They discover a creature frozen in the ice some meters away from the crash site. After some discussions, the team decides to extract the being and return it to base for study. Sander wants to take a tissue sample for study, which Kate feels is a bad idea. Karl (Carsten Bjørnlund) gets a drill to bore through the ice while Jonas (Kristofer Hivju) films the procedure and Olav (Jan Gunnar Røise), Juliette (Kim Bubbs), Henrik (Jo Adrian Haavind) and the others look on.
That evening while celebrating this miraculous discovery, the creature bursts from the ice and escapes outside. They split up and begin looking for it, finding it hiding under one of the buildings. It kills Henrik, consuming him and splatters Olav with blood. They manage to burn it, stopping it from killing anyone else. Olav feels ill, so the next morning Carter, Jameson and Griggs depart with him for McMurdo to get him medical attention.
In the meantime, Kate discovers dental fillings and a bloody shower. Believing there to be a problem, she attempts to flag the helicopter down. Inside, Griggs transforms into a Thing, killing Olav and causing the copter to crash over the ridge. When Kate tells everyone of her suspicions – that the creature can replicate and look like anyone – she realizes that the shower has been cleaned up, making her look more suspicious. Juliette takes Kate into a back room to hide the keys to the vehicles so no one can escape, and then transforms into a Thing attacking Kate. She is torched by Lars (Jørgen Langhelle) with a flamethrower, but not before she kills Karl.
Later that night Carter and Jameson show back up at the base, nearly frozen. They are locked away by the remaining survivors, fearing that they may be Things. Since the lab was sabotaged and the blood test they had planned inoperable, Kate proposes a test for the remaining 8 people. She will look for filings in their teeth, as it appears the creature is incapable of replicating inorganic material. A look at herself, Lars, Peder (Stig Henrik Hoff), and Jonas clear them, as all have visible fillings. Adam, Sander, Edvard and Colin (Jonathan Walker) all have porcelain fillings, or none at all (Adam is upset that he takes such good care of his teeth).
In attempting to check Carter and Jameson, it’s discovered they’ve escaped, taking Lars with them. The two fugitives break into the main quarters shooting Peder and causing his flamethrower to explode, knocking out Edvard. Upon awakening Edvard becomes a Thing, and assimilates with Adam, forming a two-faced hybrid which Carter and Kate kill and leave smoldering outside in the snow. During the fight, Sander is infected and takes off in a sno-cat towards the crashed alien spaceship. Only Kate and Carter are left to follow him. En route Carter admits they did not kill Lars, only locked him up.
The Sander-Thing arrives at the spaceship and starts it up, readying to leave. Kate and Carter are separated while trying to find a way in. Kate is attacked by the Sander-Thing, but she has brought a grenade and tosses it in the Things gaping maw, blowing it up and shutting down the ship. She reunites with Carter at the sno-cat, believing they have just enough fuel to reach a local base 50 miles away. She notices that Carter is not wearing an earring he has had the whole time, and torches him for being a Thing. She curls up the non-damaged, but fuel-less sno-cat to wait. In a coda, Matias (Ole Martin Aune Nilsen), the base helicopter pilot returns to find Thule Station destroyed. Lars emerges demanding to see his teeth. They take off in the helicopter after Lars’ dog, which was killed when the Thing first escaped, heading towards Outpost #31.
“That’s not a dog! Start the helicopter now!” – Lars
History in the Making
The 2011 production of The Thing marks the first sequel/remake/reboot reviewed on Sci-Fi Saturdays. Primarily that’s due to the process I take with this series. Since I started with the year 1950 and have been looking at iconic, fun, and genre-defining science-fiction films from the early days of film, heading towards the present, I haven’t been presented with the opportunities for sequels yet. The 1950s and 60s just don’t have much in the way of sequels or remakes. There are a few films accessing the same source material, as with The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man, but those are few and far between.
One thing I think remakes, sequels and reboots strive for, is to recapture the magic and the fun of the original source. Hopefully they’re trying to even improve on it. There’s also a financial aspect involved as well, as the producers and studios are looking to re-capitalize on a successful film. If the original film, for example, made $1million, then some producers believe another version of the same film, changed a bit, will easily make the same amount of money and potentially more. Of course, no film is guaranteed a box office based on past-performance of similar material, regardless of how well loved. The concept of the sequels and franchising of sci-fi films didn’t really materialize until the 1970s, at least in America with the Planet of The Apes films. Japan had a series of successful kaiju films based off of Godzilla and his associated monsters, but those films were never really a direct continuation of any story as Apes was trying to tell. The modern concept of the sequel in science-fiction film becoming a profitable medium and franchise was started in 1980 with the release of The Empire Strikes Back, the follow-up film to Star Wars.
Apparently the decision to make a film related in some way to The Thing (1982) was one didn’t come lightly. A Los Angeles Times article interviewed producer Eric Newman who stated that “I’d be the first to say no one should ever try to do ‘Jaws’ again and I certainly wouldn’t want to see anyone remake ‘The Exorcist,’ And we really felt the same way about ‘The Thing.’ It’s a great film.” Evidently the producers all agreed that retelling (or remaking) a film that was already “a great film” wasn’t worthwhile, so they settled on creating a prequel. They wanted to tell the backstory of the ill-fated Norwegian team from the 1982 version, and how they unearthed the Thing instead.
And therein lies the problem. They needed to recapture the greatness of The Thing without remaking it. On one hand, as a prequel – which is set before the events of an earlier film – it should tell a unique story that doesn’t require someone having seen the previous film. But it also needs to setup the events of the previous film so everything fits together in a continuous story. The danger of all this is that viewers of the original film already know, or can guess, the events at the end of the prequel, and new viewers may not understand references that get made in the prequel which foreshadow or give nods to the original film. It’s a fine line to walk.
For example, in the 1982 The Thing the film starts with two Norwegians in a helicopter chasing a lone sled dog across the tundra. Therefore, fans of that film can expect the 2011 film to end with a similar sequence, which it does. The original version also leaves no one alive at the Norwegian base, so again, people familiar with that film can make an assumption that no one survives this film, which is mostly true. The assumption is that Kate freezes to death in the sno-cat at the crash site, being unable to return to any base. To viewers unfamiliar with the 1982 version, these concerns are moot. But the filmmakers can’t just tell their best story with a prequel. They always need to serve two masters: the new viewer and the fan of the original.
The other important point, is that a prequel should tell a unique story. If it doesn’t, than why is it being made? If it rehashes the elements of the original film, isn’t it just a remake dressed up like a prequel? I don’t mean to imply that there cannot be references to the original work. The three Star Wars prequels (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith) all have moments of dialogue, or scenes that mirror the earlier films. That can be fun for both the filmmakers and the audiences to create these “nods” to previous works. For viewers watching the films in chronological order (not release order) these moments serve as callbacks in the later films. It all depends on what order the films are watched in. But these particular prequel films also tell unique stories and have different characters than the original films. The 2011 version of The Thing goes too far in this regard and it’s probably the reason why the film failed at the box office and with fan expectation.
As discussed in last week’s article on the John Carpenter version of The Thing, while the film was not well liked initially, it has gained a huge following once it was released on home media. That means many people were eagerly awaiting a film that was at least on par with the original. Unfortunately the 2011 version replicates the beats of the original, in mostly the same order, without really crafting anything new. This is a similar complaint that many had with Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, which sought to tell a story prior to the events of the iconic Alien. As an example, even though there are new characters in the 2011 version (more of them too), they still hit the same plot points. Find an alien creature. Creature escapes infecting one or more characters. Discover shapeshifting nature of alien. Accuse multiple characters in paranoid rant. Create a test. Creature is revealed during test (but it’s not who anyone thinks it could be). Creature tries to escape. And then the final showdown. Individually there were some new additions, such as the Thing being unable to reproduce inorganic material, or the inclusion of female characters, but overall – and regardless of the producers initial plans – this version felt like too much of a retread and a remake.
As with the Carpenter version, the theme of individuality is strong in this version. The Thing is able to replicate itself as any one of the station members, except for their inorganic material, like fillings, or earrings. However unlike the previous film, the audiences connections to these characters, and the paranoia felt are just not as strong. This could be in part to the fact that there’s a larger group of characters. This makes it harder to spend time with anyone other than the core four or five characters, but it’s more than that. It also doesn’t create the same sense of isolation, dread and hopelessness that the original had in spades. The filmmakers seem more concerned with tying in all the little moments from the 1982 version, such as making sure there’s a creature that has two faces, or making sure to put the odd axe in the radio room door. The amount of time spent creating those fun moments for fans of the original is time not spent developing the new characters created here.
The Science in The Fiction
So too is the scientific element of the film retreaded. Since this 2011 film is supposed to be set in 1982, there can be no technology that is greater than what was seen in the Carpenter version. The same information is conveyed to audiences. Whether it’s that the ship appears to have crashed 100,000 years ago (both films scientists agree on that) or the visual explanation of how the Thing replicates cells (in 1982 it was a lo-res computer program that told the audience; in 2011 it’s a fancy CGI microscopic view of actual blood cells), there’s just not any new information provided. It even is a little worse than that, as the Thing and it’s mode of replication is overtly compared to a virus in the 2011 film. This was only alluded to in the 1982 film, and was not something that needs to be spoken aloud. As mentioned in other articles during the 31 Days of Horror, things that are unstated or unshown, that require the audience to use their imaginations, provide for more powerful terror.
The Final Frontier
Let’s not get the impression that prequels are only a sci-fi vehicle, even though when asked many filmgoers would point to the Star Wars prequels as an obvious example. They exist for all types of films and genres and include such classics as The Godfather part II or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But there are also prequels for film in the horror genre (Final Destination 5), thrillers (Hannibal Rising) and family fare (Bambi II). There were only a few prequels that were released prior to the year 2000, but since then (and The Phantom Menace) there have been easily over three-dozen, proving at least some people feel it’s a viable form of storytelling.
This remake, and in essence that’s what this is, of The Thing is fun for fans of the original. It connects a lot of dots, and can be an enjoyable ride. It even has some horrific moments. But the sparse practical effects, which are supplemented by CGI work, are just too slick to make anything truly frightening, at least in the same way that the work of Rob Bottin did in the original. And let’s face it, when you watch a horror film do you want to be terrified, or only moderately scared? Pound for pound, the 1982 version does more heavy lifting, has better scares, and is the preferred horror film in this franchise. The 2011 version, much like the Thing, is an imitation, and not a great one at that.
Gallery Comparing Links Between 1982 and 2011 Version
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.