The John Carpenter classic The Thing 1982 often tops greatest of all-time lists. The Thing 1982 deserves every bit of praise as it’s nearly perfect in execution. It takes a sizable ego to even think of following it up, even after 29 years. The Thing 2011, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., endeavors to tell the story before the story. For those not familiar, the original by John Carpenter begins with a Norwegian helicopter chasing a dog across the tundra. As it turns out, that the ‘dog’ is actually a shapeshifting alien that assimilates its victims perfectly.
For 29 years, audiences could only presume what happened in the Norwegian camp to set these events in motion?
The Thing (2011) – A fantastic idea
Prequels are often a mixed bag. The struggle with a prequel is that it has to back into an outcome that the audience already knows. The prequel always needs to hit a landing zone the size of a postage stamp or risk a complete upheaval by fans of the franchise. For a great example of how NOT to do this, check out 2017’s prequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface.
The Thing 2011 suffers no such problems. It may be the most perfect opportunity ever to create a compelling prequel. For starters, the monster has no motivation other than to feed and survive. The Thing is as pure a monster movie as there ever was. Second, there is almost no character overlap at all to contend with because everyone from the prequel dies within the first 5 minutes of the next movie.
The best kind of plot hole, the kind begging to be filled
Yet, the original screenplay leaves a gaping plot hole begging to be filled. How did the creature get out of the ice in the first place, and what happened to the to the Norwegian team in the process. To swim in an ocean of fan adulation, the producers simply need to create a good monster movie that answers that simple question. How hard can it be? Heck, they producers don’t even have to design the monster. John Carpenter and special effects artist Rob Bottin gifted them one of the greatest movie monsters of all time.
The Thing 2011 – Plot Synopsis
A team of research scientists in Antarctica discover an ancient spacecraft buried deep under the ice. After excavating the site, they discovered what appears to be an alien specimen encased in the ice. They reach out to an American paleontologist name Kate Loyd, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Intrigued at the possibilities, Kate leaves immediately to join the team. Unsurprisingly, the unattended block of ice melts, releasing a shapeshifting alien. Chance of survival go way down on Norwegian research station “Thule”.
The legacy of Rob Bottin
If the 1982 original did anything at all, it set the bar for practical special effects. Rob Bottin gets credit for some of the most fantastic latex and automation that had ever been seen up until that point. Not only did he execute flawlessly, but every design exuded inspired brilliance. Bottin’s work on The Thing 1982 would set the stage for a very successful career. The success of Rob Bottin is exacerbated by the fact that special effects technology was limited by the technology available at the time. The Thing 2011 suffers no such limitation.
The Thing 2011 largely dispenses with practical effects and goes all in on CGI. To that end, the special effects lack the fidelity that Rob Bottin achieved. CGI is fine and I don’t want cast aspersions on technique alone. The real difference between the work of Rob Bottin and the CGI of The Thing 2011 is intimacy. The camera dwelled on Bottin’s monster frame after frame as it transmuted between forms. His creation was meant to be seen, and Carpenter made sure that it was.
The special effects in The Thing 2011 give up that intimacy, and thereby sacrifice realism. CGI enables engineers to create more with less effort. That often leads to overuse that leads to confusing actions sequences where the audience can’t be entirely sure what exactly they are seeing. The result is visibly noisy and fails to emphasize the art of the monster. To be clear, the film’s CGI looks really good, but it feels hopelessly less authentic than the work of Rob Bottin.
For lack of new ideas, the director takes the survivors into the belly of the alien spacecraft. The special effects team again uses CGI to add a sense of elegance and beauty to the spaceship controls. It feels rather silly to juxtaposes such a sophisticated control surface with a the blathering tentacles of an alien oozing bile from every orifice. Sometimes details are better left to the imagination.
Character driven movies require character
The Thing 2011 struggles with one gargantuan challenge. Only so many tales can be told within the closed system of an Antarctic research station. Accordingly, the films backs itself into a corner by recycling the same old ‘imposter among us’ tropes from the first film. However, the character dynamics pale in comparison to those of Carpenter’s film. There is no MacReady nor is there a Childs. There is no Wilford Brimley pleading to come back inside from the cold. The characters are mostly flat and uninteresting, leaving these recycled plot devices as cold as the frozen tundra.
However, the character of Kate Loyd manages to shine shine through the mundane. She plays the role of the unlikely female hero thrust into a tale of alien survival. Mary Elizabeth Winstead performs the role with supreme confidence. When the chips are down, and the research station teeters on the brink of collapse, she takes seizes control of the situation. In that way, she displays shades of Ellen Ripley. Regrettably, she lacks a suitable foil to create any interesting friction. Dr. Sandor Halverson, played by Ulrich Thomsen, attempts fill that role, but his caricature is so thin and predictable that any real conflict fizzles upon sight.
The Thing (2011) – Wrapping up
Despite the ultra-critical review, The Thing 2011 is not a terrible movie, but it does fail to achieve the greatness of it predecessor. It does a good job trying to keep consistent continuity with the original. Everything from the room holding the block of ice to the frozen radio operator with a slit throat meticulously mirrors the imagery of the original. The final act involving the helicopter chase of the dog feels a bit forced, but ultimately lays the transition directly at the feet of John Carpenter.
All in all, The Thing 2011 feels a bit like missing a spectacular dunk in the NBA slam dunk competition. It’s exciting, but ultimately blows a sure thing.
The Thing 2011 - Great Idea, OK Movie - Malevolent Dark
Director: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
Date Created: 2011-01-01 00:00