Monday, October 17, 2011


First-time Danish helmer Matthijs van Heijningen’s remake of the legendary 1951 creature-feature “The Thing from Another World” qualifies as formulaic but respectable nonsense. The original “Thing” preserved only vestiges of author John W. Campbell’s vintage 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” Instead, producer Howard Hawks, “His Girl Friday” scenarist Charles Lederer, and Hawks’ long-time editor Christian Nyby created the conventional alien-on-the-rampage plot at an isolated, snow-swept, scientific outpost in the Arctic. Not only did “The Thing from Another World” constitute one of Hollywood’s earliest epics to depict extraterrestrials, but it also was the first with a hostile alien devoid of compassion. The original “Thing” alien was a towering homicidal humanoid with the cellular structure of a vegetable who gave the scientists and the U.S.A.F personnel a royal headache before they manage to isolate its weakness and electrocute it.

In 1982, “Halloween” director John Carpenter and writer Bill Lancaster produced a sequel where survivors from the initial tragedy encountered a nearby community of scientists. The shape-shifting alien invader entered their camp as a Yukon husky and mayhem ensued. Instead of contending with a humanoid creature, the guys in “The Thing” confronted an ugly beast with tentacles, huge teeth, and a bad attitude that absorbed its victims and then impersonated them. The monster remained in one body until he shifted to another host. Consequently, nobody trusted anybody. Trapped in a remote outpost in Antarctica, the characters suffered from extreme paranoia. Principally, they suspected that one of their own had been cloned and threatened to not only kill them but also clone them. Van Heijningen and “Final Destination 5” scenarist Eric Heisserer have appropriated the complicated Carpenter and Lancaster approach rather than the straightforward, single alien invasion plot. Nevertheless, Heijningen and Heisserer have altered a thing or two. First, the hero of the new “Thing” (*** out of ****) is a woman. Second, the way our heroes test to determine the presence of the alien differs. Third, no equivalent to Dr. Carrington in the original exists in the group of scientists. If you recall, Dr. Carrington represented the fraction of scientists who did not want to destroy the Thing. Instead, they wanted to reason with it and learn from it. Mind you, the new “Thing” isn’t as creepy as Carpenter’s masterpiece with its abundant atmosphere, memorable Ennio Morricone score, and charismatic cast. Nevertheless, Heijningen and Heisserer deserve recognition for their fidelity to the source material and the sequel. Of course, it doesn’t hurt matters that two of the producers on Carpenter’s “Thing” also produced this remake.

“The Thing” takes place in Antarctica during the winter of 1982. Arrogant Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen of “Season of the Witch”) persuades a top-notch graduate student, American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead of “Black Christmas”), into joining his Norwegian geological expedition. She accepts and finds herself freezing her toes off while the guys show her their top-secret discovery. They have found a gigantic alien spacecraft entombed in the ice for possibly a hundred-thousand years. The first scene shows how they plunged a snow-plow into a crevasse and found it. Unlike the original film, these scientists stumble onto the spacecraft deep in the ice, but they do not blow it up accidentally. Like the original, they locate the mysterious body of an alien that ejected from the crashed spaceship only to freeze. Carefully, they remove it from the ice and stash it in their research facility for examination. Eventually, the ice thaws, and the monster escapes. Our heroes realize that they are contending with a deadly alien and wield flame-throwers. They start to worry during an early autopsy when it becomes apparent that the creature can spit out replicas of their colleagues. Things reach a crisis point, and nobody trusts anybody, until the savvy Kate figures out that the alien cannot replicate inanimate objects. If an individual wears jewelry, has metal appliances surgically attached to their bones, or/and silver fillings in their teeth, the Thing cannot replicate these items. Unfortunately, some of the scientists don’t have silver fillings. They have porcelain ones. Ultimately, everything boils down to a suspenseful game of cat and mouse. Happily, Van Heijningen and Heisserer drum up an adequate number of scares to keep you poised on the edge. Moviegoers who don’t do horror movies might find “The Thing” a bit more demanding. In one scene, a gash appears in one character’s face, runs down his chest toward his stomach as both open wide like a mouth and elephant tusk-sized teeth sprout accompanied by a hideous howl.

Creature designer Michael Broom of “The Mist” and “Predators” has conjured up several memorable creatures. At one point, the alien absorbs two men so that it looks like a two-headed transplant walking on its arms and legs like a wolf. During another scene, a forearm detaches from one individual and attaches itself by the forearm to another fellow’s face and starts to graft itself onto the man’s face! When the monster is in its own ghastly form, it can project a slimy-looking tentacle that penetrates flesh and bone like a spear. Once the tentacle has perforated an individual’s back, its tip emerges from the chest and deploys into a four-pronged, grappling hook that retracts its victim into its voracious maw. The worst thing that you can say about the new “Thing” is that nobody delivers any memorable lines of dialogue, and the cast lacks the charisma of the first two movies. Suffice to say, all those Norwegian fellows look and sound identical with little individuality among them. Happily, they don’t turn Mary Elizabeth Winstead into a sexy Ripley from “Alien” clone. Joel Edgerton plays a resilient helicopter pilot who is reminiscent of Kurt Russell’s hero in the sequel. Shrewdly, Heijningen paces the appearance of the alien for maximum impact and predictably ratchets up the action in the final quarter. Like the Carpenter classic, the remake shuns humor. Ultimately, although it is a remake of the 1951 “Thing,” the new “Thing” shares more in common with Carpenter’s “Thing.” Despite the sense of déjà vu that accompanies this polished production, “The Thing” lacks the turbo-driven fright of Carpenter’s sequel, but it scores major points with its impressive CGI creature designs.