If Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World spoke to the paranoia of the 1950s and John Carpenter's The Thing addressed the antagonistic relationship with our own flesh that was oh-so-'80s, what does first-time Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.'s high-octane prequel, again titled simply The Thing, have to say about us?
Not very much, unless you count "Flamethrowers are freaking awesome!" as viable social commentary. Van Heijningen's revamp is louder and more raucous than both of its predecessors, ultimately ditching the tension and suspense of its first half in favor of pyrotechnics and over-the-top digital effects. Still, though, it's an entertaining, well-crafted monster movie that more or less delivers on the basic promises of its genre. It's not a great film, but it's a pretty good movie.
Though it's technically a prequel rather than a remake, the plot of this latest Thing is nearly identical to the one that came before it: A research station in Antarctica comes under attack from a space monster that can assume the appearance of anything it eats. This time around, the setting is the Norwegian camp that will eventually be discovered, burned, and deserted by the American team of Carpenter's 1982 version.
At first, van Heijningen and screenwriter Eric Heisserer spin things in a different direction by adding women to the mix—a considerable departure from the hairy-chested, relentlessly masculine vibe of its most immediate predecessor. American scientist Kate Lloyd, played by the very un-Kurt Russell-ish Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is recruited by a cocky Norwegian researcher (Ulrich Thomsen) whose team has found something remarkable beneath a few tons of Antarctic ice. Before you can say "really bad idea," the scientists are drilling into a block of ice and poking the alien frozen inside it. It wakes up, peckish and in a foul mood, and proceeds to eat everyone it sees.
The catch, of course, is that the creature can perfectly imitate its prey. It doesn't take long for the researchers to turn on each other, forming allegiances that are just as protean and unpredictable as the thing that's terrorizing them. The first schism—a power play between Kate and the team's lead scientist—takes place before the alien even has a chance to thaw. Once the killing starts, the group divides itself along any lines it can find: men vs. women, Norwegians vs. Americans, etc. Thanks to a clever variation of the famous blood test from Carpenter's version, the group even splinters along socioeconomic lines, pitting the rich against the poor. Language barriers serve to complicate things even further.
All of this makes for a tense, suspenseful first half. Ironically enough, though, this Thing is significantly handicapped by, well, the Thing. While Carpenter's monster seemed to possess a sort of cunning intelligence, its new counterpart is a simpler animal. Time and again, just when aspersions are cast on a particular character and things are starting to get interesting, the monster pops out of someone and tentacle-whips everyone in the room. It makes for some genuinely grotesque and horrifying imagery—flesh rips apart, torsos stretch and distend, limbs contort into bizarre arabesques—but it also robs the film of the tension it took such pains to build in earlier scenes. It finally devolves into a somewhat disappointing series of attacks, with the monster (and its digital handlers) getting more and more screen time as it mutates into something approaching an inside-out squid. Its early forms are creepy and disturbing; by the time The Thing reaches its fiery climax, though, it just looks like a demented 9-year-old got hold of a bag of hagfish and a staple gun. Come to think of it, that leads us to another problem: If it's basically a predatory eating machine, what's it doing flying a spaceship? There's a reason we never let a shark pilot a space shuttle, you know.
Even if it fumbles the ball in the third act, The Thing has quite a bit going for it. It doesn't have the brains of either of its previous incarnations, but van Heijningen delivers a slick, fast-paced monster movie with blue-collar sensibilities, a few genuine scares, and plenty of gore and grotesque imagery. He also captures the same bleak, paranoid vibe that helped make Carpenter's film so unsettling; we know from the beginning that the best anyone can hope for is a quick death over a slow one. This Thing could have been better; but it also could have been much, much worse.