Usually, when writing about a new movie, it's customary to provide a plot summary and any other important information at the top of your piece. When talking about this weekend's 'The Thing,' however... eh, what's the point? If you're really interested in seeing 'The Thing,' you can stay in this weekend and watch it on DVD; it was made in 1982 by John Carpenter (itself an entirely radical new interpretation of 1951's 'The Thing From Another World'). If you've already seen the 1982 version, then stay in and watch it again. As a B-level sci-fi horror movie, the new 'The Thing' -- technically a prequel to the 1982 classic -- is serviceably fine. The moment you connect it to the John Carpenter version though, it collapses under the weight of its own pointlessness. To put it bluntly, 'The Thing' represents everything wrong with modern Hollywood.
(WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW)
What's most frustrating about the new 'Thing' is that by choosing to be a prequel to a pre-existing film, it acknowledges that the universe built by John Carpenter's project is so interesting, that it's worth exploring and expanding upon again. But instead of trying to tell a new story within that world or take advantage of that movie's cleverness, 'The Thing' takes whatever uniqueness was possessed in the original and crams it into the generic template for "scary movie" that we've seen over and over again.
Here's just one example: When the young American scientist (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hides in the air duct of the Thing's spaceship, and the monster pops out to scare her and slowly walk toward her before she grabs the grenade she's dropped, it's a dull and lifeless moment. Because despite establishing that the Thing is a parasitic creature capable of cellular transference, it still likes to meander over to its prey. And despite it being hundreds of thousands of years old and predatory on a microscopic level, it still can't crawl into a vent on its own spaceship. And despite it's ship being so advanced that it can cross light years of dead space, it still takes 7 minutes to warm up the engine -- just enough time for the scientist to make her escape. But, hey: that's how these moments were done in 'Friday the 13th Part 6' or 'The Relic' or hundreds of other indistinguishable horror movies so why change the formula?
Gone is the methodical cinematography bathed in the darkness of an Antarctic wasteland; this time the camera is static, making sure to record everything, so no shadow is left hovering over the scene. The acclaimed special effects of the original by Rob Bottin (with help from Stan Winston) are replaced primarily by CGI -- giving the actors nothing to react to in the scene. You may think this is a minor detail, but when we can identify the monster on-screen as being computer animation and not a weird, slimy, tangible thing standing next to the actors, it creates a disconnect in the audience telling us "this is fake."
This new movie removes all the quiet, creeping dread of the original and replaces it with crashes, bangs and explosions. Will you jump out of your seat? Of course you will; it's easy to make a horror movie filled with "jump scares" when you blast the audio to its highest level and assault your audience with out-of-nowhere screams. It's impossible to not flinch in those moments. Even if it was involuntary, it still counts as a jump apparently.
And even though it's designated as a prequel, it straight up lifts memorable set pieces from the first movie, making it so two separate groups of people -- who have never met each other and come from completely different cultural backgrounds -- just so happen to react with the exact same kind of behavior to indescribable extraterrestrial phenomena. The coincidental synchronicity is not played for any kind of cosmic irony other than "Hey, it worked in the first movie, so we can do it again without it losing any impact."
The whole thing is one big labored struggle to get us to the opening moments of the original movie, which means everyone dies and nothing has changed. It's ultimate goal is to revoke any gains it makes, just so it fills out small details from the original and provides a "wink" to fans of the first. The driving force behind the movie is to answer the question of "What happened before the first movie began?" But what everyone involved with this production failed to consider was that question is better left as rhetorical.
A prequel is the worst kind of horror movie you could make, and fundamentally misses the point of the genre. The reason horror remains so timelessly effective is the way it plays on an audience's fears of both the unknown and of losing control. However, the ultimate goal of a prequel is to answer lingering questions and explain how everything worked. Why should an audience be scared of the thing moving around in the shadows, if you are trying to reveal everything about it?
What most boggles the mind is if Universal really wanted to revisit the world of 'The Thing,' did they think this was the best approach? To strip it of all its originality and turn it into another generic "scare of the week," that audiences will forget about after opening weekend? At that point, why not just re-release the original in theaters for a special Halloween run? 'The Lion King' has proven that audiences will return to an old movie on the big screen if they love it enough. If you argue that John Carpenter's movie is too dated for modern audiences, then why did they choose to make a new movie that actually takes place before it?
The reason 'The Thing' is everything wrong with modern Hollywood is because it's assembly-line movie making. Even with all the remakes and prequels and sequels and adaptations, all these varied sources of inspiration get churned into the same type of final product. You can have the most exotic ingredients in the world, but when all you do is shove them in a blender and turn them into mush, people will get fed up with the meal. To complete the food analogy: if the original 'Thing' was a gourmet meal crafted by a talented chef, this is cheap junk food you can get from a box. Don't we deserve a better menu?
[Photos courtesy of Universal Studios]
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