Early on in Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr.’s The Thing, the prequel to John Carpenter’s science fiction horror classic, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character comes across a puddle of blood in a shower. It’s one of the first signs that the titular alien creature has killed and taken the form of one of her companions. When she comes back a few minutes later, all the blood is gone, cleaned up by one of the infected humans trying to hide his or her existence. I can’t help but wonder if van Heijningen realized those two scenes taken together sum up the transition from Carpenter’s film to the prequel quite nicely. This new The Thing is indeed curiously bloodless, both literally and figuratively. Which doesn’t mean it’s without interest; van Heijningen and screenwriter Eric Heisserer have some nifty ideas which, though rarely executed flawlessly, make this a much more exciting movie than many of the endless remakes, sequels, and prequels Hollywood has been churning out lately.
Van Heijningen’s film begins with the discovery by a group of Norwegian scientists of a spaceship buried near their Antarctica research base, along with an alien specimen they find encased in a block of ice. The poor bastards, as we know, are about to become the creature’s first human victims. First, though, they enlist the help of several Americans, including paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Winstead) and chopper pilot Braxton Carter (Joel Edgerton, recently seen in Warrior and in last year’s magnificent Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom). The base is nominally under the command of one Edvard Wolner (Trond Espen Seim), but the operation is actually run by his friend Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), a driven and wilful man who hired Lloyd to help extract and analyze the specimen. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the creature is soon able to escape its ice prison to start killing and replacing the research team one by one, causing them to quickly descend into paranoia.
The Norwegian base is seen briefly in Carpenter’s film, when MacReady and Copper visit it to try to figure out what happened there. By then it is a ruin burned almost to the ground and littered with corpses, including the charred remains of a vaguely humanoid creature which turns out to be the titular Thing. Here we get to see the base before it gets wrecked. There is an almost fetishistic attention to detail on the part of van Heijningen and Heisserer, who painstakingly make sure that the base ends up looking exactly as it does in Carpenter’s original, down to the axe MacReady finds buried in a wall. Thankfully, they don’t treat the rest of the movie the same way, and though the plot of the two films are similar (for obvious reasons), van Heijningen and Heisserer do introduce a few significant changes, chief among which Kate Lloyd as a replacement to MacReady as the film’s main character.
Kurt Russell’s MacReady, much like his Snake Plissken from Escape from New York and its sequel, was an iconic antihero before the 1990s ran the archetype into the ground. Lloyd is a more straightforward heroic figure; she does not have his ruggedness and never-say-die attitude (remember how he would rather destroy his computer than lose to it at chess?), but she’s smart, determined, and unafraid to take charge of things when she has to. She’s also one of two women on the base, and that doesn’t come without tension. One of The Thing’s most underappreciated aspects was its subtle commentary on race relations and its thorough taking apart of the “scary black man” archetype; by choosing to focus on a female character, van Heijningen puts his film in a position to provide the same sort of commentary about gender relations. “You’re not here to think,” Halvorson tells Lloyd when she dares question him in front of the team, and when she first comes forward with evidence that the alien creature is able to replicate its victims, you get the feeling that her theory is laughed at not only because of how outlandish it seems, but also because of who came up with it. It’s a man’s world alright, and the men who run it don’t seem particularly happy when Lloyd takes charge of the team. (Incidentally (or not), one of the favorite ways for the Thing to kill its victims seems to be to strike them in the chest with one of its many tentacle-like appendages. Make of that what you will.)
Halvorson’s sexism and general haughtiness is smartly used to increase the film’s atmosphere of paranoia. So is the introduction of American characters on a Norwegian base. While it never fully ceases to feel like an artificial way to have most of the film be in English rather than in Norwegian, to their credit van Heijningen and Heissener manage to make the language barrier matter at the plot level. While all but one of the Norwegian characters speak fluent English, none of the Americans speak Norwegian (someone is bound to read that as a commentary on the American school system). There is a very nice, tense scene in which two characters speak Norwegian specifically to prevent Lloyd from understanding them, which makes her all the more suspicious and on edge. Unfortunately, subtitles are provided at all times, when it would be so much more effective to leave the audience just as much in the dark as Lloyd about what exactly the Norwegian characters are saying.
As long as it plays on the audience’s paranoia, van Heijningen’s The Thing remains quite effective. It loses much of its power once the creature reveals itself, though (which it tends to do a little too readily in the film’s early stages). Carpenter used puppets and animatronics to create his film’s special effects; van Heijningen, of course, uses CGI, and fails to create anything as shocking and terrifying as Carpenter did. It’s not that the CGI is bad per se, but its smoothness is actually a weakness: the moment when a victim’s body bursts and the creature appears is here impressive, but never really scary. The very literal bloodlessness of the film doesn’t help. Carpenter’s transformation sequences involved quite a bit of blood, and looked particularly painful and traumatic; here we see guts and tentacles but no blood at all, and the transformation is so quick that it doesn’t have the time to be truly frightening. Nothing comes close to the body horror of Palmer’s or Norris’s transformations in the original, save perhaps for one particular moment towards the end, which is also, unsurprisingly, the most drawn out of the bunch.
All in all, though, The Thing is surprisingly solid, even in spite of a disappointing final twenty minutes or so and of its lacking much of the original’s humor. The ending is appropriately bleak, if not as powerful as the MacReady/Childs face-off of Carpenter’s version. There is much to like here, though, and while van Heijningen’s film is unlikely to become the classic its predecessor is, it makes for a perfectly serviceable prequel.