The Thing is a franchise that continually defies expectations. The 1951 original, The Thing from Another World, escaped the usual silliness of man-from-space pictures of the time period with strong central characters and a couple of impressive horror set pieces. In 1982, John Carpenter released his take on the story, simply titled The Thing, that managed to be one of only a select few remakes in movie history that improved on the original in almost every way. What it may have lacked in characterization, it made up for with unrelenting terror. It was a masterful display of suspense and it still holds up today. Then in 2002, Carpenter’s film got a terrific video game sequel that surprised gamers everywhere by breaking the trend of poor licensed video games. Now in 2011, we get a prequel to Carpenter’s film, also titled The Thing, that any person would rightfully expect to be lousy, but it’s not. It’s not as good as its predecessor, but it works and does so in a different way, separating itself from Carpenter’s version while still retaining its style. This is a franchise that can do no wrong.
The film takes place days before the events of 1982’s The Thing at a nearby Norwegian camp in Antarctica where a team of scientists have just found an alien spacecraft and a specimen frozen in the ice. To help unearth and examine it, they enlist the help of American paleontologist, Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who soon realizes that the cells of the creature aren’t dying and are able to fuse themselves with the cells of other living creatures, replicating them perfectly. After it escapes, it’s a game of wits as nobody in the compound can trust anybody else. Any of them could be the thing.
The idea of not knowing who is a person and who is a thing was the driving the force behind Carpenter’s movie and the same is true here, though to a lesser degree. Although technically a prequel, it feels like a remake of the remake, following in its footsteps to a tee, including the lock-up of suspicious characters in a cabin outside and a variation on the blood test scene to check who is a monster and who isn’t, but it’s done well, building a good amount of tension and excellently playing off the fears of paranoia and claustrophobia. These early moments are undoubtedly its high points.
Eventually, however, it succumbs to monster movie madness and becomes nothing more than a gross-out creature feature. It becomes more jumpy and more effects oriented and thus, less effective. The tension is replaced by loud, overblown spectacle and the characters spend less time worrying about who is a thing and more time running from them, but it never gets boring. Because the movie has spent its early moments focusing on the characters, the sense of peril remains. You’ve come to care about them and even though the mystery is gone and the suspense is fading, its outcome remains as emotionally important as ever, despite the fact that, thanks to its prequel status, it had already been decided.
Where The Thing falters the most is in its climactic moments where it gets a bit too Hollywood and shows us too much. To go further would be critically irresponsible, but it ends up raising more questions than it answers, which is baffling given that it won’t ever have the chance to answer them (short of shooting a sequel separate from the Carpenter movie). Still, as far as these things go, this is pretty good. Creature features are generally silly, redundant and ineffective. The Thing proves not all creature features are created equal.
The Thing receives 4/5