It’s a reasonably safe bet to say that very rarely will a remake of a film meet the standard set by an original, as of course if the source material was bad in the first place, a remake would likely not even be considered. The number of times a remake is better than the original can probably be counted on one hand. Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven and David Cronenberg’s The Fly spring to mind as a couple of those rare examples. And, of course, John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece The Thing, which goes beyond being a superior remake to being considered one of the finest sci-fi/horror films ever made. As for prequels, it’s hard to come up with a single example that improved on its predecessor. In modern Hollywood, there are prequels, there are remakes, and then there is Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s 2011 version of The Thing.
Ostensibly a prequel of a remake, The Thing finds itself uncomfortably torn between the two. The story concerns the initial discovery of an alien artifact buried deep under the ice of Antarctica, and the events that follow lead directly to the opening scene of Carpenter’s 1982 film. So, it’s a prequel, right? Well, not quite. The way the events unfold is almost a beat-for-beat copy of the earlier film, and a number of well-known scenes from Carpenter’s version are recreated. So maybe it’s a remake? I don’t know, and it seems like van Heijningen doesn’t know either. There’s only one sure way to clarify what this movie is: terrible. Van Heijningen’s The Thing is derivative, pointless, four-quadrant filmmaking at its absolute worst. It tries so hard to recreate the atmosphere of paranoia and claustrophobia of Carpenter’s film, but fails to engage on any level.
The problems go well beyond what any comparison with the 1982 version could reveal, but by trying so hard to mimic the far, far superior film, van Heijningen holds his film up to be judged against it, and it’s not pretty. The first issue lies with the characters. To lead the story, Carpenter gave us RJ Macready, played by Kurt Russell at the peak of his badass days. Van Heijningen gives us Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Sam Carter (Joel Edgerton), unnecessarily dividing the Macready role to make way for a female lead, obviously in the hopes of expanding the potential audience by drawing women to the cinema. Winstead does the best she can, but it’s difficult to buy her as an expert paleontologist, particularly when there doesn’t seem to be any real reason for her character to be there. She is even told that she isn’t there to think, just to make sure they can get the thing out of the ice. Why a scientific facility doing research on things drilled out of the ice needs to bring in an ‘expert’ from America to help them drill a thing out of the ice is never made clear, but I guess they needed to get the American stars in there. A female lead in a sci-fi/horror film has worked before, but it’s not the case here. As for Edgerton, he seems to be there simply because he looks tough and has a beard (like Macready!). As for the other characters, they really aren’t given much of a chance to establish themselves, so it’s hard to care as they are picked off one by one. Carpenter subtly developed his supporting characters to make audiences feel for them, but van Heijningen simply throws them all out there and tries to focus on an unconvincing lead.
Perhaps the two most enduring elements of Carpenter’s The Thing were the terrifying special effects and the excellent ambiguous ending. The new version fails here as well, with atrocious CGI which lacks a tenth of the impact of the 30 year-old practical effects, and a woeful third act that obliterates what little atmosphere the film had developed. The men of Carpenter’s version were not heroes, they were simply working-class guys faced with a situation they were ill-prepared for and ill-equipped to deal with. Van Heijningen insists on giving audiences an awful ‘hero moment’, before ruining the one slightly interesting plot point by having a character spell everything out for the audience. It’s insulting that Hollywood filmmakers nowadays don’t trust their audiences enough to pick up on nuanced visual cues, we must have everything very deliberately spelled out for us. And the less said about the ham-fisted credit sequence, the better.
2011’s The Thing is among the most redundant and dreadful prequel/remakes since Gus van Sant remade Psycho. It is a film to be avoided, particularly if you have any attachment to Carpenter’s 1982 version. Thankfully the legacy of the previous film cannot really be scarred too badly, as it’s unlikely anyone will remember van Heijningen’s The Thing by this time next year.