The dangers of revisiting beloved material are there for all to see in The Thing, the latest Hollywood rehash of a genre touchstone. While technically a prequel to John Carpenter’s cult sci-fi about a shape-shifting alien loose on an Antarctic research base, Mathijs van Heijningen Jr’s film is so stuffed with riffs from Carpenter’s film that its status as a precursor scarcely seems to matter. A convenient guise under which to revisit the original, it is a prime example of the dangers of cinema being remade by people who obviously both love and completely misunderstand their source material.
Working to both the timeline and basic structure of its predecessor, this new Thing sees Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s palaeontologist recruited by the Norwegian scientists briefly featured in Carpenter’s picture. Finding an extraterrestrial buried under the ice that proves to be both alive and capable of replicating other life forms, they are soon turning on each other in a bid to weed out the alien as it sets about replacing members of the group, an impending ice storm meanwhile cutting off all routes of escape.
The 1982 version, with its extreme environment, sense of paranoia and gruesome special effects – the monster all slime, tentacles and stretching flesh capable of splitting into multiple creatures – is a gift of a setup. But where Carpenter created effective shocks through sudden, prosthetic gore from a creature that mostly remained in hiding, van Heijningen doesn’t have that sort of patience. Opting instead for the monster equivalent of stalk-and-slash, unbearably tense scenes from the original (protagonists undergoing blood tests whilst tied to a couch) are first re-imagined (a dull dental examination) before quickly being dropped in favour of another bloodbath.
Similarly, where Carpenter kept his audience engaged with a cast of grouchy character actors led by a bearded Kurt Russell, van Heijningen can only offer up a carousel of faceless Norwegian monster-fodder. Winstead and Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom), marked out as nothing other than American and inexplicably attuned to danger, are wasted here, and the thing itself, while brilliantly designed and not lacking for the power to shock, is a trick that is allowed to wear thin without the sustained mystery of who might not be what they seem.
All of which simply calls into question van Heijningen’s blind striving for fidelity. Carpenter’s film was not an original idea either, inspired as it was by John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? and Howard Hawks’ 1951 adaptation The Thing From Another World, which used the story as a thinly-veiled anti-Communist parable (“Keep watching the skies!”). Carpenter revisited both to create a bleak, gorily nihilistic vision, and while van Heijningen has again reinterpreted the material, he has instead done so for an era in which horror films are remade by commercials directors who get the look, but miss the feel, of the original article. For a film about a monster that perfectly clones its prey, that is strangely fitting, if still incredibly disappointing.