In 1982, upon its initial release on June 25, John Carpenter’s The Thing underwhelmed at the box office. It was met with with either indifference or derision from film critics. Today, The Thing is considered a classic in the horror genre and among the best works of Carpenter. What a difference a few decades make.
With the horror remake craze that emerged in the early 2000’s, it’s not surprising that Hollywood executives would eventually turn their attention to Carpenter’s work. To date, Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, and Halloween have all been subjected to the remake treatment. In October 2011, Universal Pictures decided we needed to know how the ‘alien monster’ from Carpenter’s The Thing ended up thawed in that Norwegian research facility and we got a prequel. While Re-Animated is traditionally where I compare remakes to the original film, there’s enough of a remake feel to the 2011 The Thing to warrant a re-appraisal in this column.
The Thing (1982) is Horror Masterpiece
John Carpenter’s The Thing is every bit a horror masterpiece. Based on the novella ‘Who Goes There?’ by John W. Campbell Jr., Carpenter’s film is a suspenseful, moody horror piece. Its premise of an alien entity that can assimilate and appear like anyone with whom it has contact sets the stage for a paranoid horror film befitting of its Cold War time period. Carpenter executes this concept perfectly using the cold, bleak Antarctica setting to really emphasize the characters’ isolation.
Carpenter does get a few huge assists. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone delivers another classic score that takes on an omnipotent presence in background. In the film’s quieter moments, Morricone’s script reminds the viewers of the dangers lurking in the background, serving to maintain tension. The innovative practical creature effects, courtesy of effects artist Rob Bottin, are an absolute highlight of not only The Thing, but horror film-making more generally. Bottin’s imagination and innovation infuse ‘the thing’ with the aesthetics of a constantly twisting nightmare. After over 30 years, Bottin’s effects still hold up to scrutiny.
After over 30 years, Bottin’s effects still hold up to scrutiny.
The Thing also benefits from a strong cast. Kurt Russell makes another appearance in a John Carpenter film as helicopter pilot MacReady. Like his characterization of Snake Plissken in Escape from New York, Russell’s MacReady is a resourceful and stoic character that instantly connects with the audience. The rest of the cast is rounded out by several familiar faces from other 1970’s and 1980’s cult classics including Keith David (They Live), Thomas Waites (The Warriors), Richard Masur (It), and Wilfrod Brimley. Arguably, The Thing is one of the rare films that has improved with time, losing none of its potency.
The Thing (2011) is Prequel that Feels Like a Remake
Technically, The Thing is not a remake – it’s a prequel. Its events, set at the ill-fated Norwegian research base, unfold immediately before Carpenter’s The Thing. My initial reaction upon watching The Thing several years ago were pretty negative. However, after letting this version sit for a few years, my stance has softened a little. There is a lot to like about director Matthijs van Heijningen’s take on how the titular ‘thing’ was released from its icy hibernation. The major problem – The Thing is two really two films in one. It is both a remake of the original and a prequel to the original.
Regardless of its continuity with John Carpenter’s The Thing, the 2011 The Thing is partly a remake. It follows most of the major plot lines from the 1982 film. Thematically, The Thing can’t help but incorporate the same elements of mistrust and paranoia that define Campbell’s original story. Nevertheless, Eric Heisserer’s screenplay does feel like it recycles a few key moments from the original film with some minor tweaking.
Yet The Thing is at its best when it feels like a remake. It’s at these moments when the 2011 version feels ‘smaller’ with a stronger balance between the practical and CGI effects.
Yet The Thing is at its best when it feels like a remake. It’s at these moments when the 2011 version feels ‘smaller’ with a stronger balance between the practical and CGI effects. Additionally, these smaller moments also produce the film’s more innovative and truly suspenseful moments. There are a couple of genuinely freaky, shocking scenes that feel like the psychological body horror from Carpenter’s version. Some of the updates on recycled plot points – including the ‘inorganic’ concept and language barrier among the crew – are welcome additions that give The Thing its own footing.
When The Thing diverges from Carpenter’s film and acts more like a prequel, it doesn’t feel entirely right. Perhaps the best way to word this criticism is that the prequel tries too hard to be a ‘big’ film. There are a few more bigger, action-oriented scenes where the CGI effects feel shaky and the film’s tone diverges too far from its scarier roots. In particular, The Thing’s spaceship climax feels like an unnecessary inclusion in a movie that was already starting to feel too long.
Everything else about The Thing is top notch from its production values to its attention to the details in the Norwegian research facility to ensure continuity. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is excellent as paleontologist Kate Lloyd, offering a cross between Russell’s MacReady and Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. Joel Edgerton feels a little underused; he’s a fantastic actor and excels whenever he’s on screen. The cast has several familiar faces in supporting roles. Perhaps a few characters are indistinguishable from one another, lending to the feeling that this version was trying too hard to be ‘bigger’ and up its body count.
Watch Them Back to Back for a Complete Story
As is the case with most remakes, it’s hard to top the original. Improving upon Carpenter’s vision was always going to be a fool’s errand. Not surprisingly, the 2011 The Thing is at its best when it follows Carpenter’s film more closely. Things go astray when van Heijningen tries to give his film a bigger, action-oriented feel. Still this remake/prequel is a better film than its early reception suggests. If you’re planning a movie night, watch both versions of The Thing back-to-back for a complete experience. van Heijningen was even thoughtful enough to use Morricone’s original score in his post-credit scenes to more seamlessly blend the two films.