The Thing (2011)


The Thing
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton know it ain’t no Thing.

(2011) Sci-Fi Horror (Universal) Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Jonathan Lloyd Walker, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Eric Christian Olsen, Ulrich Thomsen, Paul Braunstein, Trond Espen Seim, Jorgen Langhelle, Kim Bubbs, Stig Henrik Hoff. Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen

Most horror fans are well aware of the 1982 John Carpenter film The Thing. While today it is held in high esteem for being the trailblazing classic it is, at the time of its release it was a critical and commercial failure. It was preceded in 1951 by a B-movie version entitled The Thing From Another World (which starred an unknown James Arness as a kind of a giant carrot) which was in turn based on a 1938 short story by the legendary science fiction author which was called “Who Goes There.” If the movies follow form, we can expect to see another in 2041.

Surprisingly, bucking current trends, this isn’t a remake but a prequel to Norwegian the Carpenter version. Those who remember it will recall that the action begins with a helicopter from a research station with a gunman pursuing a Siberian husky. That’s where this film ends.

It begins with a team of Norwegian geologists discovering an alien spacecraft buried deep in the ice. Nearby they find a specimen, a creature like none seen on this planet before or since. Edvard (Seim), the station commander, sends for his scientist friend Dr. Sander Halvorson (Thomsen), an imperious, control freak sort of guy, his American assistant Adam (Olsen) and an American paleobiologist named Kate Lloyd (Winstead) from Columbia University.

They are flown by a couple of American helicopter pilots named Carter (Edgerton) and Jameson (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who warn of upcoming storms that will make getting back to McMurdo (the large central Antarctic base) nearly impossible.

Of course the arrogant Dr. Halvorson decides to take a tissue sample and things go south (or as south as they can get in Antarctica) from there as the creature comes to life and gets to thingin’. There will be all manner of twisted flesh and grue before the night is out.

 I have to admit being rather impressed at the attention to detail. While there’s no way to really perfectly link the new Thing with the previous one, they captured enough of the physical setting and the look of the creature to at least be in the ballpark. Unfortunately, they hit a single at best. There are enough inconsistencies to enrage the more detail-oriented viewer, particularly those who are anal about such things. They did get a few nice details however, like the axe stuck in the wall.  What they didn’t get the overwhelming sense of paranoia and tension that Carpenter so beautifully captured, there are plenty of good movie thrills to keep the modern genre fan happy.

The characters really aren’t fleshed out too much and the cast, while competent (and those who’ve seen Edgerton in Animal Kingdom know how good he can be) really come off as kind of just there. Winstead is reasonably attractive, but she doesn’t really convince me that she’s a scientist and when she goes into Ripley mode, it comes off as a bit out of character. That’s the fault of the writer by the way, not Winstead.

I wonder if a prequel was the right way to go. Some of the technology in the Norwegian base looks at least 20 years too advanced for the 1982 setting, and their take on the humanity test is less effective than the one Carpenter came up with for his version (although to be fair it’s brilliant in its simplicity).

This is a well-made horror movie that doesn’t really distinguish itself from the competition. It will certainly scare you and more likely, gross you out a bit. It’s fine Halloween viewing and yes, that’s really the litmus test for a movie like this. However I wonder if they shouldn’t have either done a remake (although the producers – quite rightly – insisted that the 1982 film was close to perfect and shouldn’t be remade) or perhaps a reboot which is what Carpenter essentially did with his version. There was no need to try and make a direct link with the first film because not only does it invite comparison, it invites nitpicking which distracts from the real point that this is a decent horror movie that fans should go out and see regardless of whether the helicopter in the 1982 version was brown and in this one was gunmetal grey. That’s not the stuff that matters; jumping out of your seat and getting that delicious adrenaline rush that comes with a good scare does, and yes you do in fact get those here. THAT’S what matters.

REASONS TO GO: Decent thrills and some nice creature effects (some practical, some CGI).

REASONS TO STAY: The cast is rather bland and faceless. Might have been better served doing a remake or at least a reboot.

FAMILY VALUES: Oh yes there’s a whole lot of creature gore goodness, plenty of foul language (much of it in Norwegian) and as much violence as you can shake a stick at.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The carnage in the Norwegian camp closely mirrors what is seen when Kurt Russell and Richard Dysart inspect the camp in the 1982 version.

HOME OR THEATER: You’ll want to see this in the dark…with a big mother effin’ screen.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Six Days of Darkness continues

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The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)


The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

Keanu Barada Nikto.

(20th Century Fox) Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, Jaden Smith, Jon Hamm, Kyle Chandler, Robert Knepper, James Hong, John Cleese. Directed by Scott Derrickson

It is no secret that we have been poor custodians of our planet. One wonders what superior intelligences might think if they noticed us, and if they would be moved to step in.

Dr. Helen Benson (Connelly) has a full plate. Not only is she an academic with a classroom-full of disinterested minds, she has an unruly stepson named Jacob (Smith) who has been acting out ever since his father – her late husband – died in Iraq.

One night she is fetched by stern, humorless military sorts who escort her from her home to an unknown destination. They won’t – or can’t – tell her what’s going on, but there is no doubt it’s serious; a busy freeway has been completely closed off for the benefit of their motorcade.

It turns out there’s a spaceship approaching Earth and it appears it is going to land in Central Park, which should have alerted the Men in Black immediately. Instead, we get the Army with a bunch of trigger-happy jarheads that open fire the moment something emerges from the spaceship, which is actually a sphere of swirling green.

Lots of these spheres have landed all over the Earth, but none of them have a giant robot (which is called Gort after some military acronym that I forgot five seconds after the line was spoken). It is about to open up a can of giant robot whoopass on the Army when the fallen alien speaks “Klaatu Barada Nikto.” Truer lines have never been spoken.

While recovering from its gunshot wound, the alien begins to evolve at an accelerated rate, eventually evolving into Keanu Reeves (I guess the alien wasn’t done evolving yet…thanks folks, I’ll be here all week). The alien, whose name is Klaatu, demands to be taken to our leaders (sorry, I couldn’t resist) which according to Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Bates) is out of the question. Instead, she sets up Klaatu to be interrogated. This is what is known in the biz as a bad choice.

Using powers beyond human ability, he escapes and seeks out Dr. Benson, the only human who has treated him with any kindness at all. The government is absolutely bonkers to get him back and puts out an APB, which means that everyone is chasing Klaatu, Dr. Benson and the spoiled brat…I mean Jacob. Dr. Benson finds out to her horror that Klaatu represents a coalition of aliens that have been observing our planet and are very disappointed at how we’re treating our planet. Therefore, in order to save this life-giving orb, they need to wipe out the parasites that are killing it…namely us. She must find a way to convince him that we are worth saving, otherwise we’ll be joining the dinosaurs on the woulda coulda shoulda list.

Obviously this is based on the 1951 classic sci-fi film of the same name. Derrickson and his writers are relatively faithful to the original, making only minor changes in the overall story but some of them are rather crucial. While the first was an anti-war and anti-nuclear holocaust warning, this one is squarely on the side of those scientists who have been making dire predictions about where the planet is going (and somewhere, Al Gore is smirking “See? You shoulda voted for me”). It’s the details which are vastly different and quite frankly, therein lies the devil.

While this isn’t particularly a special effects-driven movie, they are pretty spectacular when the movie chooses to use them. The robot Gort, who is 28 feet tall (20 feet taller than the original Gort), is particularly menacing although some purists were screaming when they found out that Gort was actually a biological being and not mechanical.

On that score, I have my doubts about Keanu Reeves. His stiff, emotionless demeanor actually works here as an alien being. He is well matched with Connelly, who is one of the more expressive actresses we have going. She is the yin to his yang in the movie, and that makes the movie far more successful than it might have been otherwise; whereas Keanu is the movie’s brain, Connelly is the heart.

Monty Python’s John Cleese does a fine turn in a non-comedic role as a scientist Helen brings Klaatu to talk to in a last-ditch effort to convince him not to kill everybody. Bates is always dependable to be plucky although she brings an element of menace that she usually doesn’t display. Jaden Smith, excellent in The Pursuit of Happyness is merely average here; he’s such a brat that you just want to throw him under the nearest freight train, which I suppose must mean he’s a plenty good actor because if he was really that whiny and disrespectful, his dad Will Smith would have long ago put the fear of Gawd into him.

If the movie has a flaw, it’s that it tends to be a bit preachy and a little overbearing. While I get the urgency of the message, I still get peeved when someone feels the urge to nag me about it, even if it is for my own good. It’s enough to make me want to trade in my Hybrid for a Hummer.

The movie may have been a little too thoughtful for its own good in that regard. It surprisingly doesn’t disgrace the original, which I quite expected it to do – that’s a very high bar to live up to – but it doesn’t measure up to it either, which I also quite expected from it. This won’t make the Earth stand still, but it might just make it take notice if we’re lucky.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some very nifty special effects and Connelly makes a great every-woman.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes a little bit over-ponderous and preachy.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of global disaster and some occasionally disturbing violence; those prone to nightmares and the more sensitive sorts should probably not see this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Central Park bridge under which the surviving heroes take shelter with at the movie’s conclusion is the same one used at the end of Cloverfield.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on the eco-friendliness of the production as well as on the real-life search for extra-terrestrial life. Visual Effects supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun discusses how the filmmakers arrived at the final version of Gort, which is fascinating stuff. The Blu-Ray edition has a feature that allows you to design your own Gort, and finally as a special bonus treat, the two and three disc DVD editions as well as the Blu-Ray edition come complete with the 1951 version this movie is based on, starring Michael Rennie and the late Patricia Neal.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $233m on an $80 production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Killshot