Monday, December 19, 2011
Ah. The summer of 1982. What a gorgeous summer it was. What other summer could provide ET, Poltergeist, Wrath of Khan, Blade Runner, The Thing, and Tron. In a summer like that, it's no wonder that John Carpenters “The Thing” sank like a stone. A harsh, bleak, superviolent, and utterly disgusting psychological sci-fi horror that extracted hope with a surgical precision in the summer when the only alien anyone wanted to see was E.T.
29 years later, and perhaps never really considered or wanted, but definitely appreciated comes a remake and prequel of the box-office bomb that was “The Thing”. To some – especially the purists this film is an abomination. To me, sick and tired of dull and tedious films designed for teenagers, horrified by the idea that a “Horror” film can only consist of blood, guts, screams, disposable and thin characters, lazy plotting, and eye wateringly embarrassing stupidity, “The Thing” is a refreshingly old-school, traditional and intelligent horror film that compliments the 1982 film and dovetails in very neatly to the beginning of it.
Perhaps because so many people came to the 1982 film at formative years – my first viewing wa a late night Tv showing when I was 12 (and I turned out fine) – and the paranoia of the time, where the threat of nuclear extinction hung heavy over every moment, the fear of the Russians, the invisible enemy permeated our lives, and, in my life at least, I felt that my world internal and external could be rent by invisible and unpredictable enemies like divorce, the IRA, and redundancy at any time, it struck true to me. How did I know, when my parents argued, that one of them wasn't (at least temporarily) possessed by a Thing? An alien in someone else's body?
The fear people have is that the “1982 Thing” is a work of flawless genius : it is. But this film takes nothing away from the 1982 film, and adds perhaps to the 1982 film in small, subtle ways. Certainly what it does is provide a slightly different mythology. In the 1982 film, the Norweigen crew (apparently) blow up the monsters habitat. Here what we see is that they didn't blow it up, but blew a small tunnel through to it (which is, realistically a lot more likely). People have made assumptions on the 1982 film, and it is these assumptions this film challenges and why people think this film isn't any good. But think about it. There's a big reveal at the end of the film (think the word “engines”), which shows that maybe it wasn't the Swedes (“They're Norweigen, Mac”) that blew up the ice after all.
What “The Thing” does differ from Carpenters 1982 version, is that by knowing where the chips land, the outcome is predetermined. Mary Winstead's character – for some reason never fully explained – is choppahed in from another unknown location after a personal visit in a scene that answers a question no-one was asking. Why would you, if you'd discovered an alien and a spaceship, leave the base and get help? Just radio in. If you can't radio, you certainly can't choppah yourself in either. There are occasional flaws in logic, but overall, this film dovetails in neatly with the 1982 film so well that even the environments are precise. I compared the 1982 mise-en-scene with the 2011 film and as far as I can tell, the two matched up precisely. Apart from the snow goggles in the closing scene.
As a film though, it is an experiment in crazed replication that I can only think of having been matched by “Star Wars : Revenge Of The Sith” which this film comes close to matching in insane ambition.But living up to the original is an impossible task, as well as unrealistic. What the filmmakers have done though, is a near heroic act of cohesion.
Where this film does suffer however is in the lack of an inherent human quality. The characters in this are, almost to a man, bearded Norwegians with unfamiliar names in jumpers. Aside from the acidic and unnamed British radio operator, and the teleported-in female lead, these bunch of happy idiots show no discerning individual characters, and might as well be called Redshirt#1, Redshirt#2, and so forth. Thus, when they (mostly) get turned into some kind of mush, it's hard to care. Characters are thrown aside with no consequence, set aflame, and forgotten about. But they are different characters, going through a different experience. In the 1982 film, the creature is known from the first 20 minutes to be some kind of monster. Here, they've just discovered a fucking alien, and they all want to take the credit for it. They have no idea what they are exactly about to experience. The fear and paranoia haven't been grasped, because they haven't got a clue what they're dealing with at all.
There are other flaws. The humanity of the characters themselves is sketchy from the off. Unlike the 1982 film, the Norweigan's show none of the signs of the irritable claustrophobia of the original. In this, you feel that the whole crew have been here possible 3 or 4 days, equipped with copious amounts of alcohol, happy to play ukueles and sing drinking songs until it all descends into some kind of compromising prison-sex gay love-in. There's little sense of the pent up tension of lots of males in a confined space, nor it seems, any recognition that it takes a certain kind of person to live on an Artic base for months on end in the middle of winter.
And, on reflection, the key element of the 1982 film that I miss the most is the sense of paranoia. Where anyone could be anything at all. Nobody knows each other, and in this film, the mystery to be solved is “Who's The Monster?” as if it were some kind of genocidal, furious jigsaw, and not the far more terrifying and all pervading idea that anyone could be anything and capable of anything at anytime and anyone could be murdered gruesomely by anyone and no one can possibly be trusted. This film ponders less on that, and perhaps on the race to get the monster, and kill it.
And the monster isn't that intelligent. Very possibly, each of The Things is its own personality, it's own identity, it's own seperate cell – an idea not really explored in the 1982 film – that thinks in an individual way and approaches matters differently to other Things. And, on the basis of a late-period reveal, The Thing doesn't seem to know who else is a Thing or not. If it does, it doesn't seem to care much. (An assumption confirmed by Stuart Cohen from the originals production team here ) And with that in line, each infections attack pattern and method is individual and unique.
Two words : The Helicopter. By all logic, The Thing should sit tight and wait for it has all the time in the world. But maybe what critics don't realise is that The Thing has no experience of this reality, and when it landed here, it was all a pre-industrial backward shithole. It may also be that The Thing hasn't yet completed it's full process, and thus, needs to reveal itself, held together barely by the strength of will and ambition. You do have to remember this is a omnipotent alien in an unfamiliar world – it doesn't necessarily need logic, when it has power.
The problem with this is that it is all moving to a known conclusion : a helicopter chasing a dog in the snow. And that's an outcome that doesn't make sense in the context of this film, because The Thing here has not yet learnt the art of patience. The Thing does stuff at a time that serves the narrative, not itself, and The Thing may not be the most intelligent creature there is : the Thing is learning where it went wrong. By the events of the 1982 film it certainly has a more mature and more intelligent attack vector. In the 2011 film, there's little sense that the creature is doing much beyond blind replication, and at a couple of key points – a scene in a helicopter, the creatures initial reveal – the Thing seems a little stupid. What it lacks in intelligence (and the Thing of the 1982 film was clearly paying attention to the flaws of the rest of it's species – hence a slightly more considered approach in the 1982 film), the creature makes up for in unapologetically gruesome effects.
Perhaps the biggest victory is that The Thing is not the same as it's peers : it demonstrates more than a modicum of intelligence, the soundtrack is not stuffed with generic rap, and it succeeds in its intention to complement the 1982 film, and make us want to watch that again. In fact – first thing I did when I got back home was pop the 1982 film in the player and let it roll for 40 or so minutes.
Think of it another way : if Carpenters film hadn't existed, we'd all be lauding how great this unrepentently graphic film is in the midst of a huge amount of dreck clogging up our cinemas and multiplexes. Better this than “Saw8”. The brains I want in horror are not about to be eaten by zombies.