Prequels can be awesome (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) or a childhood-raping nightmare (Star Wars Episodes I-III). Usually all you can hope for is something that makes you love the source material even more (X-Men: First Class, Mallrats), or lets you forget about that last crappy sequel (Fast Five). The Thing, a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of 1951’s The Thing From Another World (all of which are based on the excellent short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr.) seems to have all the cards stacked against it. But it rises above the slings and arrows of outrageous Hollywood overreaching and is instead a pleasant surprise; a movie that blends well with, and may even better, the one that came before.
Dr. Kate Lloyd has a pretty good life. She’s doing what she loves, and she’s well respected in her field. But when a good friend asks her to lend her considerable knowledge to a research mission in Antarctica, she gives up her cushy college life for a peek at the undiscovered. She should have stayed on campus. As the research piece goes from frozen to awake and pissed in no time flat, people start disappearing. Worse, they start…changing. The mystery of who’s a Who, and who’s a What is played to chilling effect, even if you have already seen Carpenter’s version and know how it’s all gonna go down.
Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. keeps his story hopping while still managing to let it flow easily into the earlier tale. In 1982’s The Thing, the action starts with a dog being hunted down by two men in a helicopter. This movie ends with a dog running away from a couple of trigger-happy guys in a helicopter. A desperate move by a production studio eager to cash in? Not at all. There are enough chills and surprises in this movie to make this The Thing a perfect lead-in for a double-feature with Carpenter’s film. Plus, you’ll get more back-story and more cool alien-type stuff. The actors here are pretty much alien bait, but they pull off their roles admirably, with a nod to screenwriter Eric Heisserer for crafting dialogue that sounds like actual people going through actual scary stuff. If you think coming up with good dialogue is an easy task, you need to re-watch Revenge of the Sith. Noooooooo!
Why do we need another The Thing, you ask? Well, they said the same thing about Carpenter’s version, and now it’s a classic of the genre. It’s doubtful this version will become a classic – only time will tell — but it has all the bells and whistles for a first-rate horror film, including effects that will keep you guessing which way they’re gonna go next. It’s tough to beat (or even keep up with) the groundbreaking FX of Carpenter’s version, but there’s definitely some amazing stuff going on. CGI, robotics and even special effects makeup has come a long way in almost 30 years. Rob Bottin’s amazing work on Carpenter’s movie is given a 21st Century upgrade here, so now things can get a whole lot gorier. And a whole lot closer; no cut-away shots or quick pans in the age of new technology. Tentacles fly, the creature morphs, and viewers get an up-close look at what’s going on, but nothing so amazingly different that it would feel out of place with the ‘82 film. That’s a huge achievement for the Art and Makeup Departments. (But the creature close-ups do kinda remind me of the Giant Alien Squid Vagina from The Watchmen graphic novel. Just me?) A big bravo to the cinematographer as well, whose team couldn’t have had it easy with all that snow, ice and darkness. Still, the ice is crisp and clean without being overly bright, and everything is in sharp focus, no matter how light or pitch black it gets. Chronicles of Riddick: Dead Man Stalking? You may wanna hire these folks.
So, what did we learn today? First, never make a split-second decision to head to Antarctica. Be wary of anyone who has never had dental work, and don’t judge a movie by it’s predecessor. The Thing is a scary good time, perfect for Halloween and the cold, dark season to come. But you may want to give your dog a few extra Milk-Bones. You don’t want him getting…hungry.