This latest version of The Thing raises one immediate question: Why? The movie is conceived as a "prequel" to John Carpenter's 1982 film of the same name, so it's set in the doomed Norwegian Antarctic research outpost visited near the beginning of Carpenter's picture. But apart from this change of venue, the new movie, by Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., plays like a remake. Once again we have a hideous alien life form terrorizing an isolated polar encampment, taking over the bodies of various inhabitants, and pumping up the paranoia of its uninfected personnel to nerve-wringing heights. It's the same movie, essentially, but the shocks—while still jolting in some cases—are no longer fresh.
The film benefits from the presence of Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the lead role of Kate Lloyd, a paleontologist recruited by a Norwegian scientist (Ulrich Thomsen) to examine a curious "specimen"—a creature frozen into a block of ice extracted from a remote site at which a huge spaceship has also been discovered. As photographed by cinematographer Michel Abramowicz, Winstead's distinctively sweet features have the glow of a porcelain figurine lit from within; and she invests her character with a cool determination that transcends routine spunkiness. (With her take-charge spirit, Kate is a clear iteration of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in Alien, a movie whose production design is echoed at several points here.)
Also an asset is Joel Edgerton (of Warrior), who plays Carter, one of the base pilots. Edgerton's job is to provide the sort of gruff, leading-man amiability projected by Kurt Russell in the Carpenter film. But Edgerton doesn't really get sufficient screen time to do this, and he doesn't even get to wear an interesting hat. (He does sport a small earring, which turns out to be cleverly significant.)
The rest of the cast, composed largely of unfamiliar Scandinavian actors, is a little hard to keep track of. But since they're all going through the story's very familiar motions, that doesn't much matter. The block of ice in which the creature is confined naturally begins to melt. The creature makes an explosive escape and is soon revealed to be a gooey, whip-tentacled monstrosity capable of subdividing into scrabbling satellite beasties and of melding with its victims (in rousingly gross ways) to form perfect replicas. The un-melded characters grow increasingly suspicious of their colleagues. A test is devised to sort out those who are still human. More bloody pandemonium ensues, with the creature doing its own kind of sorting until the cast has been chewed down to a very nervous minimal number. And then….
Directing his first feature, Heijningen does a capable job of marshaling special effects and CGI in sometimes memorable ways: a severed arm with a stump full of gnashing teeth, a fat tentacle cramming itself down the throat of a flailing victim. But despite the technical advances made in the field of effects since 1982, little of this has the imaginative power that distinguished Carpenter's film; and there are no iconic genre moments to equal the possessed dog splitting apart in the earlier movie. This Thing is ideally suited for sci-fi horror fans who've never seen that picture. But do such people exist?
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be out on November 8th from St. Martin's Press. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.