The Thing: Film Review
Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton, this reboot of two famous sci-fi thrillers falls short of its predecessors, writes THR's Todd McCarthy.
An ultra-lame ending essentially kills this Thing. Versions of John W. Campbell Jr.'s story "Who Goes There?" about an alien life form found frozen in ice have become a franchise all by themselves, arriving every 30 years or so since 1951. This one injects a strong dose of Alien female power into the claustrophobic tale of scientists in Antarctica being gruesomely offed by a ravenous creature, which this time is more difficult to stop than ever. Universal will get some good box-office mileage out of the title's appeal to genre fans and the prospect of grisly doings at the bottom of the world, although the film's somber nature and oh-come-on wind-up will prevent the ultimate haul from being everything it might have been.
The Thing From Another World, produced by Howard Hawks in 1951 and officially directed by Christian Nyby, with Hawks as shadow director, was one of the first classic Cold War paranoia science-fiction films. Faced with the technical limitations of the time, it made the most out of barely showing the creature at all (when it did, "the thing" was revealed as a sort of carrot-shaped critter played by James Arness). In 1982, John Carpenter went the other way to splash the screen with gore in a popular version still revered by fanboys.
This time around, Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen combines plenty of blood 'n' guts with pared down dramatics evidently intended to increase the tension and uncertainty about what's going on. He's made a significant miscalculation, however, in loading up the cast with mostly light-brown-haired and bearded Norwegian guys with names like Lars and Olav and Edvard. There's about a dozen of them and, especially in the minimal light of the small compound, it's impossible to tell them apart; even after they start being gobbled up, it's hard to know who's gone and who's left.
This has the automatic effect of forcing one's exclusive attention and sympathies upon Mary Elizabeth Winstead, not a difficult thing under any circumstances but additionally worthwhile here because the young actress is placed in a Ripley-like position of being the smartest and most capable person in the makeshift group assembled to investigate the history-making discovery.
Once paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Winstead) is paged by Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) to help identify the mysterious specimen, things play out more or less the way they have in past, save for the frequent subtitled Norwegian dialogue. Signals have drawn them to an underground cavern where an enormous spacecraft has lain buried for thousands of years. A "survivor," hard to make out inside a surrounding bloc of ice but looking none too cuddly, is brought inside to thaw out. That's a bad idea, just as it is to drill down to take a tissue sample. At the 25-minute mark, the "thing" busts out. The dog, which sensed something amiss from the start, is the first to go.
From this point on in screenwriter Eric Heisserer's telling, the scientists, as well as the audience, are on permanent guard, never knowing when the ferocious creature will strike again. The ante is upped this time by Kate's discovery that the beast's cells are able to overtake and, crucially, disguise themselves as their host. Realizing that any of her cohorts could go "over" at any time and have her for a snack, Kate trusts no one but also develops ways of identifying who may or may not have a killer inside them.
The premise is solid and emphatically provides the occasion for moments of imaginative and convincing creature aggression. As in Alien, the thing can take different forms. Seemingly a crustacean at heart, it has claws, stabbing hooks, dreadful teeth and tentacles with which it can poke and impale at will. Once it partakes of a human being, it seemingly places it inside a digestive sack to use for constant refreshment and nourishment, much as a spider does with its prey. Infected human beings mutate in ways that permit the gruesome conjoining of two bodies, not to mention producing disembodied parts that can move and attack on their own.
Once Kate and her final surviving companion return to the cavern to seek the source of all this communal distress, the cat-and-mouse maneuvering becomes, first, conventional and, finally, completely unconvincing. After the gradual build-up, for which director Heijningen relies more on inevitability rather than any demonstrable skill at generating genuine suspense, the payoff seems rote and completely out of step with everything that's come before. Feeling of deflation at the end if virtually total.
Sober, serious and ever watchful with her large, liquid mahogany eyes, Winstead holds the screen impressively but hasn't been provided with the great physical opportunities or immortal lines to put her brand on this part the way one senses she could have. Heijningen doesn't display the instinct of the best Hollywood action directors to give the audience what it craves at the big moments, except for a few gory in-your-face shots. More diversity among the cast would also have helped to give the film more character flavor, varied temperatures and linguistic nuance. Nominal costar Joel Edgerton physically blends right in with all the other men.
Shot in Toronto studios and the Yukon, the film is technically solid, with good effects.