Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Thing (2011)

Director: Matthijs van Heijningen
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Eric Christian Olsen
Running Time: 102 min
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Confession: I've never seen John Carpenter's The Thing. Shameful, I know. But it's better to get that out in the open now than go through the entire length of this review dishonestly pretending I have. We all have those movie knowledge gaps. Classic films we should have seen but for whatever reason just never got around to watching. 1982's The Thing is mine. The oversight wasn't intentional, nor due to an aversion in watching what's widely considered a horror benchmark. And the plan sure wasn't viewing 2011's supposed "prequel" first, despite being chronologically correct in doing so. Now that I have, it's still tough coming up with a reason for its purpose, which isn't a good sign considering my unfamiliarity with the film that inspired it. Call it a prequel or a remake but in the end it doesn't make much of a difference because it feels like an ordinary, but technically handsome, claustrophobic horror exercise that's a slight cut above what we've come to expect from recent reboots. It's aided by a highly effective performance from its female lead that belongs in a better movie. She's a smart, well-written character, even if the same really can't be said for anyone or any "thing" around her.

It's 1982 when a flying saucer is discovered beneath of the ice of Antarctica by a Norwegian research team and American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is called in by Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) to investigate what appears to be an alien body from the crash. When the team takes the creature back to the base in a block of ice, it escapes overnight and begins consuming and duplicating the crew. Taking on a human form, there's little way to tell who's been infected, prompting Kate to conduct tests and investigations with the mostly uncooperative team, as they all take flamethrowers to the beast. And each other. As mistrust begins to mount amongst them, they may just end up offing each other before they can figure out a way to co-exist and defeat this creature.

Early on, the film pretends to have something else on its mind other than being just your standard, by-the-numbers monster movie. It starts methodically, building well and successfully positioning Kate as kind of an underestimated problem solver who has to prove herself on a team full of men. The Antarctic landscape is also well shot by cinematographer Michel Abramowicz and Marco Beltrami's score really draws you in and sets a tension-filled mood. Then the "Thing" escapes and gets to work. Regardless of anyone's feelings on the original or whether this remake posing as a prequel should have even moved ahead, there's no question a lot goes wrong with the execution here. The first problem is team devoid of any type of identity, with interchangeable nobodies lacking distinctive personalities that go beyond their duties. Not to say it isn't a talented cast.  Joel Edgerton and Lost's Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje are the helicopter pilots while Eric Christian Olsen plays Dr. Halvorson's assistant. When Edgerton's in your movie and doesn't register at all, something's wrong. And how could he, when the life expectancy of each character is five to ten minutes. After a slow, almost cerebral build initially, the deaths and attacks occur rapidly at a video game level pace, leaving no room for suspense. The reliance on make-up and practical effects as well as CGI is admirable, but it looks too gross and silly to be truly scary. Instead, it creates disgustingly comical effect, with more than a few scenes actually inducing giggles.

The movie's saving grace is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who at first seems to be a purely commercial-driven casting choice, but ends up being completely believable as a brainiac paleontologist who's competent at her job. The best thing about the character is that she isn't depicted as some kind of action hero in the mold of Ripley from Alien, but an intelligent leader who uses her resourcefulness to come up with solutions. Kate is literally the only role in the screenplay developed enough for us to care about, so it's a good thing she's the protagonist and that Winstead give us plenty of reasons to with a controlled, headstrong performance. The movie may make some dumb decisions, but her character doesn't. It seems strange to say this is a giant leap forward for her after her manic pixie role as Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim, but taking that did her no favors since she should be moving past older teen and young adult parts. While I was doubtful initially, this proves she's more than just a (very) pretty face and capable of carrying a movie on her shoulders. Even one this middling. But more so, it's solid evidence that if she plays her cards right, she could potentially emerge as a great actress.

It's a shame that things don't start to get interesting until the final minutes. Just as the film's winding down is when it feels like it should actually be starting and my interest level rose. I wouldn't mind a sequel, but the of course the joke is this supposedly already has one. It's called The Thing and it came out in 1982 and stars Kurt Russell. That sparks a question: If this is a prequel, then why does it have the exact same title? That seems strange and confusion does little to help a picture fans of the original couldn't have been excited to see in the first place. But the sequel I want to see isn't that. It would center on what exactly happened to Dr. Kate Lloyd after the credits rolled and the potential fall-out from it. That counts for something. For all this reboot got wrong, it at least got one thing really right.

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