There are some films that a person with a good or overactive ability to visualise, like myself, can watch during the wee hours of night, and feel unsettled by for hours after the fact. Granted, I was still a bit young at this point (VHS was still the only viable home video medium at this time). But the John Carpenter version of The Thing is a film I will have to go senile in order to forget at all.
John Carpenter‘s version of The Thing has been labelled a remake (many people seem to forget that). There is merit to both the for and against points of that. Whilst there was indeed a film by Howard Hawks in the 1950s called The Thing From Another World (but is almost universally referred to as The Thing), the relationship between the two films is pretty much in title only. In the Howard Hawks film, researchers at one of the polar caps find an alien organism that can divide into different parts and thus multiply. Hence, when it is shot, chopped, or stabbed, it splits off and presumably divides into an army. Whilst this kind of shit flew in the 1950s, it elicits a ho-hum reaction from modern audiences due to its unbelievability. It also bears almost no relationship with its source material, a novella by John W. Campbell, junior called Who Goes There?.
That is the mistake that Carpenter‘s film corrected to great effect. Not only is his film more faithful to Campbell‘s story, it also makes the master stroke of knowing exactly how much to show of what, and when. I will get this out of the way: that is the exact most important thing wrong with Matthijs van Heijningen, junior‘s prequel-remake. Not only does it come across as being far too eager to blow its load, so to speak, it also makes the fatal mistake of failing to provide adequate build-up to its money shots, so to speak.
Carpenter‘s film is also an excellent example of how creativity thrives in limitations. They even have an informal term now for when all of the limitations to what a director can show in a film are removed, and the result is worse. They call it the Lucas Effect. Carpenter‘s film does not show the Lucas Effect, as not only was the effects budget relatively small even by 1982 standards, the limitations of special effects at the time meant that there were very major limits to the kinds of things that could be put in the finished film. TRON, the first film to feature any computer-generated imagery at all, had only just been released in the same year. That basically meant that everything you see in Carpenter‘s film was a practical effect accomplished by puppets, pyrotechnics, stuntmen, and set modifications. In spite of the fact that the man responsible for leading the creation of the majority of the effects in the film was the exceedingly talented Rob Bottin, it is amazing that the creature effects work as well as they do.
One can also see the difference this makes in the way the actors perform. Whilst some would argue that Kurt Russell‘s acting style is fairly minimal at best, the fact that he can actually see the reality of what he is meant to be reacting to and interacting with makes a big difference. The same can, of course, be said of his castmates, who all turn in performances that make one forget the extreme improbability of the antagonist and its abilities.
That, friends and neighbours, is the first of many mistakes that Heijningen‘s The Thing makes. None of the actors, not even the ones playing Norwegian characters and thus have some degree of anonymity on their side, are very convincing in the reality of their characters. There is no sense of them being the kinds of people that the story professes they are. Unlike Richard Masur (dog/animal handler), Kurt Russell (helicopter pilot), or Richard Dysart (biologist), as particularly strong examples, the cast of Heijningen‘s The Thing merely come across as actors playing roles.
Part of this can be blamed upon the script. When one establishes characters as being, say, a helicopter pilot, a bit of dialogue where they say something a helicopter pilot in their given situation might say goes a long way to sell the reality of the character. In the audio commentary supplied with discs of Carpenter‘s The Thing, Kurt Russell and John Carpenter explain that a white-out is basically a situation in which the antarctic weather conditions reduce visibility to zero, and looks from the pilot’s perspective like being on the inside of a ping-pong ball. Russell‘s character warning his boss that he and the doctor he is being asked to take on a trip with him risk being caught in a white-out suspends all disbelief that this character really does know how to fly a helicopter.
Heijningen‘s film has virtually no dialogue establishing this credibility. We are told that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is some form of palaeontologist, but even the minimal scenes in which we see her performing analysis upon various parts and pieces of things fails to convince that yes, this woman is indeed a palaeontologist.
This brings us to another big problem with Heijningen‘s film. In failing to give the characters dialogue to establish their professional characteristics, the film also fails to give them any dialogue that establishes their personalities. Carpenter‘s film has a very crowded cast, but the dialogue that establishes the characters also makes the type of people they are outside of the situation very clear. The characters of Kurt Russell and Keith David are especially good examples of this, as they are the primary source of interpersonal conflict between the protagonists. Both of them have strong leadership capabilities, and clash very violently in key sequences, one only backing down when another is forced to shoot a third party in the head. In Heijningen‘s film, Edvard (Trond Espen Seim) appears to only be shown opposing Winstead‘s character because it somehow works in the plot’s favour.
Hence, in Carpenter‘s film, when a character is killed, or horribly mangled by the titular creature, the audience cares about it. In one key sequence, Kurt Russell‘s character does a crude blood test in which he places a heated wire into blood samples. When one test has a positive result, let us just say that it is still about the only moment in a film where I have literally jumped in fright. This is a classic example of when a director knows not only what to show the audience, but when.
Heijningen‘s film has no sense of this. The ending is a classic example of that. Not only are we shown a working outer hull of the alien’s original vessel, we are shown insides, including one pillar that is so clearly digital in nature that this, oddly enough, works in the effect’s favour by selling it as a control panel. But this is the most convincing part of the alien vessel, which is otherwise so sparse and unfeatured that it looks like a level design for a videogame.
But if I had to pick the absolute worst problem, of many, with Heijningen‘s film, it is that it, as some professional critics have stated, is too much of a slave to the Carpenter film. Literally. Not only does it attempt to set up and explain everything we see in the Carpenter film, it does so in a manner that undercuts both films. In Carpenter‘s film, there is a sequence in which Kurt Russell and Richard Dysart visit what is left of a Norwegian research base. Some of what they find is simply horrendous. One man is seen with a straight razor in hand, frozen to death as he has slit his own throat deeply enough to change the angle at which his head tilts back. It is one of the most enduring images from Carpenter‘s film, and makes sure the audience knows that gruesome things are coming in the rest of it. Not quite as powerful, but just as alarming, is the sight of an fire axe seemingly randomly slammed into a wall. But the most terrible image from this sequence is of what appears to be two men fused together at their sides, burned black.
“What is that, a man in there, or something?” Dysart asks, sounding exasperated.
“Whatever it is, they burned it up in a hurry,” Russell dryly responds.
The power of this moment in Carpenter‘s film comes from the fact that regardless of what one may think of the prop or the way it is shot, it allows the viewer’s imagination to run wild with explanations. Not only does the explanation proposed by Heijningen‘s film fail to live up to what I had imagined, it also defies quite a lot of good old storytelling logic. In the amount of time that the grotesque is allowed to remain extant for, it could have not only formed into something less conspicuous, it could have assumed a convincing cover. This exposes this prequel-remake as not having any real respect for the Carpenter film. Do not get me wrong. As they state several times in making-ofs, a number of people involved in Heijningen‘s film were fans of Carpenter‘s. It is just that they do not really seem to have made the effort to properly understand what really made Carpenter‘s film work.
The ending of the prequel-remake, or at least the main part thereof, also very much thumbs its nose at Carpenter‘s film. Whilst what happens to its main protagonist is not merely left dangling, it is also difficult to imagine why the character would not have shown up at some point in the later events depicted in Carpenter‘s film. Winstead‘s character, although sadly underdeveloped, is also made quite clear as the kind of woman who is not going to simply sit out in the snow and wait to die, regardless of what she has been through. That the prequel-remake offers no explanation of why her character is not even heard from in the Carpenter film is a severe storytelling flaw.
One thing that does work in the prequel-remake’s favour is the explanation of how characters are able to tell who has been assimilated by the titular monster. The crude blood test in the Carpenter film worked brilliantly, but for reasons best known to them, the writer on Heijningen‘s film decided to introduce a new method. In a very plausible development, it is shown that the alien, for all of its terrible and extreme abilities, is not able to absorb and duplicate “inorganic” material. Apart from being another poke in the eye to the “organic” food movement, this is about as close as the prequel-remake comes to an intelligent turn in the story. Basically, rather than sticking hot things into pools of blood, the protagonist of Heijningen‘s verifies the Human status of the people around her by checking their teeth for fillings. It is an imperfect method, with multiple subjects protesting that they either have no fillings because they clean their teeth properly (highly implausible at their ages, to put it mildly) or they have porcelain fillings. This also provides an answer of sorts to one of the lingering questions from the Carpenter film. Until Heijningen‘s film, people have never had a credible answer concerning whether either Childs (Keith David) or MacReady (Kurt Russell) have been assimilated. If one treats Heijningen‘s film as canon, and there is no real reason not to since it does not contradict anything in Carpenter‘s film (in fact, it falls over itself not to), then the presence of a ring in Childs’ ear at the end of the film indicates that he was still Human.
Probably the biggest disappointment in Heijningen‘s film is that within it, there is a good or even great film struggling to be visible. The concept itself is something that will probably remain relevant in our society until the end of our species. The fact that we are unable to see into others without a lot of complex questions or tests is both a good thing and one of our most troubling limitations. We see enemies where we could see friends. We see defect where we could be seeing greater possibility. Even as modern science is allowing us a level of insight into ourselves and one another that many of our ancestors would have killed for, the fact remains that we are frequently using them for terrible purposes. When people who call themselves scientists are being paid to develop a test to single out and eliminate people based on genetic characteristics, it is clear that the paranoia inherent to Who Goes There? is very much a reflection of our world.
Heijningen‘s film could have capitalised on this. The different people in the Norwegian outpost’s staff clearly represent several different nationalities. The radio operator quite clearly sounds British, and several of the characters are American. I do not know if it was intentional that one of the characters is heard to speak in Danish, but the majority of the outpost’s staff are obviously meant to be Norwegian. I do not know what would be the case now, but at the time the film was set, 1982, such a mixture of nationalities would be sufficient to promote a very tense and difficult atmosphere.
I am going to tell you something about English-speaking countries in the year 1982 that may seem difficult for people who did not live at that time to understand. There is a line in the Dawn Of The Dead remake in which one character proclaims that a character who is sniping zombies from a rooftop across from the mall may as well be on the moon. Before the magic of the Internet, that was how many different nationalities appeared to peoples of the English-speaking world. They might as well have been on another planet. Even in the mid-1990s, the concept of being able to “talk” directly in real-time to someone from Norway or Denmark was as far-out as the concept of being able to create new organs out of raw cells for transplant.
(On a similar token, being able to speak English when one is stationed at a Norwegian research base would have been considered a great asset in some occupations during 1982. Every other country was well-versed in America’s propensity to spend untold money on things like polar research stations, and thus being able to communicate with Americans from time to time would have been in the list of requirements for some jobs around these stations.)
This could have put an interesting slant on the remake-prequel. But instead, Heijningen‘s film treats the interactions between the different cast members as if the language barrier was just something one could gently stride over, as opposed to the enormous wall that it was in 1982. I am not sure why, but if it were not for the casting of actual Scandinavians in Heijningen‘s film, it would not be difficult to get a sense of minimal or no variation between a lot of the characters.
Does this mean that Heijningen‘s The Thing is completely unwatchable or utterly without merit? Sadly, no. There is a lot wrong with it, but there is also a lot right with it. Much like Carpenter‘s The Thing, the choices of shots are almost always exactly right. The shots show exactly what the viewer needs to see. Nothing more, nothing less. This is, in fact, the one area of the film where the makers’ love of Carpenter‘s film shows through. And whilst the special effects go too far to show what would have been better-served by the power of suggestion, one cannot deny that the framing of such special effects within the shots is absurdly effective. Although the prequel-remake is substantially less than Carpenter‘s film, it was clearly made by a group partly consisting of people who respect Carpenter‘s film, as opposed to being merely a cheap cash-in.
Probably the biggest problem with The Thing according to Heijningen can be summarised by comparison to TRON: Legacy. Whereas TRON: Legacy owned up to the fact that since its predecessor was made, twenty-eight years have passed, Heijningen‘s version of The Thing wants us to believe it is 1982 again, and the original film is still vaguely “current”. As has been said, it also tries so very, very hard to set up everything that is seen during one sequence of Carpenter‘s film. Thus, it brings absolutely nothing new to the table at all.
If you can get The Thing according to Heijningen cheaply (I picked it up as part of a three-fer deal), and you are in the mood for passable, non-exceptional entertainment, then knock yourself out. But if you have not seen The Thing according to Carpenter, then I strongly advise getting that and watching it several times first. Not only is it the better of the two films by a great margin, it is an excellent horror film in on its own. As I have said, its atmosphere of interpersonal paranoia is one that will keep the film fresh in one’s mind long after the end credits have stopped rolling.