Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s ‘The Thing’ (2011) is nominally a prequel to the 1982 film of the same name by John Carpenter. Carpenter’s film was a remake of remake of Howard Hawks’ ‘The Thing from Another World‘ (1952), itself an adaptation of John w. Campbell’s novella, “Who Goes There?” (1938).
Despite the fact that 30 years separate both Heijningen’s prequel and Carpenter’s remake, that intervening 30 years was not enough time for Universal to figure out what made the first 2 films into the classics that they are.
Unfortunately, Heijningen’s film pales in comparison to its predecessors because it’s producers not only forgot the nature of their Monster, but also its social relevance.
Campbell’s novella, like Hawks’ and Carpenter’s horror movies were classic Cold War stories. Like the Body Snatchers, Vampires, Werewolves and Zombies that preceded it, The Thing walked and talked like it’s human prey. The threat was that these Shape-shifters — Zombies, Vampires, Body Snatchers and Werewolves – were capable of achieving sufficient numbers to exterminate mankind and overturn human civilization.
The remarkable failure of Heijningen’s film and Eric Heisserer’s screenplay is that it fails to co-opt our period anxieties the way that it’s precedents did. Way, way back in 2007, ST:TNG’s Ron Moore had successfully relaunched the 70s relic, Battlestar Galactica, as a post 9-11 allegory. Universal was hopeful that Moore might somehow make their Cold War relevant again, and paid him a tidy sum for a first draft.
I have no idea how Moore’s original screenplay fell down, but at some point Heijningen and his producers determined that Moore’s screenplay required a rewrite. Thus, we somehow ended up with a prequel that features the notorious Norwegian camp of Carpenter’s remake, but also two visiting American scientists and an African-American pilot that were somehow ‘unmentioned’ in Carpenter’s original film. In the movie’s PR materials they make a big deal about Heisserer working in the tall shadow Carpenter’s greatness.
“It’s a really fascinating way to construct a story because we’re doing it by autopsy […] we’re having to reverse engineer it, so those details all matter to us ‘cause it all has to make sense.”
– Eric Heisserer on writing The Thing (2011)
Yeah, whatever. The film’s greatest disappointment is it’s failure to capture the anxiety of our era. Hawks’ and Carpenter’s films appeared as book ends to the Cold War. Hawks’ film appeared just before Russia charged ahead with their Sputnik program. Carptenter’s film appeared only after Afghanistan had sent the Russians home, their tails between their legs, and 2 years before Ronald Reagan demanded that Mikhail Gorbachev “Tear down this Wall”.
Given our post-9-11 anxieties about shoe-bombers, sleeper-agents and other terrorists, it should not have been a big stretch to fashion a paranoid tale of xenophobia down in the No-Man’s Land of Antarctica. In the years following 9-11, numerous production companies have tried — and failed — to bring back the alien invasion movie. Most regrettably, there was the Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig vehicle, ‘The Invasion’ (2007) a poor man’s remake of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. Then there was the Cruise-Spielberg ‘War of the Worlds’ (2005). In both of these films, the star-power overwhelmed the plot, such that the end-product was paranoia without introspection, without emotional anxiety — the Cruise and Kidman never question their own motives or the systemic failure of the world around them, making the resulting movie almost entirely flaccid.
2011′s Thing has no stars and should therefore have been willing to make Red Shirts of the entire cast. No such luck – the Norwegians (played by Norwegian actors, no less), are picked off like extras, while Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Who?), Joel Edgerton (Who?) and Ulrich Thomsen (What?) are left to hold down the Norwegian Camp from its internal, xenomorphic invader. May their sacrifice not have been in vain.
This Thing it is not so much of a prequel as much as a beat-for-beat recycling of Carpenter’s film. The effects may be better, but the plot is not.