Film review – The Thing (2011)

11 October 2011
The Thing: Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)

Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)

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 Thing: Braxton Carter (Joel Edgerton)

Braxton Carter (Joel Edgerton)

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.

The ThingSo 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.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

11 August 2010
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera)

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera)

Edgar Wright’s latest film, an adaptation of the acclaimed Scott Pilgrim comic series, is a hyperactive blend of indi cinema storyline, computer game logic and comic book aesthetics. It is slick, fast paced, self-reflexive and so full of cultural references that you’ll probably need several viewings in order to pick everything up.  It could have been a mess of epic proportions but Wright, who previously made Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, has made Scott Pilgrim vs. the World one of the most energetic and fun films of the year.

Scott Pilgrim is a 22-year-old Canadian slacker whose life is transformed when he meets and falls in love with Ramona Flowers, an American girl trying to make a new start. Unfortunately for Scott, Ramona comes with more baggage than anticipated in the form of seven evil exes who are determined to fight him to the death.  Within the world of the film these fight scenes take the form of elaborate and over-the-top combat scenes like the ones from computer games. The various exes are like the end-of-level bosses who have special powers and abilities that Scott must find a way to overcome. Not only is this gaming approach an exciting stylistic device but it is also used as a simple yet effective metaphor for Scott having to find his inner strength in order to win Ramona’s love.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera)

Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera)

The other distinctive stylistic device present in this film is its comic book aesthetic. While Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is not the first comic book adaptation to replicate the look and form of comics, it is the first one to take it as far as it does. Even the editing cuts dramatically from scene to scene to convey the sudden change in time and space that you get moving from one panel of a comic to another. Far from being a series of alienating jump cuts, this style is remarkably fluid and contributes to making it such a fast paced film that you can completely surrender to.

The story itself is rather slight with Scott and Ramona playing fairly typical indi film characters with him being the slightly awkward nice guy and her being the mysterious, quirky unobtainable girl. However, the film’s humour and energy overcome any danger of the film feeling overly familiar in any way. Michael Cera as Scott doesn’t exactly play against type but his performance is still enough of a departure from his very distinctive roles in films such as Juno and Superbad. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Die Hard 4.0 and Death Proof) has a wonderful onscreen presence and while sparks don’t really fly between the pair as much as they probably should, they are still a likeable enough onscreen couple.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the WorldJust as Gremlins 2: The New Batch, the Wayne’s World films and The Simpsons introduced a new style of self-aware post-modern comedy, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World feels like the beginning of a new form of super self-reflexive cinema that relies on not just the audience’s knowledge of film and television but also other forms of media. The way it sets up and then sustains its internal logic and distinctive style is a remarkable achievement. It is also a consistently entertaining film from beginning to end.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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