The new 2011 film The Thing is a direct prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 film of the same name. It is faithful to story information provided in Carpenter’s film to depict what happened to the Antarctic Norwegian expedition, who first encountered the shape-shifting alien before it got to the American research base. In this new film the Norwegians discover the crashed ship and its frozen occupant, and bring in a group of American scientists to help them with their discovery. One of these scientists is palaeontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who like RJ MacReady (Kurt Russell) did in the 1982 film, takes on the reluctant leader role once the deadly creature escapes and all hell breaks loose.
While the basic narrative structure, mood and atmosphere closely resemble the 1982 film, its production design and claustrophobic action sequences suggest Aliens was also a significant influence. The first act is very close to the first act of The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks, 1951), the first film to be adapted from the novella Who Goes There? by John W Campbell, Jr. All three of these horror/science-fictions have reflected the period they were made in and while strong arguments can be made for why both the 1951 and the 1982 films could be considered the best of the bunch, the 2011 one is not a contender. However, there is still much to admire about it.
The 2011 The Thing sets up its scenario very efficiently so that it can get into the thrills early. The initial scares are convincing, the creature effects are suitably macabre and icky, and the paranoia about who is alien and who is human is developed effectively. The second act of the film is extremely strong, especially when focused on the breakdown between the human characters. The film is at its best when focused on the antagonism and growing factionalism between the various characters as they start suspecting each other. The strategy for determining who is really an alien is not as interesting or nail biting as in the 1982 film, but it still produces some suitably tense sequences.
There are lots of inventive, creative and suitably disturbing perversions of the body during the scenes when the creature breaks out of its human form. The marvellous sexual anxiety imagery from the 1982 film appears once again with the creature being all phallic tentacles and vaginas dentata. However, the over-reliance on computer-generated imagery to create many of the creature effects means that it lacks the brilliant visceral texture of the stop-motion animated and puppetry-based special effects used in the Carpenter film. The CGI is also overused to the extent that we see too much of the grotesque human/monster hybrid creations, rather than only getting the more effective brief nightmarish glimpses like we did in the 1982 and 1951 films.
So while The Thing from Another World reflected Cold War paranoia and a science fiction meets 1950s monster movie aesthetic, and Carpenter’s The Thing had the mix of brilliant special effects with its bleak outlook on the future of humanity post-Vietnam and pre-AIDS, what does this new film say about 2011? There’s a vaguely anti-exploitation theme and some nods to psychoanalysis (the film has a curious oral fixation), but ultimately this is a film going through the motions, albeit with some of those motions being very entertaining. Sadly it seems to suggest that overall our current era is defined by very little as we all too easily settle for artifice, distraction and minimal sub-text rather than something of real substance. A large part of the audience for this film probably won’t care about the dominance of CGI effects, as that is what they have grown up experiencing and don’t consider it to be empty spectacle, but that doesn’t make it any better. Like the alien creature that should have been left buried in the snow, this 2011 film is initially a convincing replication of the real thing, but it eventually all comes undone.