Horror thrives in isolation. In the case of the new science-fiction thriller The Thing, that principle applies heavily to the Antarctic setting, where inclement weather cuts off a tiny science station from potential rescuers, darkness and bitter cold make even closely huddled buildings seem forbiddingly far apart, and circumstances set everyone in the area against each other. But the same principle also applies to the film as an artifact. It would work much better if it could be isolated from its predecessors: John W. Campbell, Jr.’s 1938 novella “Who Goes There?”, the 1951 film adaptation The Thing From Another World, and John Carpenter’s classic 1982 remake The Thing. Though Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s 2011 version of The Thing keeps the name of Carpenter’s movie, it’s intended as a prequel, and feels like a stealth remake. The finale is preordained, as the film moves toward an ending that sets up Carpenter’s beginning, but the story beats along the way are just as familiar.
2011’s The Thing begins with its biggest thrill, as a Norwegian expedition finds a wrecked spaceship and a frozen alien in the Antarctic; when they call in a group of Americans to assist, the film moves into a curiously laggy conversational mode where protagonist-paleontologist Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World’s Ramona Flowers) receives and delivers the barest modicum of exposition with much gravity and a lot of meaningful pauses that turn out not to be meaningful at all. The pace picks up when the alien starts taking over the residents’ bodies, such that anyone onsite might at any moment morph into an eye-hurting CGI mess of fangs and tentacles. Problem is, those conversions seem entirely arbitrary: The “any one of us could be a killer alien right now” dynamic creates momentary tension, but there’s no logic to the alien’s (or aliens’?) behavior, and no clues as to when or how any of the victims got infected, so the entire film is just one shock-jump after another, devoid of cerebral anticipation. And with the end already mandated, it’s clear that it doesn’t even matter who’s an alien at any given moment: Everyone’s going to be chum eventually.
The 2011 Thing does get some things right, particularly that unnerving quality of isolation, as the doomed scientists inevitably split up to poke into dark corners with inadequate flashlights, hoping they won’t find what they’re looking for. And while the characters follow roughly the same storyline as in the 1982 version, at least they come up with a different who’s-the-alien test. But it all feels fairly inconsequential, just another case of a crowd of interchangeable nobodies repetitively getting picked off by a digital monster. Winstead’s wide-eyed cringing in the lead doesn’t give the film much personality—particularly by comparison with Kurt Russell’s shaggy swagger in the 1982 version—and the concepts and visuals that don’t come from Carpenter instead come from Ridley Scott’s Alien, or David Cronenberg’s body-horror films. For a film that takes place in such a cold locale, it all feels awfully warmed-over.