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Review: ‘The Thing’

The Projector

1. Boy did "The Thing" ever scare me as a kid. I saw it again a few years ago and was able to appreciate its technical aspects a bit more -- the haunting score, director John Carpenter's mastery at ratcheting up tension to a level that almost feels perverse -- but as an adolescent, it appeared put on earth solely to make me wet my pants. This was basically a film about a group of people trapped in a room together, and at some indeterminate moment, one of them (and you have no idea which) is going to explode in flash of blood and bile and turn into a horrifying space alien. It could happen at any time. It could be anyone in that room. Then BAM. This is the central appeal of the original "The Thing," and watching the group try to figure out which is the "other" -- while we, the audience, know that even the group leaders could be the "other" -- is universally compelling. And not just for a 12-year-old kid who often found himself in rooms full of people whose minds were total mysteries. Who knew what was going on with their brains?

2. The remake of "The Thing" forgets this. It just wants to be a traditional monster movie, in which we trap a group of people in a far-off location and watch them try to survive. There are a few nods at the initial concept, including an attempt to discover the alien imposter by checking the fillings in one's teeth. (The alien(s) can only replicate live matter, not metal.) This is an inefficient discovery method; as one person rightly notes, "Oh, so I'm gonna get killed because I floss?" But then the film drops it and just features characters we know aren't aliens trying to kill something we know that is. We've seen that a million times before. If you take the paranoia out of "The Thing," the sense that everyone in the room is right and you are wrong and they are all going to eat you now, you have nothing but gross monster effects. Which we've seen a million times before, too.

3. The film is a prequel to the original film, so it takes place in 1982, when the St. Louis Cardinals were beating the Milwaukee Brewers in the World Series. (Sorry. I have a preoccupied brain right now.) That film opened with two Norwegians chasing a dog in a helicopter; that's how this film ends. (I don't think that counts as a spoiler.) A massive spaceship is found in Antarctica, along with a frozen alien being, and a team of Norwegian and American scientists (along with an ornithologist played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) assemble to do secret research. I'll never understand why this research has to be so secret; it's an alien! We wanna know! Anyway, the scientists are far too blase about having discovered an alien, and next thing you know, it has escaped its icy prison and is out killing and replicating people. It's a good thing the spaceship crashed in Antarctica, or we'd all be walking around, speaking alien. Or are we?

4. You know, now that I think about it, I don't get this alien. First off, I don't quite understand whether it's one alien, or several. On one hand, there's just one in the ice, and we see it escape. But then again, we see it burned alive ... and yet there are still other aliens impersonating people. Are these pieces of the initial alien? If so, why doesn't it just immediately, once it's out of the ice, just start impersonating bacteria in the air, or atoms, or penguins, or anything nearby that's alive. If it's able to replicate itself like that, why bother with humans? Penguins don't shoot flamethrowers at you; clear advantage for replicating oneself as a penguin. Also, why is it so fast at changing its cells into a human's at the beginning of the film, but so slow at the end that it turns into a wildly gesticulating monster alien with bits and pieces of all the people it killed earlier in the movie? It's just because the movie wants to show off its monster effects, right? That's the only reason I've got.

5. The movie is basically just one "Boo!" after another, which works in a primal level in the first half but starts to become repetitive and predictable by the end. There's just no sense of dread in this "Thing," no notion that these people are truly at the edge of the world, with nowhere to escape and no one to trust. It also doesn't help that everyone's Norwegian; none of these characters are all that distinguishable from one another, so it never feels like the stakes are all that high. (What's one more dead bearded Norse chap?) The movie does have the advantage over the first film in that it has a female presence, a surprisingly strong Winstead, but by the end, all her smarts are channeled into screaming and running. Even Joel Edgerton, who could nominally be called a movie star, does nothing more than wear an earring, an affectation that's distracting until it annoyingly becomes a plot point. Mostly: This thing just doesn't have much soul. It's far too satisfied in just having a tentacled alien monster go after humans, and doesn't provide much wit, substance or, ultimately, fear. It does win points, though, for being the first monster movie I've ever seen that makes an argument against proper dental hygiene. There is that.

Grade: C-.