Even if you've never seen John Carpenter's movie, you know how the new version of The Thing is going to end. Movies featuring a lot of people trapped in a remote location with a destructive force tend to all end the same way, and what makes them fun, whether they're The Evil Dead or Titanic, is how you get there. The problem with this weekend's take on The Thing, though, is that it sprinkles in the requisite nods to the 1982 original but never figures out how to build a compelling narrative around it. We didn't like Carpenter's The Thing because of the flamethrowers or the snowy setting or the creature effects; we liked it because it told its story well, something that this The Thing never even comes close to doing.
You've already got a problem when you replace the rakish Kurt Russell as your hero with the pretty and blank Mary Elizabeth Winstead, playing a paleontologist flown down to a Norwegian base in Antarctica to take a look at the strange thing they've found in the ice. Unfortunately they dig up the creature and bring it back to base before they figure out it's a shape-shifting alien, featuring gross tentacles and mouths-within-mouths but also the ability to perfectly replicate a human host, a disguise that gives it the power to strike when they least expect it. Chaos quickly reigns, the team gets picked off one by one, and eventually Winstead's character Kate is the only one with the smarts-- and the flamethrower-- to handle the situation.
It takes nearly an hour to get that far, as director Matthjis van Heijningen and writer Eric Heisserer drag us through the kind of wordy exposition that any director who understands tension would let us figure out for ourselves. None of that exposition gives us any character worth caring about, though, and you find yourself lumping the Norwegian team into "the bearded ones" and "the not bearded ones," with a few cocky Americans thrown in who you know will stick around longer simply by speaking English. Midway through the film the characters come together to examine each other and figure out who's become "the thing"; it's almost a direct recreation of a similar scene in Carpenter's original but also successful on its own, identifying these characters for the first time and digging into some of the intense paranoia that defines this kind of locked-tight horror genre.
But not long after that we're back to the repetitive cat-and-mouse antics, in which the humans chase the monster into one corner and into another, with no sense of rising tension or even geographical understanding of the base that allows us to invest in where the story might go next. Actors like Joel Edgerton, Eric Christian Olsen and Ulrich Thomsen shout at each other in the background, but none of them have characters developed enough that you don't wish the monster would rear up and eat them. The monster effects are good, though at their best when they're directly mimicking what Stan Winston and Rob Bottin created for the original, and creepy enough to offer the film its only scares, since van Heijningen never establishes real tension or stakes in the story.
The Thing is not a remake that will somehow tarnish the original by existing-- if anything, Carpenter's original seems all the stronger after slogging through this one. But it's frustrating to see talent, money and time poured into a project that's just a pale, pointless imitation of something that's already perfectly great on its own.
Dig even deeper with 5 Reasons The Thing Prequel Isn't As Good As Carpenter's.