★★★ out of ★★★★★
Here’s what happens when a labor of love turns into “filmmaking by committee”.
Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
Welcome back, Scariest Reader!
We’re right in the middle of a trilogy of reviews covering all three films related to John W. Campbell, Jr.’s 1938 novella, “Who Goes There?” The first review covered the movie that started it all, Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (1951). If you haven’t seen that one yet, I urge you to check out the review and watch the movie. It’s great! Chronologically speaking, it could be argued that the second review in the trilogy should be The Thing (1982), but I’m saving the best for last. More importantly, The Thing (2011) is a prequel to the 1982 version so, story-wise, it makes perfect sense to review it second.
This was a tricky review to write from an unbiased viewpoint. As I mentioned in the first review, The Thing (1982) is my #1 favorite horror movie of all time. From that perspective, this 2011 prequel becomes the center of a nearly religious argument; you either love it for what it tried to be or you hate it for what it became. For the record, I’m firmly in the former camp rather than the latter but, since this was the third time I’ve seen it, I can finally look at it objectively as the unfortunate victim of studio interference that it is.
The Thing (2011) was very nearly a remake of the 1982 movie which would have been a total disaster. Like, a literal disaster; rioting in the streets, wanton destruction, a veritable state of emergency. I’m not entirely sure how much actual rioting I and a bunch of other aging horror nerds could do, but you better believe we would’ve done our best. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and the project went forward as a prequel instead.
The story, unsurprisingly, follows pretty much the same path as the 1951 and 1982 movies. A UFO crashes into the snowy wastes near one of the Earth’s poles, the pilot is eventually found frozen in the ice and, once sufficiently thawed, causes all kinds of trouble for the humans manning the research station. The Thing (2011) takes place in 1982 — mere days before the setting of John Carpenter’s version — but approaches the story from the Norwegian research station as opposed to the one set up by the United States.
The Norwegians literally fell into the discovery of an alien spacecraft buried in the ice some 100,000 years ago. Still a bit shy of the 20 million years from Campbell’s novella, but much closer than “the night before” we saw in The Thing From Another World (1951). After making the find of the century, the Norwegians begin recruiting scientists to help them with the research and that’s how our leading lady, paleontologist Kate Lloyd [Mary Elizabeth Winstead; Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)], gets roped into things. Kate agrees to join the team at the urging of her friend Adam Finch [Eric Christian Olsen; Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd (2003), TV’s NCIS: Los Angeles (2010-2018)] and, soon, the whole team is assembled at Thule Station near the South Pole.
While there are quite a number of folks living at Thule Station, The Thing (2011) suffers from what I like to call “Aliens 3 Syndrome”. As in, there’s a sizable cast, but aside from a few, they all pretty much blend together and become nothing but fodder for the extraterrestrial meat grinder. This, sadly, is a direct result of the studio meddling that plagued the 2011 film. Not long after the release of the film, Bloody Disgusting posted a great interview with Eric Heisserer the film’s writer. He had this to say about the nameless, faceless Norwegians:
The work we put into the Norwegians also got marginalized for the sake of running time. They just wanted to make the movie leaner and meaner. One of the things that wound up on the cutting room floor is a real sense of individualism among the Norwegians…
Another studio-driven change for the worse was throwing out the slow burn approach that both The Thing From Another World (1951) and The Thing (1982) do so well. Building up the tension and getting to know the characters is an essential part of any Who-Can-You-Trust-type movie. Unfortunately, test audiences and studio execs wanted to get to the monster faster. Sure, it’s basically a monster movie, but it’s a monster movie with a huge psychological element; you never know who’s been replaced by The Thing and who’s still human. When you gut the script to speed things along you severely weaken the impact of the movie. Instead of a gripping tale of suspicion, mistrust, and the horrific deaths of characters you care about, you’re left with a bunch of bearded guys you don’t know being chased by a pissed off alien.
And let’s be frank about that alien. The CG monster in the 2011 movie was just plain goofy at times. Writer Eric Heisserer had this to say about the special effects in the film:
I got this job going in with the firm, fervid belief that no CGI should ever be in this movie. That it should be all practical. We are creating a very grounded psychological thriller and part of that paranoia with the monster movie is to have the monsters as real and as grounded as everything else we’re making around them.
In fact, Academy Award-winning special effects house, Amalgamated Dynamics, had already created a lot of practical monster effects for The Thing (2011). Many scenes were shot using them and supposedly they looked great, but ultimately the studio decided to pretty much scrap them all and either reshoot for CG or replace the practical work with CG in post-production. A decision that had to have been a big part of why the 2011 movie lost so much money. Tough to make money when you’re paying someone to do your special effects… twice.
All that being said, I have watched The Thing (2011) three times and I’m sure I’ll be watching it again. The truth of the matter is that deep down in its wriggling, Thing-infested heart, this movie is a carefully crafted, minutely detailed love note to its 1982 namesake. It may have been bludgeoned unmercifully by bad studio decisions and philistine test audiences, but the obvious adoration the filmmakers had for the ’82 movie shines through. From the identical opening title graphic, to the bloody axe left in a wall at Thule Station, to the positions of the corpses left behind at the end. These were not just filmmakers; these guys were truly rabid fans.
Just like you and me.
PS: Just in case you want to see what we all missed out on when Universal decided to scrap practical effects and go with CG, here’s a great look at the beautiful (but, sadly, unused) work Amalgamated Dynamics did…