In defence of The Thing prequel

Some have argued that The Thing, the prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 classic, should never have been made.

The Thing has no subtext, no humour, no genre invention,” reads one review. “The Thing is so single-mindedly determined to keep you awake that it almost puts you to sleep,” moans another. “A foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is fun as neither one thing or the other,” yet another critic seeths.

These quotes aren’t, as you may have imagined, plucked from the reviews of Matthijs van Heijningen Jr’s The Thing, out on Friday, but John Carpenter’s 1982 movie.

Now rightly regarded as a classic, it’s easy to forget just how venomous the critical response was towards Carpenter’s film – worse still, The Thing wasn’t a big hit with audiences, either. It was only later that the film grew in stature, as viewers began to notice its singularly bleak atmosphere, remarkable special effects and expert direction.

In a 2010 interview with Time Out magazine, Carpenter spoke of how difficult that initial reaction was to take. “I take every failure hard,” the director said. “My career would have been different if that had been a big hit… The movie was hated. Even by science fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane. Even the original movie’s director, Christian Nyby, was dissing me.”

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Carpenter may have some sympathy, then, for director van Heijningen Jr, whose prequel seemed damned from the outset. How dare this first-time director attempt to trade on the name of one of the finest sci-fi movies of the 80s? How could anyone possibly hope to equal what is surely Carpenter’s finest piece of work?

The decision to give it the same name as the 1982 movie seemed to add to the air of distrust. If this movie is indeed meant to be a prequel, and not a remake, why not call it something else?

Given The Thing’s muted critical and financial success in America, I went along to a screening ahead of its UK release with my expectations lowered. As a devotee of Carpenter’s film, I was fully prepared to be disappointed, and perhaps even irritated by this 2011 origin story.

By now, you’ll probably be well aware of The Thing 2011’s premise. Set in 1982, months before the events of Carpenter’s movie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as Doctor Kate Lloyd, a US paleontologist who’s whisked off to the Antarctic to help investigate a crashed alien spacecraft. Having found the ship’s occupant apparently dead and entombed in ice, Lloyd and her multinational team of investigators, among them helicopter pilot Sam (Joel Edgerton) and the terse Doctor Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) soon find themselves trapped in their remote station with a creature capable of imitating anyone it encounters.

That the prequel recreates numerous story beats and moments of tension from Carpenter’s movie isn’t a surprise: it was evident from the (spoiler-filled) trailer that emerged earlier this year that van Heijningen Jr’s film was made in the spirit of the 1982 version. What is surprising, though, is just how measured and well paced the prequel’s build-up is. This isn’t a swiftly-produced cash-in flung together by a hack director, but a finely crafted tale of paranoia and suspense.

And while Eric Heisserer’s script borrows elements from both the 1982 and 1951 movies, it deserves praise for introducing a few great ideas of its own, including a tense and quite clever scene where Doctor Lloyd attempts to find out exactly which of her colleagues she can trust.

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The film should also be applauded for its convincing evocation of Antarctica; as in the earlier Thing movies, the sense of desolation and hostility is palpable, and when the distrust begins to build among the residents of Thule Station, the use of sound design – all distant crashes and howling winds – creates an aptly chilling atmosphere.

It’s unfortunate, then, that the special effects often let the prequel down. After an immaculately mounted first hour, in which the creature in the characters’ midst is barely seen, some of the suspense is lost due to an all-too-familiar problem in horror: over exposure. The advent of CGI appears to have given the film’s effects department the courage to have its monster in frequent full view, and the results are decidedly mixed.

The absence of effects genius Rob Bottin is sorely felt here, and had van Heijningen Jr had an artist as brilliant as Bottin on board instead of a bank of computers, The Thing’s final act may have matched up to the promise of the earlier two.

Nevertheless, the concept of people vulnerable and alone in the freezing cold with a protean monster snapping at their heels is simply too evocative to collapse entirely. Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes for an engagingly resourceful lead, and the movie wisely maintains its apocalyptic, doom-laden tone right up to its bitter end.

Unlike Robert Rodriguez’s fun yet disposable Predators, which held the Predator franchise it attempted to reboot in high regard but failed to introduce many new ideas of its own, the Thing prequel at least has an interesting, quite clever story to tell, and one that dovetails extremely well with Carpenter’s movie. That it doesn’t surpass Carpenter’s high watermark of 80s sci-fi horror will surprise nobody, but there are moments where it manages to evoke the same feelings of dread.

How ironic, then, that the some of the reviews for The Thing 2011 have been so harsh, just as they were for Carpenter’s movie back in 1982. Then again, it seems that Thing movies have always had a hard time with critics. Although The Thing From Another World was a commercial success back in 1951, reviews were mixed; Variety moaned that it “lacked entertainment values”, while writer Lester del Ray dismissed the film as “just another monster epic, totally lacking in the force and tension of the original story.”

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Maybe it’ll take a little time for audiences to appreciate what the Thing prequel achieves. It lacks the sheer brilliance of John Carpenter’s film, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a suspense-filled, exciting and appropriately nasty piece of sci-fi horror, and one that serves as a perfectly decent set-up to the master’s superior 1982 pay-off.