Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Thing (2011)

John Carpenter's The Thing from 1982 is a cinematic masterpiece, and one of my favorite films of all time - horror or otherwise. So you can imagine that I went into the unfortunately titled The Thing (2011) (which can't seem to decide if it wants to be a prequel or a remake) with a mixture of excitement and trepidation: excitement that I would get to see another story like 'Carpenter-Thing'; and trepidation, because Carpenter-Thing was perfect, and you can't improve on perfection. The result is, 'prequel-Thing' is a pretty good try at recapturing the magic of Carpenter-Thing. It doesn't succeed, but then it never really stood a chance. It does manage to be entertaining, however.

In fact, prequel-Thing succeeds best where it tries to be its own movie, and worst when it tries to replicate what made Carpenter-Thing so good. Unfortunately, though, prequel-Thing spends a lot of time trying to be Carpenter-Thing. The movie starts out well, successfully capturing the appropriate mood of the piece, even bringing back the bass-driven theme from the older movie (what is it about slow, driving bass lines that suits creepy movies so well?), and utilizing a title sequence that recalls the previous one.

But where Carpenter-Thing was a paranoid, claustrophobic pressure cooker, prequel-Thing can manage only a dull imitation. The characters are not very compelling - you've even got the cliched egotistical scientist who values a novel discovery (especially when it's an extraterrestrial lifeform with the potential to be used as a biological weapon - have we heard this before?) over the lives of the humans he works with. And it's quite clear from the start who the "final girl" (to use slasher parlance - it's a shame I have to stoop that low, as Carpenter-Thing, despite using a slasher formula at its base, managed to rise above the widespread mediocrity of slasherdom) will be (and thus, you're pretty sure she's not going to be 'replicated'). MacReady was a great character in Carpenter-Thing, but even then, I don't think there was as much certainty that he would make it out in the end (and it's still up in the air whether he actually did).

But, as I said, where prequel-Thing gets interesting, is where it expands upon the story and tries to be its own movie. This involves spoilers, however, so if you haven't seen it, you might want to skip ahead to the next paragraph now. This time, we get to see where The Thing came from - not his home planet, but his resting place in the ice. And we get to see his spaceship too - in fact, we get to go inside it at the end of the movie. I'm tempted to say that the whole spaceship thing jumps the shark, but the fact is, it's actually pretty cool, and if this movie didn't have that plot point, then it would be nothing more than a dull rehash of Carpenter-Thing, and then it wouldn't have anything new going for it.

One item that simply cannot be neglected in a discussion of The Thing is the creature fx. Carpenter-Thing had some of the best creature fx ever put to film, and that, in addition to the great story, characters, and mood, elevated that movie to the status of legend. The Thing (as conceptualized in John Carpenter's version of the story) is one of the greatest sci-fi/horror creatures of all time, and one of the rare few that can stand up to H.R. Giger's xenomorph from Alien. Naturally, I was curious to see how today's modern computer graphics would compare to the brilliant practical fx that brought The Thing to life decades ago. Anyone who's anything in the movie world knows that CGI doesn't hold a candle to good practical fx.

And the verdict? It seems to me that the makers of prequel-Thing tried very very hard to do the creature justice. They couldn't match the brilliance of the earlier fx, but I have to admit, they did a pretty damn good job of trying, and probably ended up with the best CG creature fx you'll see anywhere. And I'll tell you, The Thing is a pretty awesome creature. Though here, it did end up looking almost like some kind of mutation out of one of the Resident Evil games. Later on, in its more tentacled form, I got a craving for someone to create a live action tentacle porn movie. With the right amount of effort and attention to detail, that could be simply amazing... But I digress.

I don't think this is much of a spoiler, given that the entire premise of prequel-Thing is that it's a direct prequel to Carpenter-Thing - depicting the Norwegian camp's discovery of the creature before it makes its way to the American camp. But the movie ends as you would expect - on the very scene that opens the older movie. I think it would be a bizarre experience to watch these two films in narrative order, to see the creature move from one camp to the next, only to experience a 30 year devolution in special fx. Better or worse, the difference alone would be funny to witness.

And one further point - without saying too much, the ending is pretty open-ended (though not in the brilliant way that the older movie's ending was), and even sets up the potential for another story to be told, occurring after (or even concurrently with) the story of Carpenter-Thing. I don't know if the studio intends to continue this series or what. Frankly, I'm concerned about turning this series into one more sequel-happy cash cow. There's a difference between making a movie because you have the inspiration, and making one because you know people will pay to see it. Genius like Carpenter-Thing is rare and unpredictable. Then again, even that was a rehash of a story that had already been made into a movie once before...

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