posted Sunday 16 October 2011 @ 11:09 am PDT
by Gary Westfahl
Certain sorts of films, it can be argued, resist all forms of critical analysis. Seemingly made for no purpose other than providing audiences with a series of thrills, they can be evaluated solely on the basis of whether they have been successful in achieving that goal. Thus, watching this third adaptation of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s novella “Who Goes There” (1938), I found myself recalling not any earlier films but a favorite Halloween pastime of southern California residents, Knott’s Scary Farm, where visitors to the theme park can stroll through a series of mazes and have one costumed ghoul after another threateningly leap out at them for some harmless excitement. What is different about The Thing, because it is an expensive contemporary film, is that its monsters do not leap out of dark corners, but out of people’s chests, and instead of merely wearing horrific makeup, they employ CGI effects to colorfully transform themselves and their victims into enormous spider-like creatures. And, to provide the sort of review that merely advises people whether or not they should see the film, one can be succinct: if you enjoy this sort of movie, you should definitely go see The Thing, because it is a well-made and well-executed example of the genre. If you prefer other sorts of entertainment, you should choose an alternative leisure activity, unless you have, for some bizarre reason, volunteered to write a thoughtful review of the film for literate readers.
To illustrate the problems one encounters when attempting to write a thoughtful review of The Thing, let us ponder the motivations of its titular entity. Consider: you are a highly intelligent alien from a race sufficiently advanced as to have constructed an enormous spaceship capable of traveling through interstellar space, and you have crash-landed on a world with a harshly frigid environment. As your survival strategy, you undertake to brutally slaughter each and every one of the indigenous inhabitants you encounter, temporarily changing your offshoots into perfect duplicates of these beings solely so that you can gain better access to your next victim. Does this make any sense at all? The Thing in Campbell’s story wasn’t pleasant, as it is variously described as “crazy,” “vicious,” “selfish,” and “evil,” but all of its actions seemed reasonable enough, as carefully figured out by Campbell’s characters who, in the traditional manner of science fiction, were devoted to finding logical explanations for all mysterious phenomena. Even the humanoid “intellectual carrot” of Howard Hawks’ and Christian Nyby’s 1951 film adaptation, The Thing (from Another World), and the more Campbellian shapeshifter of John Carpenter’s 1982 remake The Thing, went about their lethal business with a modicum of rationality. But the only logic underlying the actions of this latest incarnation of Campbell’s nightmare might be some arcane doctrine of successful commercial filmmaking, secretly passed on from veterans to neophytes, stipulating that one must introduce some new act of colorful violence on every fifteenth page. And so, on page 75, it was time for another man’s chest to be cybernetically morphed into a gaping toothed mouth, advancing menacingly on the person nearest to him.
Only one writer that I can recall has attempted to offer a persuasive rationale for the necessarily intelligent but blindly homicidal aliens that have become so ubiquitous in contemporary cinema, and that is Clifford D. Simak in Our Children’s Children (1974), wherein people in the future must travel into Earth’s past to escape from invading aliens who represent “a strange evolutionary case”: they are “a warrior race. They glory in killing. They may have developed their space-traveling capability for no other reason than that they might find other things to kill. Killing is a personal thing for them, an intensely personal experience, like religion once was for the human race. And since it is so personal, it must be done personally, with no mechanical aids. It must be done with claws and fangs and poison tail.” If Simak’s estate was as litigious as Harlan Ellison, they might employ that passage as the basis for plagiarism lawsuits against hundreds of science fiction films made in recent decades, including this one. But their producers’ defense might be, “Ah, but a key difference between our story and Simak’s is that our characters, unlike his characters, make absolutely no effort to explain the motives of their relentlessly murderous aliens.” Indeed.
Instead, perfectly understanding their roles in all of these improbable dramas, characters like this film’s Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) display an appropriate single-mindedness in their response to each invasive creature: “we find it, and we kill it.” Thus, whenever some monstrosity attempts to consume another victim in this film, one of our heroes must arrive, flame-thrower in hand, to reduce the menace to a grotesque cinder. And so on and so forth, until one attains the commercially viable screentime of 103 minutes. (If one can praise Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial  for no other reason, one might at least concede that the film, unlike his recent projects like War of the Worlds  [review here] and J. J. Abrams’ Super 8  [review here], does steer clear of this stereotypical approach, in keeping with Simak’s commonsensical conclusion that, in almost all cases, “by the time a race had developed star-roving capability they would have arrived at a point of social and ethical development where they would pose no threat”; still, I can’t help regarding the alien-as-demon as more palatable than the alien-as-teddy-bear.)
Another way in which The Thing is disappointing involves the principle that, whenever one is remaking a perfectly good film (which both Hawks’ film and Carpenter’s film certainly were), one should be doing so for some reason other than making money, whether it is a simple matter of retelling the story with better production values and special effects or (as was true in Carpenter’s case) offering a completely different take on the original. Thus, hearing that a third film was being based on “Who Goes There?” one might envision an innovative effort to step away from high-tech gore to rather craft a subdued, low-budget film focused on the detective-story aspects of the story, as threatened men work their way through conversation and deduction to identifying the murderer or murderers among them. Or, since Campbell’s monster can imitate both the appearance and conversational skills of humans, a new film might involve an alien being captured and interrogated, instead of being slaughtered, so that it could convey to audiences a fuller picture of its background and desires while perhaps inspiring some sympathy for its plight, provocatively challenging the us-versus-them mentality that dominated both previous films.
However, as one contemplates what director Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr. and writer Eric Heisserer have actually produced, it seems that their main intent was to precisely replicate the contents and style of Carpenter’s film, albeit in a less intelligent manner (even though the film’s credits inexplicably do not cite either Carpenter or his screenwriter, Bill Lancaster). That is, to function as a completely consistent prequel to the 1982 film, this one does take place at a Norwegian base in the Antarctic – although, by having its commander invite his friend, American scientist Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), to come to the base to study his find, accompanied by his assistant Adam Goodman (Eric Christian Olsen), paleontologist Lloyd, and two pilots, Braxton Carter (Joel Edgerton) and Jameson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agjabe), the film contrives to have a cast dominated by Americans. And while I have not seen Carpenter’s film recently enough to catalog what I suspect are many similarities, the layout of the base, and the large block of ice that the alien escapes from, do look just like the ones that I remember were briefly examined by Carpenter’s cast. Finally, this film’s closing scene so exactly mimics the way that Carpenter’s film begins that one could literally splice them together seamlessly. (And perhaps that is the plan: to someday combine the two films as a television event, The Thing: The Complete Saga, or, if Heijningen’s film proves popular, to then make a genuine sequel to the 1982 film to provide Carpenter’s work with two bookends and collectively market them in DVD sets as The Thing Trilogy.)
This is not to say that the film is completely void of novelty, though there are no radical departures from Carpenter’s vision. Connoisseurs may find this film’s special effects to be superior to Carpenter’s, even if my untrained eye could not detect much in the way of improvements. To make the project more commercially viable, Heijningen and Heisserer abandoned Carpenter’s realistic but less-than-crowd-pleasing all-male cast and emulated Hawks’ shrewd decision to foreground a beautiful female character. However, in keeping with the zeitgeist of our times, Winstead’s Lloyd is not merely a scientist’s secretary (like Hawks’ Nikki Nicholson [Margaret Sheridan]), but a scientist in her own right and, ultimately, the film’s leading action hero, following in the footsteps of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. In fact, one scene in the film, a close-up of Lloyd’s face as a creature’s tentacles slither menacingly near her, seems modeled on an iconic image from the Alien films. To replace the blood-sample test that figured so prominently in Campbell’s story and Carpenter’s adaptation, the film comes up with another ingenious, though less definitive, way to determine whether someone is human or alien, inspiring a brief moment of drama that does not involve computer-generated mayhem. And this is the first Thing film to actually take audiences deep inside of the crashed spaceship, although unsurprisingly it conveys no additional insights into the nature of the alien’s civilization, but instead merely provides a new sort of corridor for characters to run down while they are fleeing from the monster’s latest incarnation.
Further, as is often the case in films of this nature, the careful viewer can detect – or imagine? – fleeting signs of a wry knowingness underlying the mindless shenanigans that are constantly in the foreground. In regards to Heisserer’s script, the dirty joke about parents having sex, told in the opening scene, may be there to warn audiences that they are about to be royally screwed, and when Lloyd, after learning of the discovery of the alien, looks up at the stars and muses, “We’ll never look at them the same again,” she may by design be offering her own subdued version of the paranoid declaration that concludes the 1951 film, “Keep watching the skies!” The name “Adam Goodman” is surely an ironic pun, for the character is not in fact a damned good man, but first a weak and obviously inadequate suitor to the strong, assertive Lloyd, and later another deceitful alien in disguise. And the conflict that is central to Hawks’ film, between the idealistic scientist who wishes to study the alien and the practical men who wish to kill it, fleetingly surfaces here in some of Halvorson’s dialogue, although the film hurries to demonize him not as a misguided researcher but as a potential alien.
As for touches that were probably added during production, the song that Lloyd listens to while working in her lab, Men at Work’s “Who Can It Be Now?” (1981), is a transparent reference to “Who Goes There?” while the sign on her laboratory wall, “Safety First,” conveys the attitude that she, more than anyone else, will display throughout the film. When the monsters are attacked by flame-throwers, their usual response is to flee toward the snowy wastes outside the base; but when one creature takes on the form of a Norwegian woman (Kim Bubbs), it runs straight into the kitchen, to be fatally immolated as it is standing beside the stove, as if believing that to be the proper place for a woman. Is our alien visitor not only implacably evil, but sexist as well? And while there are no suggestions of any overt romances in the film, one might suspect that Halvorson’s decision to recruit a beautiful woman to accompany him stemmed from some simmering passion, as is also suggested by the arrogant umbrage he takes when Lloyd challenges his decision in front of the others. Sure enough, when it is Halvorson’s turn to be duplicated by the monster, it unusually takes a form that places his recognizable face front and center, so that its pursuit of Lloyd appears to embody the scientist’s suppressed lust. As one monster is being destroyed by a flame-thrower, it is next to a bookcase, so that burning the creature necessarily demands burning some books as well, perhaps to intentionally symbolize the film’s anti-intellectual nature. And one book that I thought I glimpsed on the shelves was named Snow Dogs, which among other possibilities might be J. A. C. West’s 2008 juvenile about the Alaskan Iditarod; this might be regarded as appropriate reading for people in another polar region, though whether actual residents of the Antarctic would enjoy reading stories about the Arctic seems questionable indeed. (A better indicator of the sort of entertainment they might prefer is the colorful scene of a tropical beach that is prominently on display in several scenes.)
Finally, if one is heartened by nothing else about The Thing, it might be advanced as a sign that the history of science fiction films in the 1980s is being wisely rewritten. In 1982, the science fiction film that was getting all of the attention and acclaim was Spielberg’s nauseating E.T., while films like Blade Runner, Tron, and The Thing were critically panned and commercially disappointing. Yet Blade Runner was soon enshrined as a science fiction masterpiece, periodically revisited in new director’s cuts, while Tron and The Thing developed cult followings that have now inspired positively reverential sequels (review of Tron: Legacy  here). Despite all of their differences and occasional flaws, all three films were made by and for thoughtful adults, which is something one cannot say about Spielberg’s film, and if their sequels (as in this case) do not live up to the originals, that is hardly the fault of their creators. And so, if this review does not inspire its readers to rush out and see the latest version of The Thing (as it shouldn’t), they might use Netflix to more profitably check out the Carpenter film that it emulates, or Hawks’ crude but lively original for that matter, while hoping that the next remake of a science fiction classic, like Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) (review here), will unexpectedly prove to be superior to its predecessor.