Saturday, 11 February 2012

The Thing (2011)

The existence of Matthijs van Heijnengen Jnr’s 2011 film entitled The Thing elucidates a host of ironies, little of which have anything to do with the actual film itself. Few modern movies have had more peculiar paths to a general esteem than John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece, also called The Thing. Widely dismissed upon release as a crude and gory, phobic desecration of the good, clean Howard Hawks-via-Christian Nyby 1951 classic The Thing From Another World, time soon forced the recognition that Carpenter’s work was not only an eerie, cryptic, vividly stylised piece of noir-soaked, new-age sci-fi, but that he had honourably retranslated the original John W. Campbell Jnr story “Who Goes There?” through the lens of contemporary body-horror motifs and postmodern fragmentation, to an extent that, like Philip Kaufman’s similarly bold revision of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), Carpenter had fully demonstrated that genre remakes could transcend whatever cynical reasons there were behind such adaptations, and produce galvanising new cinematic models. If movie marketing had not relied upon his version being titled The Thing, Carpenter’s film could have more justly named itself after Campbell’s story. Fast-forward almost the exact amount of time that separated the Hawks-Nyby and Carpenter versions, to last year: a young Dutch filmmaker with a mouthful of a name once again tackles the material, and again the use of the title The Thing indicates a commercial pressure that partly masks a film with a nominally different priority. Van Heijnengen’s version is supposed to be a prequel to Carpenter’s film, and yet the flat reproduction of the title gives rise to the suspicion that it’s actually another remake, and that suspicion proves well-founded.

Apart from the ever-debated merits of the rise of CGI and digital editing systems, there is much less of a disparity in film technique and aesthetics between 2011 and 1982 than there was between 1982 and 1951: what was easily demonstrable as modern in Carpenter’s day is not half as distinct now, and many feel that what is different is no improvement. To a certain extent Van Heijnengen’s movie demonstrates their point. Carpenter’s film was based in two divergent impulses: the first was to honour the Hawks-Nyby film, having made sure to include a glimpse of its iconic title sequence in his Halloween (1978), but the second was to completely reclaim and refashion the material in his own epochal sensibility. Van Heijnengen, making his feature film debut after some shorts and commercials, is on the other hand almost slavish in adhering to aspects of Carpenter’s vision, not only affecting to depict events immediately prior to those in the 1982 film, but reproducing sets and lighting effects, and the minutiae of its best sequences. To a certain extent, the effect of this self-imposed template is bracing: Van Heijnengen’s film is markedly superior in shooting style and editing rhythm to a lot of factotum modern genre fare spat out by the Hollywood industry mills, and represents by far the best Carpenter makeover so far. That is damning with faint praise, as almost anything is better than the criminal blandness and clumsiness of the reimagined Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, and The Fog, works which cause me to hope there is a hell in which certain antechambers can thus be reserved for the makers thereof. Van Heijnengen’s film is by comparison not a disgrace, and in many ways it’s a solid, fairly satisfying, well-acted and well-made piece of monster malarkey, especially by current standards. And yet in other ways it’s faintly depressing in comparison to its precursors, derivative, impersonal, and merely functional, where both earlier films overflowed with distinctive personality.

It almost goes without saying that a core Carpenter quality, well-distilled from Bill Lancaster’s screenplay for his version, of rigorous grounding in realistic, tactile detail and specificity of milieu and character, is largely absent in this version, because that’s true of almost everything Hollywood puts out these days, and of product put out far beyond those sunny shores, too. Modern Hollywood has almost returned to the pre-1950s ideal predicated to situating its product in a hazily bourgeois modernity free of class and racial tensions, and easily reducible signifiers in place of characters, whereas Carpenter’s films, like Hawks', are always based in a workaday ethos. The characterisation in the Carpenter film is only swiftly sketched, but it is done with a precision and a sense of intimate humour that invests its roll-call of antiheroes with immediate humanity, and there's a steady accumulation of detail in their lives and their reactions to threat that compounds into something rich. Even the scientists and military men had given in to some extent to laissez fair ennui and countercultural impulses similar to that of the crew of Dark Star (1974). Apart from a brief pause in this version for the rude, crude Norwegian station crew to get drunk and rowdy in celebrating their alien discovery, little such business gets by here. The Hawks-Nyby film was built around a dynamic pitting self-defence and the warrior mentality against a coolly pragmatic, scientific world view, with completely divergent ideas on which ends are justified by what means. Carpenter’s film tweaked that conflict to balance different brands of ruthless survivalism, pitting collective perspective against the personal. Eric Heisserer’s script for this edition calls back to the very original, in making Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), the man who hires gifted young palaeontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to accompany him to check out the mysterious alien artefact discovered under the ice, a frosty, self-important savant who’s willing to embrace any expedience that expands knowledge and increases his fame. There are hints of sexist undertones to Halvorson’s patronising of Kate, and the general refusal to countenance Kate’s warnings about the evil she has diagnosed until it's too late. These notes eventually converge as the film reaches its climax, as Kate is stalked by the Thing, wearing Halvorson’s face and waving phallic protuberances at her.

These aspects are included, much like the reproductions of the Carpenter film’s signature set-pieces, as a matter of course, but they're far more incidental, and eventually add up to nothing. This is a film for our age, where filmmakers assume that multiplex audiences have  little to no interest in ethical probing, situational hypothesising, and detailed clashes of temperament in  bodied characters. The filmmakers can’t wait to rush in to give money shots of men being digested alive by manga tentacle beasts, and getting the whole blood-pumping monster-dodging party underway. In this regard the film works well enough, mostly by jumping into the action and not giving anyone time to think too deeply, as Kate is forced to take the lead purely by dint of having a few minutes’ advantage of awareness over everyone else. The Carpenter film’s immortally protracted, unbearably tense and clever blood-testing scene is echoed here with a less dramatic device as Kate checks out the mouths of the crew to check whether they still have fillings that the alien can’t assimilate, a way of whittling down the suspects which the rush of circumstances soon proves only partly effective. Joel Edgerton is Carter, clearly modelled on Kurt Russell’s MacReady, as a rugged chopper pilot who’s man enough to wear an earring, who, along with his flying partner Jameson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), become major suspects as assimilated aliens because they survive a terrible helicopter accident: Edgerton is likeably blue-collar and soulful in his toughness here as in Animal Kingdom (2010) and Warrior (2011), but the variation on the character he is given to work with, like Halvorson, is finally so thin he could be a cardboard cut-out. One good touch is the fact that Kate’s most ardent initial supporter is the one member of the team who can’t speak English, the team’s bearish, over-intense dog-handler Lars (Jørgen Langhelle). But otherwise the supporting characters are barely characterised beyond being hairy guys who talk funny.

Van Heijnengen’s nuts-and-bolts filmmaking is sleek and efficient, and indicates he has talent, particularly in his sense of contrast between claustrophobic settings and great vistas. But he’s bitten off far more than he can chew here, trying to reproduce the nervelessly timed shocks and the intricately staged obliqueness Carpenter wielded so well, in keeping just what we’ve seen partly obscure in some moments, deepening his film’s sense of paranoia and the mood of disintegrating psychological and physical cohesion that accompanies the slow destruction of the Antarctic base. This The Thing, by contrast, becomes relentlessly more conventional as it continues. The contrast between, say, the uncannily eerie strains of Ennio Morricone’s theme for Carpenter version, interpolated throughout here, and the boilerplate scoring provided elsewhere by Marco Beltrami, shows up the essential lack of real originality and new thinking that curses this film. One aspect that Van Heijnengen does manage to do something with is in the disturbing spectacle of living flesh being warped and infused with alien matter: apart from the brilliantly outlandish dog cage sequence, Carpenter largely steered clear of much sense of this intimate, weirdly and grotesquely erotic kind of body-horror. Van Heijnengen, on the other hand, does stage some impressive moments, particularly in one moment where a self-animated hand detaches and clamps itself, like the face hugger of Alien (1979), over the mouth of one camp member: suggestive pulses ripple through obscenely penetrated flesh as the man’s eyes beg Kate for death, a relief she furnishes soon enough with flame thrower.

But soon the chimeric beast is lumbering about in full CGI glory, animated as a perverse tangle of limbs and distorted faces, but in such a way that drains it of its fundamental ungodly menace. Attempts to reproduce Carpenter’s what-just-happened? moments of disorientation, such as when Lars seems to be attacked and vanishes, are just flat and clumsy. Indeed, every one of Van Heijnengen’s tributes comes several beats too early, and it reveals the essential dearth of real inspiration that finally his film relies so heavily on recreating or slightly tweaking Carpenter’s tricks than working up any of his own. The last twenty minutes or so lose shape in the rush, with a final hide-and-seek bit in the alien’s spaceship is barely a step above the obvious shenanigans seen in Cowboys & Aliens (2011). The very end does hit a note of faithful darkness, as the chances for Kate’s survival seem much better than that of MacReady and Childs at the end of Carpenter’s film, but having paid the price in killing Carter, who turns up suddenly lacking his earring, a killing that might just be homicide. Meanwhile Lars and a just-arrived helicopter pilot go chasing after a dog that flees, circling right back to the beginning of the 1982 film with apt concision. Winstead, so engaging in her second and third fiddle parts in the likes of Live Free and Die Hard, Death Proof (both 2007), and Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010), and who even in playing a dimwit in Death Proof hinted at a genuinely cunning intelligence behind her craft, is very good in her first real lead, putting across Kate’s quick-rising alarm and gathering grit, even if, again, Kate just isn’t well characterised enough to be a truly memorable heroine. Her first scene catches her listening to Men At Work’s “Who Can It Be Now?” on her Walkman headphones, actually one of the film’s subtler gags, at once setting the timeframe and evoking Campbell’s original title. Ultimately, however, she’s at the mercy of a slick, competent film which thoroughly demonstrates that these days, even nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.


Stephen Gallagher said...

Strange how the creature that can't mimic tooth fillings has no such trouble with zips, buttons or belt buckles. A metaphor for the haphazardly imitative nature of the film itself, perhaps.

Dan O. said...

It’s no great thing, just a better Thing than expected. It’s not incredibly scary but has the same tense and paranoid feel that the Carpenter version went for, and it works in a way. The problem is that on own it’s own, it doesn’t really work. Good review.

Roderick Heath said...

Hi, Stephen & Dan O. Stephen, to be fair, that's consistent with the alien's MO as presented; it doesn't try to assimilate clothing, only body tissue, which is why objects like dental fillings and surgical plates are left behind. But the film avoids one corollary of this detailed in the Carpenter film and which links to your point, which is that the alien rips through clothing to get to the body, a detail that doesn't come up here. And yes, haphazardly digested is a good metaphor for the film.

Dan O, well said.

Sam Juliano said...

"Van Heijnengen’s nuts-and-bolts filmmaking is sleek and efficient, and indicates he has talent, particularly in his sense of contrast between claustrophobic settings and great vistas, but he’s bitten off far more than he can chew here, trying to reproduce the nervelessly timed shocks and the intricately staged obliqueness Carpenter wielded so well, in keeping just what we’ve seen suggested but partly obscure in some moments, deepening his film’s sense of paranoia and the mood of disintegrating psychological and physical cohesion that accompanies the slow destruction of the Antarctic base."

Yep I am with you here, and found your remarkable review exhaustive and persuasive. I found this new version passable, but of course as you admit yourself nowhere in a league with the Carpenter especdiaqlly, with which it bears the most obvious resemblence.

Sean Gill said...


I just watched this for the first time this week, and I have to say that you really nailed it with your analysis.

"Even the scientists and military men had given in to some extent to laissez fair ennui and countercultural impulses"

One doesn't often think of Carpenter as a master of "character nuance," but every role in THE THING '82 feels 'lived-in,' as if these are real men on the front lines, encountering something real and strange and terrible- as opposed to a few airbrushed Hollywood types and a gang of featureless, bearded foreigners.

"Attempts to reproduce Carpenter’s what-just happened? moments of disorientation, such as when Lars seems to be attacked and vanishes, are just flat and clumsy."

Those were sorely missing from the proceedings, and really highlight in retrospect Carpenter's low-key mastery of the form. I watched Carpenter's version again immediately afterward, and I remembered, as a kid, I would speculate wildly on what in the hell had happened in the Norweigian camp, and what kind of insane transformation had resulted in the husk of the two-headed monster, for instance. Now, it felt ever-so-vaguely tainted by knowledge of the prequel and its bland answers to these questions; and while Carpenter's film is solid enough not to truly be marred by this corporate CGI mediocrity, I must admit I'm slightly sorry that I even saw it.

[And as you say, there was a time when sci-fi remakes didn't have to be at best mediocre and at worst soulless– Kaufman's BODY SNATCHERS, Cronenberg's THE FLY (and I would also submit Paul Schrader's CAT PEOPLE) are wonderful, mature, thoughtful, post-Code reimaginings.]