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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Kate Beckinsale

This is Kate Beckinsale looking concerned. Later, she'll look perplexed.

(Warner Brothers) Kate Beckinsale, Gabriel Macht, Columbus Short, Tom Skerritt, Alex O’Laughlin, Shawn Doyle, Joel Keller, Jesse Todd, Arthur Holden, Erin Hickock. Directed by Dominic Sena

In space, no one can hear you scream; by the same token, at the South Pole, nobody can see a maniac coming either. At least, not in this movie.

It all starts with a plane full of Soviet Russians circa 1955 transporting a mysterious box over the South Pole to God knows where (Ummm…not to make too fine a point of it, but isn’t the USSR closer to the North Pole? Just asking…) when a gunfight breaks out on the transport plane. As anyone who knows airplanes can tell you, a gunfight on an airplane in midflight is usually a very bad idea. This scene would bear that out – so remember the next time you feel the urge to shoot someone on a plane, no matter how irritating they are.

Fifty years later another body turns up, and like the Russians, this one was killed on purpose but nobody knows who it was or what the body was doing all the way to Hell and gone. U.S. Marshall Carrie Stetko (Beckinsale) has maybe the cushiest and worst job in the U.S. Marshall service – the most she ever has to deal with are a couple of geologists arguing about whose theory about igneous rocks is more accurate. Now, she has to deal with a murder – and only two days to solve it before the researchers fly north for the winter.

She will be aided by the wise, kindly Dr. Fury (Skerritt) who has nothing to do with Nick Fury other than they both originated in comic books, an FBI agent (Macht) who shows up conveniently, a wisecracking pilot (Short) and umm…other guys. As other bodies start turning up and an investigation of the original crime scene turns up that Russian transport plane from the prologue, it appears that the murders have something to do with whatever was in that mysterious box. What was so valuable that people would be killing for it fifty years later? The Ark of the Covenant maybe?

The movie started out life as a tautly written graphic novel that was way more suspenseful than this mess. The fact that it was shelved for nearly a decade before it was made, then sat on the studio shelf an additional two years after it was made should have told you something; well, obviously you took it to heart because this bombed at the box office in a hailstorm of negative reviews.

Part of the movie’s problem is endemic to the location, which is ironically one of the things that sets this movie apart from other thrillers. The whiteout conditions at the conclusion of the movie make it nearly impossible to tell who’s fighting who, or see what the characters are doing. I’ve seen plenty of movies so underlit that you can’t make out what’s going on; here, the action is obscured in a blizzard of studio snow.

The other problem is that much of the tension that made the graphic novel so enjoyable is largely missing here. Beckinsale, who can be a strong actress when given the right material (see Snow Angels), has been given absolutely nothing to work with here. Oh, there’s a backstory about a near-death experience while working for the Marshall Service in Miami that Haunts our Heroine Even Now, but largely she is given no personality and spends most of the movie looking perplexed, surprised, bundled up beyond recognition in fur jackets or stripping down for a gratuitous shower.

Likewise, most of the other characters are given no personalities and all kind of blend together with the exception of Skerritt’s Doc Fury who comes off a bit like a skinny Wilford Brimley. As such, you’re given no reason to care a whit about any of them, even after the maniac with the pickaxe comes calling.

There were four writers credited with the screenplay, which makes for patchwork screenwriting. This was a difficult graphic novel to translate to the motion picture medium at best for the reasons outlined above, but it basically had no chance with so many fingers in its pie. Hopefully, the studios and producer Joel Silver will have learned a lesson; avoid action sequences in a snowstorm and focus on character development if you want the suspense to really go off the scale and in the future, try to inject a little suspense into a suspense movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Kate Beckinsale is a beautiful woman.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not a lot of suspense and quite frankly some of the action is hard to see.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence but not to excess, some rather grisly images and a bit of nudity. Probably not for the kids, unless they’re crazy mature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Lake Manitoba exterior location was occasionally colder than the South Pole it was doubling for.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Expendables