There are two schools of thought when it comes to remaking classic movies – that the originals are sacrosanct and any attempt to reinterpret them is an affront, and that no amount of meddling affects the integrity of the original, and filmmakers should (within reason) be allowed free reign. Personally I subscribe to the latter view. While most remakes are perfunctory at best (THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET), and an affront at worst (THE WICKER MAN, any of the dozens of updated versions of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD), they don’t spoil my enjoyment of the originals, and even throw up an occasional gem (THE FLY, DAWN OF THE DEAD). Of course, not all remakes are created equal. 2005’s HOUSE OF WAX (starring, amongst others, Paris Hilton), while more successful than it probably has any right to be, wouldn’t have ruffled too many feathers had it sunk without trace. It’s a remake, but director André De Toth’s 1953 original, while far from forgotten, isn’t nearly as revered as something like John Carpenter’s THE THING. During the late 70’s and early 80’s, Carpenter produced a series of cult horror (and other genre) films arguably unrivalled in their influence and accomplishment. One of the earliest, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, was remade to lacklustre effect in 2005, and Rob Zombie’s 2007 reimagining of HALLOWEEN was critically panned (although it isn’t nearly as bad as they’d have you believe). Far worse was THE FOG, also 2005, which was abysmal. Along with HALLOWEEN, THE THING (itself a remake of 1951’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, which was adapted from John W. Campbell Jr.’s SF novella Who Goes There?) is probably Carpenter’s most beloved horror movie, and a remake was always going to risk the ire of its legions of dedicated fans. Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s 2011 version neatly sidesteps this debate by taking the form of a prequel rather than a remake. Except it doesn’t. In all the ways that count (including its title), the new THING is a rehash of Carpenter’s (already rehashed) original.
Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an American palaeontologist, is seconded to a research team led by Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen). Their remit is to examine what appears to be an extraterrestrial craft buried beneath the ice of Antarctica, recently discovered by a Norwegian scientific outpost. Not only have the scientists discovered the craft, they’ve also stumbled across an alien cadaver. Under Halvorson’s auspices the corpse is transported to the outpost, where tissue samples are taken. As the scientists attempt to come to terms with the magnitude of their discovery, the ice in which the creature is encased starts to melt, and ultimately the creature breaks free. It soon becomes apparent the alien is able to mimic the appearance of anyone it comes into contact with, leaving the terrified scientists in a desperate battle for survival against an enemy they can’t identify...
Had the circumstances been different and THE THING not been so beholden to the original, chances are it would only have come in for a fraction of the critical mauling it’s received. Granted, parts of it simply don’t stack up (the scientists’ reaction to their monumental discovery is inexplicably muted, and their treatment of the alien ‘corpse’ unforgivably cavalier – first they take a sample, exposing themselves to all manner of alien pathogens and other potential threats, then they leave the body unguarded while the ice steadily melts), but niggles aside it’s a robust, exciting SF/horror thriller. It’s irksome (if predictable) that the Norwegians are sidelined and the Americans (Winstead and Kurt Russell-lookalike pilot Joel Edgerton) hog the heroic limelight, but the action is brisk enough, and the suspense suitably well-sustained, that such clichés can be forgiven. The pace is commendably brisk, with barely a pause for breath between set-pieces, and the claustrophobic nature of the camp really comes into its own when the extraterrestrial peril is unleashed. Not enough is made of the world beyond the walls – the sheer terrifying scale of Antarctica is never addressed – but the sense of paranoia is keenly articulated, with no way to tell human from alien after the lab is sabotaged. Friend turns on friend, and the language barrier is cleverly exploited to accentuate the various divides.
The fact remains, however, that THE THING is beholden to Carpenter’s version, and comparisons are inevitable (and valid). When it was first announced that the new iteration would be a prequel rather than a straight-up remake it seemed a shrewd move. It allows van Heijningen to mine the same suspenseful vein as Carpenter, but without the implied arrogance of attempting to improve on it. Watching the finished article, however, it soon becomes apparent that THE THING is a remake (or perhaps rehash) first, a prequel second. The plot is almost identical, the creature the same, the setting the same, and it makes a concerted effort to recapture Carpenter’s foreboding, claustrophobic atmosphere. In some regards it succeeds (there’s a laudable effort to keep the effects at least partly practical, harkening back to Rob Bottin and Stan Winston’s spectacular work on the original, and a token attempt to mix things up, adding new elements to the familiar script), but in others it was doomed to sink before it even set sail. It looks a lot slicker than Carpenter’s version, and has obviously had a lot more money thrown at it, but that’s really not the point.
THE THING seems set up to fail. As a prequel it’s a mere tick box exercise (that’s how the axe ended up in the wall, that’s how two people died with their faces fused together), slavishly queuing up the original without taking the time to plot its own course. It feels like a cheat, a remake by another name, and ends up playing like a hybrid, a bizarre amalgamation of the two formats. That said, if you can expunge Carpenter’s movie from the equation (no mean feat), 2011’s THE THING is eminently watchable. Its pace excuses (or at least distracts from) its lapses in logic, and the monster, practical or not, is gruesomely imaginative. The last ten minutes are a misstep, borrowing too heavily from ALIEN and a whole host of more modern extraterrestrial invasion movies (SKYLINE springs to mind), but at least it represents an attempt to do something different and stray from the script. THE THING isn’t a patch on the original, but neither does it embarrass it, which is about as much as we could reasonably ask.