An essential part of genre filmmaking is setting up expectations so as to later deliver the goods or surprise the audience by breaking conventions. Take, for example, Matthijs van Heijningen Jr’s The Thing, which positions itself as both a remake and a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 thriller. In terms of narrative, the film indeed works two ways, but your appreciation of it will depend entirely on whether you’re hoping for a faithful re-enactment or an expansion of the themes.
I don’t think the movie could ever have succeeded as a remake, even though both versions follow the same basic plot: scientists in Antarctica encounter an alien that can absorb and replicate other life forms, which leads to fear and mistrust as they try to prevent it from reaching civilisation. Back in the day, Carpenter felt free to innovate because his film had nothing to live up to, what with the public having all but forgotten The Thing from Another World (1951). Van Heijningen Jr, on the hand, has to match a beloved classic that fans have built up in their minds to ungodly proportions.
Consider the new creature effects, which, in keeping with the times, are rendered digitally. As to be expected, legions of supercilious cinephiles have expressed their outrage, claiming practical technology from the early eighties would have better served the film. While I agree CGI lacks the volatility of Rob Bottin’s animatronics, the proposition strikes me as utterly preposterous unless one means to suggest that aliens look more realistic when awkwardly stationary and unable to move more than five muscles at once. Besides, the director wisely limits the beast’s time on screen, having it rely on sneak attacks to prevent us from contemplating its weightlessness.
Unfortunately, that means an awful lot more jump scares, which plays against the franchise’s trademark sense of paranoia. To make matters worse, we’ve long moved on from the sociopolitical climate that inspired it in 1982. Van Heijningen Jr and screenwriter Eric Heisserer address this by setting their film a few days before Carpenter’s, keeping some of the context and using it to communicate a different message, one more suited to our times. In short, they’ve made a prequel.
Viewed as such, the movie works considerably better, exploring fear and distrust from a fresh angle. Whereas the original instalment ramped up the tension by removing key pieces from an objective narrative, this one focuses on a single protagonist, American palaeontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and filters every bit of information through her point of view. We never learn much about the other characters because she doesn’t know them herself, having just joined the team a few days prior. In other words, her isolation becomes our own.
This allows The Thing to tackle new themes, including issues of ethnic, class, and gender discrimination. Take, for example, the segregation between the Norwegian scientists and the American flight crew or the condescension Kate suffers from her male peers even as she tries to save them. Taking anyone’s shape without prejudice, the alien threat doesn’t know or follow our paradigms, yet disdain runs so deep in men like Dr Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) that they’d rather ignore facts and logic than trust a foreign maintenance worker or, God forbid, a woman.
As relevant today as it would’ve been thirty years ago, this astute portrayal of institutional bigotry gives Matthijs van Heijningen Jr’s version of The Thing a genuine raison d’être and almost makes up for the goofy climax aboard a flying saucer. I fear, though, audiences may neglect the film’s more subtle elements in favour of snarky nitpicks about established continuity. For this, I blame the title, which invites comparison to John Carpenter’s classic instead of promoting a new direction. Personally, I’d rather have gone with The Thing Emerges, The Thing Awakes, or, to get straight to the point, The Thing But Not the Same Thing So Get Off Our Backs.