2011’s The Thing Prequel Connects Perfectly with the John Carpenter Movie

2011's The Thing starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead may not be the prequel anyone asked for, but it lines up startlingly well with John Carpenter's 1982 classic.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead vs Kurt Russell in The Thing
Photo: Universal Pictures

Warning: The Thing spoilers jump out of nowhere in this piece!

“The last place you want to be in a storm in Antarctica is locked up with a bunch of Norwegian guys,” Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a Columbia graduate and vertebrate paleontologist, is warned as she is flown into the tundra surrounding “Thule,” the central research station in The Thing (2011). The sequestered Norse researchers have never seen John Carpenter’s claustrophobic 1982 alien invasion classic, The Thing. After all, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. and writer Eric Heisserer’s 2011 prequel is set at the Antarctic facility from which the very Thing from outer space splits at the beginning of the ‘82 film. So the newest movie, which is finding a quasi-renaissance on Netflix these days, is a translation of the prior events by Heijningen and Heisserer.

In the snowbound original film, when exploring a deserted outpost in the aftermath of an as-yet-unknown extraterrestrial disaster, Kurt Russell’s R.J. “Mac” MacReady (Kurt Russell) is fairly dismissive of the Norwegians, mistaking them for Swedes more than once. This linguistic disconnect is the first connection between the two films. As Mac and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) fish through the rubble looking for its cause, the doc finds papers but can’t read the language. They had been led there because a seemingly crazed Norwegian from a science squad was killed because he could not communicate in English. He is the first of many direct connections between the two films, but he has company.

A Man and His Dog

Heijningen’s The Thing ends with a recreation of the opening sequence of Carpenter’s film. After the prequel reaches its false conclusion, the story of the Norwegian base’s aftermath continues in the credits. Lars (Jørgen Langhelle), the only member of the Norwegian research team in the 2011 film who does not speak English, confronts Matias (Ole Martin Aune Nilsen), a pilot who was off the outpost during the events of the film, and is oblivious to the alien creature’s attacks. Lars checks Matias’ teeth fillings to be sure he is not a transformed version of the invading life form, finds they are made of inorganic matter which cannot be assimilated into the shape-shifting extraterrestrial being which gives the film its title, and together they take flight in the chopper.

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The “sled dog pursuit” action precedes the opening of Carpenter’s film. The only difference is the actors. An Alaskan Malamute is being chased through the snow by a rifle-touting man in a Norwegian helicopter. We learn this is Matias in the 2011 prequel. He never gets to tell the research crew at U.S. Outpost 31 why he wants to kill the sled dog before getting himself killed after shooting George Bennings (Peter Maloney) in the leg.

What’s in a Title?

All versions of The Thing are adaptations of the 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, which was set in the Antarctic. Carpenter’s film was a remake of Christian Nyby’s 1951 film version, The Thing From Another Planet, in which a UFO is unearthed near a North Pole research base. Perhaps this is because the tower in the vintage logo of RKO Radio Pictures (who produced the movie) stands at the top of the world? Produced by Howard Hawks, the ‘51 film’s opening credits burn the words “The Thing” out of a vague cylindrical figure in a dark sky. It is followed by the words “From Another Planet.”

Conversely, Carpenter’s film shows the craft from above, as it enters the Earth’s orbit and atmosphere before the title sizzles from its spectral debris. The 2011 prequel turns that on its head. The researchers are looking down, but from the vantage point of a flipped snow vehicle, and they are in ghastly terror from both their experience of falling through the glacier and what lies in the crevice below.

The prequel’s opening subtitle, “Antarctica, Winter 1982,” connects the two films in time and setting. The only cultural clue tying the periods together is the song Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Kate Lloyd is listening to: Men at Work’s “Who Can It Be Now?” This, however, is also the underlying theme of the film, as the Thing can be anyone.

Who Goes There?

One of the major connections between the two films is the character hierarchy, besides Kate, who ultimately outranks everyone in the prequel. Both the 2011 movie’s Sam Carter (Joel Edgerton) and the ‘82 classic’s R.J. MacReady are cynical helicopter pilots, who are not easily amused—though Mac gets to showcase his casual disinterest when he pours J&B Scotch all over his electronic chess board, voiced by Adrienne Barbeau. When he flies, he wears a big leather cowboy hat. Carter sports an earring, just don’t ask him which lobe gets it.

The prequel’s Colin (Jonathan Lloyd Walker) and 1982’s Windows (Thomas Waites) are both radiomen. Adam Finch (Eric Christian Olsen) and Fuchs (Joel Polis) are lab assistants. They are the characters in each film who attempt to develop a test to determine which of the team are replicates that hide the creature in their flesh. The disparate reasons for the ultimate inconclusive results of the tests also tie the film together, as do many of the transformations and deaths.

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During the prequel’s blood test, a flamethrower malfunctions, allowing the creature who has taken on the form of Edvard time to assimilate Adam. MacReady similarly fails to burn Palmer after he is exposed during the blood test, allowing the Thing to assimilate Windows. The prequel’s scene showing Derek Jameson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) shoot Peder (Stig Henrik Hoff) in the head parallels the death of the dog handler Clark (Richard Masur), who is shot for attempting to kill MacReady.

The prequel’s explosive death of the creature when it has assimilated Ulrich Thomsen’s Danish scientist Sandor Halvorson (whose reckless pursuit of scientific fame let the creature out) is similar to the death of the senior biologist Blair (A. Wilford Brimley), quite the opposite in character, in the original.  

In Carpenter’s story, Mac appears to be watching the only undocumented part of the Norwegian team’s early progress, the initial discovery, and the filmed external measuring, of the alien ship. The 2011 film skips from the initial detection of the craft when the researchers are following the transmission signal, to after its excavation, still partially covered under the crack in the glacier.

Little Things Mean a Lot

Some of the most viscerally tangible connections between the two films come in small details. We learn how the axe that Mac encounters in the 1982 film got wedged in the door. In the prequel, Kate tells Carter not to touch it after he fails to kill a living fragment of the creature, spitting a grotesquely fingered limb until it comes together into a larger version (Writer’s note: This scene will forever bind the Thing with Thing of The Addams’ Family in my internal peripheral visions). The emotionally connective gifts which emerge in the prequel may be wrapped in something as small as a box of grenades, but they are satisfying connections on a fan level, as is the destroyed site of the original film, which is lovingly recreated for the 2011 location. Even the broken tomb of glass measures up.

In both the novella “Who Goes There?” and the 1951 film, the alien craft crashed and its survivor was frozen millions of years ago in the past. In both Carpenter and Heijiningen’s films, the glacier which entombs the craft is 100,000 years old, the dawn of human evolution. Mac has the last laugh when he says “and those Norwegians blew it up.” That is until he starts to get to the bottom of the cosmic joke. This comes in clearer during the remake, but another tiny detail ties all three films together.

Some of the photos on the wall of the prequel’s outpost set, most visible when Kate first shows up, look like they are stills from the footage Mac and the U.S. Outpost 31 team are examining in the Carpenter film. While Mac looks over the visual documentation from the dead Norwegian scientists, we see the same kinds of flags shown in the excavation in the 2011 film.

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However, the prequel does not show the footage of the Norwegian team standing around the circumference of the downed alien craft. In the original film, Mac’s team always appeared to be viewing visual tributes to the original film, even pegging the thermite bombs initially used to melting the alien craft. Of course, in the original, this chemical reaction destroys the ship. 1982’s The Thing also shows a very large explosion on the TV monitors, larger than the charge which was supposed to thaw out the ice.

Assimilating the Creature

For all the CGI-tainted accusations leveled against the 2011 prequel, Heijningen and cinematographer Michel Abramowicz set out to go respectfully retro. They wanted to shoot on the same 35mm stock Dean Cundey used for the original. Creature effects supervisor Alec Gillis originally intended to film animatronics and save computer graphics for enhancements. After initially agreeing, Universal declared it would make the movie look dated, and told them to replace it with CGI.  

This being said, the prequel is faithful to the form and thesis of Carpenter and creature designer Rob Bottin’s original design, in spite of the apparent reversal of the “Split Face” heads, best viewed when Matias is looking at the burning remains. The “Split Face” corpse that Mac takes back to camp looks far less burned than the remains left from the 2011 prequel. It makes a very subtle connection because this indicates the corpse is already regenerating at the beginning of the 1982 movie. The autopsy later reveals the “Split Face” alien is not quite dead in Carpenter’s film.

The computer-generated effects make it easier to render how the Thing morphs and better blend into the background for jump scares. CGI also frees the ever-evolving monster to be more grotesque each time it reappears, yet still remain faithful to the DNA of Carpenter’s vision. However, behind-the-scenes videos of Amalgamated Dynamics’ snippets show some very impressive works. They are available on YouTube. Feel free to seek them out and let us know which you think is better.

Things That Could Have Been

One of the disconnects between different versions is what feeds the Thing. The Thing From Outer Space sees it as intelligent carnivorous plant life with very dangerous weeds intent on taking over the whole garden. In the 1982 film, the creature is a virus which wants to replicate itself. In the original short story, the Thing is trying to build a spaceship, the implication being it will continue its work of invasion. Onscreen, the creature in the 2011 film is driven by the same needs as Carpenter’s film, except it also seems to harbor malice as well as hunger for contagion.

The originally planned ending would have found Kate discovering the frozen body of the extraterrestrial craft’s pilot, dead for 100,000 years. The prequel would have gone on to reveal the alien commander crashed the ship intentionally in order to kill the Thing which had escaped a containment pod. The studio found it too confusing and had it replaced with a more action-friendly finale.

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There are elements of both the book and the 1951 feature which have been left out of the more modern remakes. The creature could use telepathy to communicate and exert influence in the novella. The lead scientist in The Thing from Another Planet, Nobel laureate Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), wants to understand the creature on an intellectual level. Both the 2011 prequel and the 1982 classic only want it contained.

The reason The Thing and its prequel works best is because there is more than a science fiction vibe at work. The prequel maintains the rhythm of the original, which both avoids and begs shot-for-shot comparisons. The arc of both films work so well you can put the soundtrack on one and watch the other like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon accompaniment to The Wizard of Oz. But the final and most insidious connection between the two films is the sense of paranoia and isolation. Both end with bleak outcomes. Carpenter’s movie is just waiting for the final shot, probably futile, while Heijningen’s film ends with Lars unable to stop, or even warn, the Americans from following their path in The Thing. They are humanity’s last defense and are never given the game plan.