“THE THING” (2011) – 3 STARS

While I would hardly call 2011’s “The Thing” necessary, this prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic manages to capture enough of the shocks and paranoia of its predecessor to be successful. While it is indeed a prequel, in many ways it’s a remake borrowing more from Carpenter’s version than offering much new. But trying to recreate a tried-and-true formula isn’t a bad thing and “The Thing” almost nails it. It works more often times than not but it does fall victim to its own poor choices.

The film sets the table for the 1982 picture by detailing the discovery and unleashing of the deadly shape-shifting extraterrestrial by a Norwegian research team in Antarctica. One of the film’s biggest strengths is its desire for a fluid continuity between the two movies. Everything is connected nicely and any fan of the earlier film will appreciate the effort. Here the Norwegian team has found a UFO and a life form buried under the ice. Against wiser suggestions, the head of the group orders the creature be brought back to their base for research. After the creature reveals it’s still alive and escapes, the team learns that the alien assimilates its victims and then imitates them both physically and verbally. Soon everyone is suspected of being a host which leads to fear and panic throughout the base.

Sound familiar? Like I said, the film borrows a lot from its predecessor. It’s moody and creepy and the isolated Antarctic setting still works really well. But it never lives up to Carpenter’s version. One of the problems is the overloaded cast of characters, most of which we never connect to. Only a few characters really stand out while others feel like token kills for the alien. You could have easily cut out about five meaningless characters. They would have never been missed and the others would have benefited from it. Also while the movie does finally start to capture some of the intense paranoia of the earlier film, it seems to come and go. Carpenter’s film was driven by the paranoia and unnerving suspicions of his characters. I also thought this movie got a little off track close to the end. There’s an out-of-place sequence in the underground UFO that felt completely disconnected from the rest of the film. That was one attempt at originality that really fell flat.

On the flip side, Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. does effectively employ several of the techniques used by Carpenter. And while I wouldn’t call the special effects better, the availability of CGI does give this creature much more fluid motions and his assimilations are pretty grotesque. Of course I mean that in a good way. The film is also helped by some really good acting throughout. Mary Elizabeth Winstead as especially impressive as a paleontologist who becomes the lead character. The wonderful Australian actor Joel Edgerton is also quite good as an American helicopter pilot who tends to sit on the outside of the largely scientific group. Both performances are natural and true even when the material let’s them down a bit.

“The Thing” is a film that will largely appeal to a small audience. Fans of the 1982 classic will want to see it and should find a lot to like. While it trips itself up with an overloaded cast and a few scenes which feel like they belong in another film, it does deliver that almost old-school sci-fi monster movie feel. It captures some of the paranoia that I keep harping on and it’s connection to the previous picture is very well done.  Top it off with some nice performances and you have a film that is very watchable. Oh, and did I mention they have flamethrowers???

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