John Carpenter's 1982 cult horror classic The Thing opens with a pair of Norwegians in a helicopter, firing on a dog fleeing across the icy Antarctic wastes toward an American research outpost. That film, adapted from a 1938 short story, centers on the Americans, tracking them as they're attacked by an alien creature with an insidious gift for camouflage: After it consumes its dinner, The Thing replicates the form of its prey, disguising itself as a member of the camp until it's ready to attack again.
What those Norwegians were doing chasing that dog, and what happened to their own research station -- which, upon investigation, the Americans find to be abandoned and partially destroyed -- are central questions in the early portion of Carpenter's film. Its characters can only deduce bits and pieces, but these scraps of information are more than enough detail for that story's purposes. For their new prequel, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (who was also responsible for the pointless Nightmare on Elm Street reboot) want to fill in the blanks.
And so their story begins with the Norwegians accidentally stumbling on a gigantic spacecraft buried under the ice, with an alien body frozen solid nearby. They know they have something important here, so they call in an American paleontologist (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to assist with extracting the specimen from the ice -- and to provide the film with an excuse to drop the subtitles and let everyone speak English.
This new Thing is billed as a prequel, but with its identical title, it might be easy to confuse it for a remake. As it turns out, just watching the film is all that's necessary to confuse it for a remake -- the filmmakers match much of the plot of Carpenter's film point for point.
Occasionally, they try to do so playfully: In the previous film, a blood test is devised to determine whether a person is human or the alien in disguise. Here, the scripters use a similar test for misdirection. It's an amusing in-joke -- until they replace it with a different test that still allows them to essentially repeat the corresponding scene from the older film.
That it ends up being a remake after all is no great offense; that it's such a bland and uninteresting one is less forgivable. Carpenter's film succeeded on the creeping dread he was so expert at creating, and on the force of Kurt Russell's personality in the lead role. Here, the film tries to get by mostly on some decent creature-effects work. But there's barely any suspense,nor are Winstead or the film's Russell stand-in, Joel Edgerton, given much to do.
The filmmakers are fairly obvious about lifting from previous material, but they do nothing to mold it into something that's their own. The Thing always bore surface similarities, for instance, to Alien. But here they're made obvious, with a female protagonist obviously modeled on Sigourney Weaver's Ripley; the "homage" even goes down to identical smaller details, like the tough-guy laborers at the outpost wondering if they'll get a bonus for the scientific find, and the interior design of the spacecraft.
As the end of the new Thing begins to dovetail with the beginning of its predecessor, the filmmakers make a disastrous decision -- to echo Ennio Morricone's distinctive 1982 soundtrack. It only serves as a reminder of how far short this film falls. Like The Thing itself, the film seeks to ape the form and behavior of something genuine, but you don't need a fancy test to tell that this is a shoddy replica.
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