Let frozen aliens chill. That pretty much sums up the wisdom I’ve gained from watching three versions of The Thing. Of course, no one in movies ever follows this good advice.
Despite the fact that people from around the world go to Antarctica in the spirit of friendship and scientific cooperation (more or less), in the movies it is usually a setting for Something Bad That Is About to Happen. Like stumbling across a strange, nasty, parasitic extraterrestrial that will hunt everyone across frozen wasteland.
In the first go-round, it was The Thing from Another World in 1951. Three decades later, 1982, it was just The Thing and in the hands of John Carpenter. Another three decades later, 2011, it’s still The Thing, only constructed now to serve as a prequel and not a remake of Carpenter’s cult classic horror movie version.
So, just in time for Halloween, we’re taking a moment to compare a contender that says it can do better against the classic that spawned it. Grab your parka and snow boots and let’s get started.
If you’ve seen the 1982 Carpenter original, you know that the film explores the aftermath of the Norwegian station. Those scenes of the ruined base brought up a lot of unanswered questions. In this 2011 film, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. attempts to answer some of these unanswered questions with a film that is described as a “prelude” to Carpenter’s work.
Eric Heisserer’s script follows Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an American paleontologist who has been recruited to travel to Antarctica to examine a specimen frozen in the ice. The truth of the discovery is revealed to be alien in origin, but the true surprises come when the frozen visitor from another world breaks free of its icy prison. The station goes on immediate alert to track down the impossible creature, but it may already be too late.
What follows next is to be expected, a variety of horrific encounters that show the clear genetic superiority of the alien thing. There’s blood, carnage and mayhem. People die. But then, if you’ve seen the original film, you should already guess how this one ends.
The Defending Champion
John Carpenter’s The Thing was not a critical or box office success. Yet, it has survived, mostly on the basis of its jaw-dropping creature effects and the fact that it comes up year after year on notable “Most Scary Movie” top ten lists.
Set in Antarctica, the story involves an American research team that finds its isolated base invaded by an alien organism that has migrated from a nearby Norwegian station. Kurt Russell plays R.J. MacReady, a helicopter pilot. When the alien finally reveals itself, it’s MacReady who quickly takes charge in the battle for survival of our species. The stellar cast is rounded out by other notable performances, including Wilford Brimley, Keith David and Donald Moffat.
Bill Lancaster’s screenplay is faithful to John W. Campbell Jr.’s short story, “Who Goes There?” It takes all the loneliness and isolation, and couples it with the fear of the unknown. Add to the mix some cutting edge special effects by Rob Bottin and his crew, as well as makeup effects legend Stan Winston. It’s not surprising that it has become a cult classic.
Despite the horror and gorefest the alien creature brings, The Thing is a study in psychology. The isolation of the setting and the solitude of the human experience are utilized to create a tight story. Like the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing explores the sense of individual identity and how we define our sense of self. This was true of the Campbell short story and the Carpenter film.
So why remake it?
A cynic might say that in this day and age it’s all about money. It’s easier to reach a built-in audience with a product they recognize than find a new audience. But let’s not forget that Carpenter was, in fact, creating a remake when he helmed The Thing back in 1982.
The first film based on Campbell’s short story was the 1951 Howard Hawks science fiction classic The Thing from Another World. In the spirit of science fiction films of the ’50s, the psychology of the short story was dropped in favor of a big monster more like a vegetable version of Frankenstein.
What Carpenter brought back into his version of The Thing was the frightening isolation. He also returned the idea of the alien replicating the appearance and mind of anything it meets. In short, he took a dated science fiction film and created a frightening horror film.
Now Heijningen is taking Carpenter’s film and giving it one thing it lacked: a beginning. The 1982 version of The Thing opens with a vintage flying saucer buzzing the Earth’s atmosphere. It looks sorely dated these days. It isn’t until later in the film that we discover the alien craft has been frozen in the ice for 100,000 years.
With the 2011 version of The Thing, the story begins with the discovery of the crashed UFO. The tale is not what happened before, but what is happening now. And add to the excitement some cutting-edge CGI and you have the makings of something new.
The downside is that Heijningen’s The Thing is at times too similar to Carpenter’s story. The names have been changed and some of the characters swapped around, but some scenes seem lifted right out of Carpenter’s script.
So is the 2011 film a remake or something else?
What the 2011 prelude offers is a very similar story to the original, but with the twist of putting it first in the timeline. By doing so, Heijningen creates an homage rather than an ordinary remake. Details in Carpenter’s film that were mere set dressing to show the carnage of the Norwegian station become central plot points in the 2011 film. How did that hole get in the wall? We see it. Why is that axe embedded in the wall and left there? We find out.
In the end, it comes down to why the film was made. Carpenter wanted to make a horror film. Heijningen wanted to create a better one. He raised the stakes by fitting his new film into Carpenter’s legacy. And it works.
I’ve always hated remakes because they suggest, incorrectly, that old films are not worth watching. The 2011 film doesn’t just make a good scary movie, it encourages viewers to revisit the 1982 classic. For that reason, The Thing (2011) wins this Smackdown.