Review: The Thing, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead

The Thing, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead
4 10

NOTE: John "The Arrow" Fallon's review will be up this weekend.

PLOT: A group of scientists gather in a remote part of Antarctica to investigate the startling discovery of a crashed spaceship and its passenger. Soon after, the alien invader breaks free from his icy confines and preys on the humans, using its unique ability to replicate the appearance of any lifeform to its nefarious advantage.

REVIEW: Universal's prequel to THE THING has had an uphill climb ever since its announcement. While the reality has always been that it is a prequel to Carpenter's 1982 sci-fi classic, you can't tell that to the legion of horror aficionados who scoff at those semantics and identify the film as yet another ingenuity-starved remake. All that really matters in the end, however, is how the finished product fares as a piece of entertainment. Does THE THING justify its existence by providing solid thrills of its own? The answer is, sadly, not really.

THE THING gets off to a fairly promising start: A sort of old fashioned set-up where we meet the members of an expedition who travel to a desolate block of ice in order to do some meddling with forces beyond their control; director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. and writer Eric Heisserer play things out with a deliberate pace that builds a nice atmosphere of quiet foreboding. Our main focus is Kate, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a young geologist who is hired by a prestigious, pompous scientist (Ulrich Thomsen) to join a primarily Norwegian crew in Antarctica that has just stumbled upon a massive spacecraft and its pilot; a beastly but unclear organism that looks something like a giant praying mantis.

Thrilled at first by the discovery of a lifetime, the crew eventually learn too late that their visitor is not quite dead when it decides to burst from its ice cube. Worse still, it soon becomes obvious that the "praying mantis" was just one possible form this Thing can take; it happens that it can absorb the cells of another lifeform and then replicate it. Paranoia sets in big time as our characters attempt to figure out who is human and who is the Thing. You know the routine.

Prequel business aside, there's no doubt that this new version of THE THING is a vague re-telling of John Carpenter's film; you can probably already gather that from reading the plot. A few key sequences in Carpenter's film clearly inspire scenes in Van Heijningen's film; the infamous "blood test" scene, for example, is given a reinvention here, though the pay off is missed. (Checking for teeth fillings isn't quite as engrossing as burning blood samples.) Not unlike the alien at the center of the action, this scene - and the others - is a superficial copy without much soul.

Also missing is a rooting interest. I won't pretend that the characters in Carpenter's THE THING are lovable, but most of them were distinct and believably lived-in by the actors playing them. We wanted to see at least a few of those roughnecks make it out of the insanity intact. The people in THE THING are cardboard figures with the bare minimum of personality: Here's a guy who doesn't speak English; here's a pompous jerk; here's a tough guy; here's a smart girl, etc. What we need to know about our protagonists we know five seconds after meeting them and no more. The performances are all acceptable, but no one stands out. Even the always likable Winstead, who is supposed to be our sympathetic lead, is relegated to wearing a worried expression on her face the entire time and little else. She and her eventual male counterpart Carter (Joel Edgerton) have nothing in the way of chemistry; indeed, it doesn't even seem like any chemistry was attempted. Most of the Norwegians are forgettable, serious sorts, and Thomsen's smug scientist is just another member of a long, long lineage of smug movie scientists. Also noteworthy is that Thomsen's assistant is played by Eric Christian Olsen, usually a pretty funny guy. THE THING, however, makes the curious decision of having Olsen play it straight, when it actually could have used him to bring some affability to the proceedings.

Of course, what people really go into this movie wondering is, how are the sequences when the Thing flips out? You'll remember from Carpenter's version that the Thing - usually right after the time its true identity is discovered - will often flip its shit and commence transforming hideously, morphing into a slimy, twisted mass of flesh, bone and teeth. Rob Bottin's immensely impressive practical effects at the time brought us various nightmare figures that made you gag and stare in awe simultaneously. In the year 2011, however, we're not using very many practical effects, so naturally the Thing's ghastly transformation sequences are done with CG almost exclusively - and unimpressive CG at that. Like many poor CG renderings, the monster effects in THE THING have no weight; there's a nagging un-reality about them. As surreal as Bottin's mutations were in Carpenter's film, they were right there in the room with the humans, the slime and blood were palpable. Here we're handed little more than maniacal cartoons. There's also something frankly silly about seeing the Thing literally dashing around like a drunkard while it's in transformation mode. (THE THING has more giggle-worthy moments than I'm sure were intended.) To be fair, there are one or two effectively gruesome bits - one character being screamingly absorbed into the Thing is the prequel's best moment - but there's no one visual that reaches the wonderful freakishness of the original flick's creature set-pieces.

The third act of THE THING is dispiriting, as the last survivors strive to finish off the alien in its intergalactic mode of transportation. The ship looks like every other alien ship we've ever seen, the action within it goes down exactly according to plan, and we're left feeling bored by the movie's predictability. Just when the movie should reach a fever pitch, it loses steam, like a final sigh of resignation. Yes, there's a fitting reference to the opening of the 1982 film at the conclusion that could satisfy some of the purists, but as it's lumped in awkwardly with the end credits, it produces no goosebumps, doesn't produce any real reaction. Ultimately, it comes off as unnecessary, not unlike the rest of THE THING.

Extra Tidbit: THE THING opens on OCTOBER 14th.



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