October 18, 2011

A Bad Thing: A Remake of a Remake

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Hollywood’s current state can be summed up with the 2011 version of The Thing:  it is a remake, of a remake, of a film, based on a novella, about a replicating… thing. The recycling program in the movie industry that prefers to shun inspiration for silver screen adaptations of such winning comic books as Jonah Hex has made a remake of a remake, folks. Technically, it is a prequel. Reused scenarios and exact shot compositions speak otherwise. Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s (this recent flood of Northern European directors tests even the eloquent) modern take on the horror staple borrows so liberally from John Carpenter’s 1982 classic that there are bound to be moments of near-greatness. Not only is the genesis of these segments lifted, however, but the entire film lacks the sparse, humanistic touch that made the original remake (did I just say that?) the gritty masterpiece it is to this day.

The source material, traced via carbon dating to John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, remains one of the strongest in the horror canon. Part of its continued appeal lies in its setting, at an isolated scientific base located in Antarctica. Chances are you or I will never set foot anywhere near the ice continent, so a film focusing on a group of scientists holed up in a base there provides an odd source of exoticism. The inclusion of a highly advanced alien life form only compounds such interest. Frozen in a million-year-old block of ice, this thing is uncovered from its gigantic spaceship and brought back to the base, where it obviously wakes up from its long sleep to wreak havoc (if Terminator 2 taught us anything, it is that cold equals stubbornly alive and hot equals dead as dead). By that measure, the humans wield flamethrowers to torch the beast, or, more accurately, the many disposable humans it infects.

A bloody witch hunt ensues, with the monster revealing its tentacled, shrieking self reliably for maximum gore and minimum wonder. Carpenter’s film utilized models, puppets and animatronics that shocked and nauseated because they were undoubtedly on the same plane, there on the same soundstage. The CGI sheen of this film robs much of the realism for more elaborate, and in turn less believable, Thing-flailing, impaling, and face-morphing effects. There is a sequence where flamethrowers roast a series of Things that cascade from one person to the next. Such liberal violence, and on-screen depictions of it, desensitizes the audience to a point where it simply becomes an action movie.

An action movie loaded with cheap scares, that is. Van Heijningen exploits the jump scare to its last cliched leap. You likely will be able to predetermine the exact moment the bogeyman appears through the submergence of ambient sound and the familiar cadence that follows. The terror of the film exists moment by moment and does not pervade, live in the atmosphere. No dread constricts the narrow, monotonous hallways; the psychological trickery Carpenter played by never assuring anyone as safe is absent. The windy Antarctic wasteland surrounding them does not look cold enough. And the journey into the flying saucer comes across as just unnecessary. The design of the ship’s interior combines Cowboys & Aliens’ generic hallways, video game Prey’s organic, fleshy walls and an inexplicable fountain of pixels into one anachronistic, needless sin of feng shui.

Van Heijningen (the director if you’re losing track) can be blamed for the superficial scares, but screenwriter Eric Heisserer (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Final Destination 5… this is making sense now) attempts to mend the gap by emulating the 80s version to a fault. Scenes that copy from its inspiration build suspense effectively for they have done so before. When Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) organizes a test to determine who’s human and impostor, anxiety indeed grows. There is something much less badass, however, with shining a flashlight into someone’s teeth to check for fillings (the alien cannot replicate inorganic matter, blah blah blah) than jabbing a flaming rod into a dish of each person’s blood only for the infected one to literally scream when touched. Last time I checked, dental checks do not belong in any horror film not called Marathon Man.

R.J. MacReady is a name any horror buff will recall. Kurt Russell’s legendary beard in the 1982 version may be responsible, but the film built a strong protagonist who thwarted the menace with ability and genuine frustration. The characters this time around lack any distinguishing qualities. In fact, I do not even recall their names. Lost’s Mr. Eko — that is what I called him — played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, is tragically underused. The script feeds Eric Christian Olsen’s character such needed lines as, “It’s inside,” after an exterior window breaks off-screen. Mary Elizabeth Winstead from Scott Pilgrim exceeds the laughable standards now set for females in horror films, but she is no Ripley either. Eric Heisserer’s jumpy script can be held accountable, which raises the question as to why a better writer was not chosen.

I step back and ponder why they made this Thing. John Carpenter updated Howard Hawk’s 50s Marxist allegory for modern audiences 30 years ago. What else needed to be seen? It does not offer a modern take on the worn story aside from updated computer effects. I enjoyed some of it, yes, particularly the end credits sequence that, rather heavy-handedly, tied this prequel’s story to Carpenter’s universe. It roused the few Thing fans there were in the audience. Universal is learning the tough way that this franchise is not a money earner. That both the 1982 and new films share in common. The former was released just two weeks after E.T., and no one wanted to see an alien, that they thought loved Reeses Pieces, feast on human flesh. Which reminds me: E.T. … we’re due for an update on that cash cow by now aren’t we?

Original Author: Zachary Zahos