Only two types of people are likely to see The Thing. One group consists of horror-film cultists who love John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982); the other of teenagers who never heard of it and just want a good scare. Members of the latter group may come away concluding that Carpenter’s movie was basically just a rip-off of Alien.
While it offers nothing to offend fans too deeply, this remake, prequel, homage or whatever it is from Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. finds itself no compelling raison d’être, either. Where Carpenter’s film was a slow-boiling, minor suspense classic, this is just another gross-out movie about an alien with teeth in odd places and a proclivity for making abstract art projects out of human flesh.
In 1982, Columbia paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) jumps at an offer to investigate a mysterious find in Antarctica. A Norwegian research team has discovered the remains of a spaceship and its inhabitant, entombed in ice for the past millennium. Rather than leaving them be, as any prudent person who has ever seen a horror movie would do — or at least alerting the world’s superpowers to this amazing evidence of extraterrestrial life — the haughty chief scientist (Ulrich Thomsen) orders his team to start digging. The alien “corpse” escapes, tentacles waving. When it vanishes, the scientists soon realize the enemy is within them — literally — and no one can be trusted.
Films about malevolent aliens invading human bodies and minds go back to the Cold War era, which produced the first cinematic incarnation of this particular tale, The Thing from Another World (1951). But characters in movies such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers signaled their infiltration only by altered behavior. In his version of The Thing, Carpenter used a crack practical-effects team to make the transformation visceral; he jacked up the tension by demonstrating how an alien might physically invade a human body. The result wasn’t for the squeamish, but it was certainly memorable. The chilly, claustrophobic setting supplied the atmosphere, and an able cast of B-movie actors with B-movie dialogue provided the entertainment.
Van Heijningen Jr. and his writers have taken pains to make sure the events of this Thing work as a backstory to Carpenter’s The Thing, though the two don’t fully line up until an end-credits sequence. The atmosphere is still chilly, but gone is the quotable dialogue; the script by Eric Heisserer and “Battlestar Galactica” creator Ronald D. Moore is functional but not much fun. Winstead plays Kate as a pensive survivor similar to Ripley in the Alien movies. Her leadership conflict with Thomsen’s character never reaches a satisfying boil, and the other characters lack strong presences, even when they’re played by elsewhere powerful actors such as Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.
As for the transformations, which are central to the story — well, there’s no point in rehashing the tired debate about “real,” in-camera effects versus computer graphics. Like music on vinyl, the former hold a gritty, grubby attraction inseparable from nostalgia, while the latter are neat and budget friendly. The CGI on display here shows respect for the original designs, but it's no landmark in its own right.
The Thing is the rare remake more likely to please purists seeking an homage to the original film than uninformed viewers who stumble into the theater looking for thrills. It’s like a grad-student thesis on Carpenter’s The Thing: The allusions are in place, but the terror seems to have slipped away to inhabit the body of some other movie.