Monday, October 15, 2012

30 Days of Fright - 14: The Thing (2011)

This is notorious gobshite Jar Jar Binks:

Like most notorious gobshites, Jar Jar made a successful career for himself in politics

Opinion on Jar Jar Binks splits fans of Star Wars into two camps: those who hate Jar Jar and those who really fucking hate Jar Jar. Whichever camp you belong to though, there is no denying that the three Star Wars prequels are just that, prequels. They start off with little orphan Anakin Skywalker, off out in the desert playing with robots and racing pods for fun, and follow him as he grows up into a fine young man committing genocide on a galactic scale for fun. If, on the other hand, in Episode 1 Anakin was a bloke in his late teens/early twenties, working on a farm for his uncle who then went off to fight in a galactic rebellion then it wouldn't have been a prequel, it would have been a remake.

Across the barren, frozen wastelands of the South Pole, The Thing (2011), opens with three hardy Norwegian bucks travelling along in a snow cat following an unusual signal they're receiving. As they speed along the ice, a crevice splits open and the snow cat tumbles into it. Wedged towards the bottom, the headlights shine onto something buried beneath the ice, something spaceship shaped.

The Norwegian dudes are part of a research team based down in Antarctica and the head of the team, Dr. Halvorson, recruits Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the chick from Final Destination 3) to come down to the Pole to check out the discovery as she's some sort of top palaeontologist (and that'd be a useful expertise to have on the team if you thought that maybe dinosaurs had crashed their spaceship down there).

The team visit the ship under the ice and from there go to the research station to inspect a specimen of one of the creatures from the ship that had been recovered from the ice, which is why Kate is really there. The creature is a large, almost insectoid type thing (hence the name of the film) with arms and/or legs everywhere. Dr. Halvorson insists on getting a tissue sample from the beast before packing it off for proper investigation in a lab somewhere.

That night, all the gang are celebrating the fact that they've discovered proof of extraterrestrial life, when the creature in the ice rather predictably wakes up and bursts free of its chilly tomb. Once out and about the monster works its way through the members of the research team (literally works its way through them), hell bent on killing all round itself. With the number of dead stacking up, Kate and the remaining team members make the horrifying discovery that the creature is able to mimic other living things and that one of Norwegian lads might actually be from much further away than Norway...

Dinner's served!

The latest version of The Thing is nothing more than a remake tarted up as a prequel (proof of this comes in the opening titles where you find out that the film is called "The Thing" whereas the film it's supposedly prequeling is called "The Thing"). The most damning evidence of all for this conclusion however comes from the piss-poor way the final scene was tacked onto the end of the movie in order to provide a bridge into the film it was allegedly preceding; honestly, the film was over and the credits had started to roll when suddenly an extra bit is cut in to deal with how the story gets to the opening scene of the 1982 film. It was as if the producers were sitting in the test screening back at the studio and when the film was over someone jumped up and went "Holy shit! This is meant to be a fucking sequel!!! How does this lead into the other fucking film? We can't fucking release this! The nerds will fucking crucify us!" (In my imaginings Hollywood types tend to curse a lot).

Having acknowledged their blunder in not actually making a prequel at all but instead a bit of a remake, how does the 2011 The Thing stack up? Not too well I'm afraid. The original was a wonderfully stark, foreboding, isolated, lonely horror film with an original setting, quirky characters, and some excellent effects. The 2011 film uses the same premise, roughly the same setting, and adds three things to the original formula without any added benefit: a spaceship, a computer, and some women.

Allow me to to address the last item on that list first. The first The Thing was an all male affair. Set as it was in a research station in the South Pole in 1982, that was either incredibly accurate or woefully unrealistic; having never been to a research station in the South Pole in the early eighties I have no idea what the staffing levels were like when looked at by gender. However, as a film, it seemed realistic that those types of places were among the last bastions of truly sexist recruitment policies. In the 2011 film, the producers were quick to get a couple of girls into the mix and this I found to be far more sexist than if they'd left the cast all-dude.

Putting the couple of women into the film is an such an obvious difference from the first one that it draws your attention immediately and makes you wonder why it was done. Was it the case that the story was better told by having a strong heroine? Perhaps. Strong female characters are no different from strong male characters just as weak female characters are no different from weak male characters (lilly-livered nancy boys!). Was it a case of political correctness? This seems more likely; putting a woman front and centre does highlight the difference between the 2011 film and the 1982 film and so allows everyone to feel good about it. But this is a pretty cynical ploy to appease who exactly? Is there a strong lobby out there for more women in horror films? Last time I looked the vast majority of horror movies depended on girls being the most baddest bad-asses they can be so how could anyone who's ever seen a film like this be worried that women are under-represented?

Maybe the idea was to get more chicks into the cinema to see The Thing? That's possible, and almost reasonable, except none of the marketing materials for the film (that I saw anyway) indicated that there was a female protagonist. Perhaps, most sexist of all the possibilities, was that a leading lady was introduced as audiences were more likely to be afraid for her, believing that she wouldn't be able to look after herself and was therefore in the most danger. This is, like I mentioned, the cornerstone of loads of horror films, but hardly any of those films were remakes (pretending to be prequels) that had a male lead replaced with a girl.

The overuse of CGI was inevitable for The Thing and in it's own way not too bad. But when looked at in terms of the film it was claiming to lead into you see immediately how shitty an approach to effects CGI can be. The original film used extensive stop motion and model and make up effects with stunning results and is rightly held up as an example of how to do this sort of creature effects. The 2011 film used some physical models from what I could see, but still depended heavily on the old computer effects. What bothered me about the CGI is that the artificial nature of the technology removes any semblance of emotion from what you're watching. When you see someone attacked by an amorphous alien creature that proceeds to consume their hapless victim's living flesh you're supposed to think "by Jesus, that looks sore!", but if the effect is handled by a computer then it's hard to feel too bad about some pixels on the screen getting all blurry.

My final gripe is with the spaceship. The ship kicks off this version of The Thing and kinda ends with it too (except for the tacked on scene mentioned above). Showing a spaceship removes all mystery surrounding the creature and what it's up to. In the original movie the creature springs out of nowhere and scares the bejesus out of everyone, particularly the audience. With the ship on display from the get go, quickly followed up by an alien in a block of ice, all doubt about the nature of the creature is gone and it's really just a waiting game until the killing starts. Not very scary at all, and not much of a prequel either.

Two Thumbs Down for The Thing (2011)


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