'The Thing' Review: Prequel Can't Replicate Carpenter's Classic Scares

Prequels usually mean studios can hire a younger, more demographically friendly cast to extend a popular franchise. Fans, in turn, get to see how a beloved story began. But audiences need something else – a credible reason to turn back the clock. That’s where the otherwise perfunctory prequel ‘The Thing’ comes up short.

The new ‘Thing,’ which takes places days before the events in John Carpenter’s 1982 classic of the same name, merely replicates that film’s tactics with less panache.

‘The Thing’ churns out the kind of slick special effects Carpenter would have killed for at the time. But the 1982 model teased out the story’s paranoia with crude but effective tools. The new ‘Thing’ feels like an artificial attempt at bringing a monster franchise back from the dead.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as Kate, a paleontologist brought to a remote base in Antarctica to examine a truly unique discovery. Norwegian researchers, led by Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), have stumbled upon a UFO near the base. And, best of all, the ship’s passenger appears to be frozen within a nearby ice block.

The fools chip away some of that ice to glean a tissue sample, giving the creature just enough wiggle room to break free of his icy coffin. Now, the beast is on the loose, and the researchers (too) quickly realize the alien possesses the power to replicate any human form.

If you’ve seen the ’80s version, you know what comes next – suspicious glances, denials and a whole lot of mangled bodies. The new ‘Thing’ follows those marching orders without the clarity Carpenter brought to the tale, itself a reinvention of the 1951 classic ‘The Thing From Another World.’

Thomsen clearly modeled his character on every other morally twisted scientist from past horror films. He’s so intrigued by the alien he can’t see fit to mourn the growing pile of dead researchers. It’s a borderline camp turn in an otherwise deadly serious affair. But at least Thomsen has something to do beyond reciting dialogue so obvious audiences can repeat along on their first viewing.

“We find it … and we kill it,” Kate says as if there were a viable Plan B.

Thing Mary Elizabeth Winstead Joel Edgerton

The CGI creature mimics the old-school latex approach, and a few of the skirmishes between the dwindling crew members and the alien surpass much of what passes for horror this year. Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. also wrings some tension out of the nationality soup on display. The Norwegian contingent doesn’t see eye to eye with the Americans (led by ‘Warrior’s’ Joel Edgerton). But that friction gives off too little heat, as does the fact that the base is about to be bombarded by a massive storm.

A better film would have amped up the sense of claustrophobia surrounding the mission as well as the sub-zero temperatures outside the base.

‘The Thing’ clicks primarily when it remembers the 1982 film’s key selling point. If the monster can take human form, then anyone left on the base could be the alien. Kate discovers a neat way to determine friend or foe, arguably the most clever update to an otherwise rehash of the original. Too bad we never get to know the researchers beyond their identifying traits – ooh, there’s the guy with the crazy beard, and he’s standing next to the dude who never talks.

Winstead, an appealing young actress last seen in ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,’ isn’t the best choice to go the full Ripley. But she’s hardly the problem here. The story feels jumbled at times, and the uneven pacing doesn’t improve matters. Kate and company figure out the alien’s moves far too quickly, almost as if they spent a few hours watching Carpenter’s original and took copious notes.

‘The Thing’ wraps with a sequence directly tying the film to its 1982 predecessor. That might link the two features, but it only reminds us why Carpenter’s film will be remembered long after this mediocre prequel slips from our thoughts.

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