#15 - The Thing (2011, dir. Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., 35mm)
If you’ve seen John Carpenter’s outstanding 1982 The Thing, you’ve seen the new 2011 “prequel” of the same name, except with the latter you get less suspense, less atmosphere, far less memorable special effects, and forgettable characters, though Mary Elizabeth Winstead is easier on the eyes than a grizzled Kurt Russell. Barely.
The plot to this boring new version is pretty much the same as Carpenter’s classic: a group of researchers stationed in Antarctica come across an extraterrestrial entity that they soon learn can replicate its victims, making it appear to be human (or canine, depending on its prey). This creates tension within the group as everybody slowly but surely starts turning on each other, unsure of who among them might be a monster. As this movie makes abundantly clear, such a bare-bones plot in the hands of a lesser director allows for doldrums to set in rather quickly.
Don’t get me wrong, the filmmaking on display here is quite adept from a technical standpoint, but director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. is no John Carpenter when it comes to creating (and maintaining) suspense.
The biggest problem with this new The Thing, however, is the “thing” itself. Carpenter’s movie is often celebrated almost exclusively for one achievement alone: the creature effects. Rob Bottin’s design work on the 1982 original is legendary. He created a thing of nightmares: a fleshy, misshapen mass of ugliness that still has the power to nauseate almost thirty years later. What was most frightening about it was that you knew it was actually there. It occupied the same space as all of the actors. Although it was a special effect, it seemed all too real because it had weight and substance. It was something corporeal, which CGI, no matter how impressive, can never achieve.
And yes, this new “thing” is all CGI, and because we know it’s really not there, it’s far less terrifying. No matter how nasty the creature may look, we know it’s a sham. And when a horror movie fails to frighten its audience or keep them in suspense, what further purpose does it serve?
CGI has its place with big monster movies such as Cloverfield or The Host where there’s perhaps no other effective way to bring the creatures to life, but with something as immediate and viscerally disturbing as the “thing,” computer graphics just can’t cut it. One of the reasons why the “thing” is so scary is because it can transform itself from a hideous being into something that looks exactly like one of us. As the wonderful tagline reads, “It’s not human. Yet.” And with CGI, it will never be.