Friday, October 14, 2011
The Thing (2011) Movie Review
Well it isn't as if we didn't see this coming. As if the ghost of Tron Legacy were back to haunt us, only this time in a much more blatant, offputting manner, Universal and Morgan Creek deliver the backstory to what is possibly my personal favorite remake, as well as favorite John Carpenter film. As a bleak and intimate tale of isolation and paranoia, the apocalyptic tale of Outpost 31 has long become a major patch on the quilt of my love of cinema storytelling, so the very idea of a prequel, while questionable certainly carried an interesting cache of curiosity within me. And yet despite better judgment, going, and now feeling utterly suckered yet again has left me bereft of much hope that some visually capable filmmakers today have little to no understanding of what made works of the past so effective. There is simply nothing to this addition that gels as a prequel, or even as a stand-alone feature. It's a messy, shallow thud of a film that only makes one appreciate the clever, well-executed magic act Bill Lancaster, Carpenter, Rob Bottin and company pulled off to a stunned public all those year ago even more.
So when I roll off the description of the film, it should be relatively easy to parse out what this film needs to be in order to be a successful prequel-
After having accidentally unearthed what seems to be an alien craft deep within the arctic ice, a Norwegian scientific team enlists the help of American grad student Kate Lloyd to investigate what Dr. Sander Halversen believes to the the find of the century. Soon after bringing a block of ice carrying the remains of what looks to be the last survivor of the crashed UFO, the creature escapes, sending the team into a flurry of fear and mistrust when it is discovered that the organism is capable of absorbing and imitating anything organic it comes in contact with.
And while this should prove vital to helping story development, especially in regards to the kind of mind game that is being played on both the characters (as well as the audience), the new film completely drops the ball, and opts for a straight-up CG jump scarefest which is the complete antithesis of the titular creature's diabolical survival strategy. And the most disappointing thing here is the writing talent involved (including Eric Heisserer and Ronald D. Moore) claimed to have been working on a way to reverse engineer the events leading to the 1982 film, when it's clear that little but a few minor references actually exist while the rest seems to be its own film entirely. And if that were so, what's on screen is so by the numbers dull that it's hard to care about anything that is happening, let alone anyone within it.
From virtually frame one, there is indication that there is trouble brewing. The choice of Universal logo(from the 1990s no less) is confusing to say the least. Further going in, the initial character introduction is so awkward in execution, it's hard to believe any studio found it acceptable. Fast forwarding to the moment when the team brings the ice block back to the camp, and a member seeks to have a look at the creature for himself. The cliched jump scare here isn't so much the issue, as is the hilariously inappropriate stinger music.(Beltrami's score continues this way throughout-indicating a possible disconnect between the director, and modern local sensibilities) If the film wished to create any memorable characters this time around, the attempt never seems to come across at all. Adding to the list of missteps, is the revelation that this film's preoccupation will be with the alien, and how unafraid it now is of attacking out in the open- something the previous film established as never being its raison d' etre. That's right, 2011's The Thing is nothing more than the atypical BOO-grade creature feature with zero understanding of Carpenter's film, characters or structure.
Most notably puzzling/mercenary is the casting of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who's paleontologist audience surrogate never rises beyond "token xenophobic-American identification figure number one". Something that is in no way a fault of hers. But it truly does feel desperately tacked onto the production as a good 60% of the film is spent seeking out a way for her to actually have a function in the film to little (if any) success at all. This is also true of most of the cast, as the script never decides to let us in on any characters for the viewer to identify with. Events simply happen as if the makers were merely marking time before it was time to break out the FX again(which again, come nowhere near the still-astonishing work of a young Rob Bottin) in hopes of distracting us from what really isn't being addressed; an actual story with actual characters. No tension, no quiet moments of creeping dread, and most importantly, no under the skin terror.
One last comparison:
There is an early scene in the 1982 film that while to some may seem like a near-wordless, superfluous moment that goes like this:
Introducing the helicopter pilot, MacReady, we are watching him play a very crude computer chess game while nursing a glass of alcohol. And in only a few cuts, we witness his character reacting to what is implied to be something of a harsh play by the computer. Nonplussed by the machine, MacReady exposes his disdain for losing by pouring what remains of his drink into the now-sparking chassis.
Now while that little moment may seem needless to a modern studio, it is moments like these that define character before major incidents occur. An element that is well implied in the original short story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell Jr. It wasn't so much the monster in the midst that was the central alarming element, but the rising lack of trust between a group of people who had already begun to fray on each other's nerves as winter had only begun for them in a desolate landscape with no shortage of cold days. Much like the MacReady scene, the rest of the 1982 film becomes something of a blind man's chess game, bringing forth a most unlikely leader as the team dwindles. With the alien finding even more clever ways to deceive those who remain, the stakes rise, and a deeply absorbing gut feeling of despair arises in ways few horror films are capable of, and yet the new work is seems completely unconcerned with this. The writers along with director, Matthijs van Heiningen Jr simply look incapable of mounting that kind of mathematical structure, and end up making the kind of film Carpenter's work rails against. In fact, whatever math was used within the creation of this piece, results one of the most out-of-gas fade outs in recent memory. A virtual admission that in the end, it had absolutely nothing to say, let alone anything new.
The lack of understanding of the nature of the creature, and what it offered to the pantheon permeates every section of the piece, and leaves it in the ever-growing smoke-caked heap of wreckage alongside an entire decade's worth of unnecessary remakes/reboots/prequels. Simply reducing the tale to that of a cheap CG-drenched ALIEN knockoff is not only mind-numbing, but insulting. Adding greater insult to this particular injury is a clearly patched-on final scene seemingly aimed at covering a multitude of bases that could easily have been addressed within the entire running time, effectively making the Winstead character look even more unnecessary (Sad, considering that I rather like her work. Having made remarks about the lack of agency given to her in even Scott Pilgrim, it is an even bigger waste here.) . It only sports a powerful halogen light on just how pedestrian and uninspired the final shooting script actually is.
One of the great secret weapons Carpenter had while preparing his film, was an entire year of planning. One wonders how much was provided here. And if it was even near six-months, this is pretty inexcusable. If anything, this will further raise interest in the previous film which was initially considered a box-office disaster, only to later become embraced as something of cult royalty, and understandably so. More still have yet to experience Carpenter's The Thing, so if this film doesn't sour people into catching that, then thank goodness for microscopic victories.