Homage is one thing. Imitation is another. Whenever director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. isn't blurring the line between referencing and replicating John Carpenter's 1982 version of The Thing (itself a remake of Howard Hawks' 1951 film The Thing from Another World), he's borrowing liberally from Ridley Scott's claustrophobic Alien. I guess as far as creative inspiration goes, van Heijningen and his screenwriter Eric Heisserer are at least lifting from a pair of masters.
It's 1982, and a Norwegian expedition in Antarctica unearths a long-buried spacecraft, and one of its long-frozen occupants. American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is brought in with a team of scientists to secretly dissect the alien body. Of course, as Horror Film 101 teaches us, the egotistical egghead boss puts his research before safety, and ends up unleashing unholy hell. One by one, members at the base are hunted down by the shape-shifting creature, as paranoia over who's been replicated sets in.
Conceived as a prequel to Carpenter's lurid alien gross-out (an end credit sequence literally ties the two films together), this newest incarnation of The Thing does a decent job of creating atmosphere, landing jolts, and delivering a freakshow of a monster. With its slimy phallic tendrils, vagina dentata maw, and ear-splitting shrieks, the thing in question is an otherwordly nightmare come to life. Too bad van Heijningen shows us too much, too fast. Leaning too heavily on CG effects, his bizarre creature starts to look like a really expensive video game creation. For all that digital technology has given us over the last 30 years, Rob Botin's slippery and textured practical effects in the 1982 version were far creepier.
And so was its story. Here, The Thing's plot lacks urgency and its actors are mostly one-dimensional alien roadkill. Carpenter's take wasn't exactly an actor's paradise, but it did have the good sense to cast Kurt Russell as its lead and fill the supporting roles with colorful character actors such as Keith David and Wilford Brimley. It also boasted an understated, bone-chilling score by Ennio Morricone.
What really sets the previous versions of this story — all adapted from the novella Who Goes There? by John W Campbell, Jr. — apart from this latest update is subtext. Hawkes took 1950s monster movie tropes to reflect Cold War paranoia. Carpenter filled the screen with biological perversions, horrifically sexualized mutations, and a relentless drive toward nihilism, capturing the zeitgeist of post-Vietnam depression and AIDS-era anxiety. But van Heijningen's film has nothing to say about anything. It is as disposable as it is unoriginal.
Still, for the middle part of its modest 100-minute running time, The Thing builds up a fair amount of tension and dread over who is or isn't harboring the monster. Had van Heijningen and Heisserer more fully exploited that aspect of the story, their Thing might have carved out a memorable niche for itself. Instead, the script's nonsensical final act jettisons suspicion and paranoia for a chaotic and uninspired chase to kill the monster before it escapes. Turns out the new Thing is just more of the same old thing.