By Ian Grey
Press Play Contributor
[Editor's note: This review of the new version of The Thing contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.]
Forget Drive. Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr.’s prequel/re-think of John Carpenter’s classic is easily the most intelligent genre film of the year, and the best horror film in I don’t know how long. Like Nicolas Winding Refn’s failed vision, it uses genre elements in all sorts of ways — except in van Heijningen's case, it's for good reason.
Van Heijningen lets us know he loves the cinematic source material as much as the rest of us; his Thing opens with the ‘80s Universal Pictures logo, a familiar John Carpenter-type credits font, and slices of the 1982 film's immortal, minimalist score by Ennio Morricone. But in contrast to Refn’s shiny noir-like toy, this Thing eschews fetish for its own sake, and moves on to real, scary, even triumphant human places. The first act cuts, pastes and reconfigures Carpenter’s iconography with new cinematic elements. It’s downright symphonic, and its classicist approach to postmodernity multi-tasks by doing what genre does best: acting as stealth cover for talking about things we mostly can’t discuss without genre.
Instead of Carpenter’s U.S. military base, we’re at Thule Station, a Norwegian scientific encampment in Antarctica where nobody is going buggy with cabin fever, because, say what you want about socialists, they at least take care of their peeps in horror prequels. The head of Mission: Thule is an asshole, Dr. Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen). To help excavate something strange beneath the Thule site, he hires Dr. Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) because she’s smart and junior enough to treat like crap; this helps the rest of his crew better understand their place in the pecking order.
Van Heijningen's Thule base is all about hard work, but it's also about the camaraderie of the group, which includes an upbeat French Canadian woman (Kim Bubbs), and is thus a far cry from Carpenter’s claustrophobic male purgatory. But the good vibes don't extend to the American helicopter team members (Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who serve as walking, talking homages to the original film’s iconic Kurt Russell/Keith David duo. And there's tension between Kate and a weaselly blond named Adam (Eric Christian Olsen) — but whether that's the remnants of an affair gone bad or just because Adam's kind of skeezy, I can't say.
Even with a dick like Dr. Halvorson in charge, the crew is stoked about what’s under the ice a few miles away. (Van Heijningen recalls that Carpenter's film had a signifying song, Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” and one-ups him by having a worker play “Who Can It Be Now?” by Men at Work. That’s two ironies for the cost of one song.) You know what comes next: a vast alien ship is discovered under the surface along with something trapped in the ice above it, trying to make its way out ….
Matching a similar scene in Carpenter’s film for sheer, nail-biting craftsmanship is one where a team member, urged on by Dr. Halvorson despite Kate’s repeated warnings, drills the ice to obtain a tissue sample. We watch the drill bit slowly enter the ice, and in an extraordinary bit of sound design — perhaps as good as that pioneering analog work done in the original by the great Warren Hamilton — we are treated to a symphony of foot movements, rustling jacket material, crackling ice, intakes of breath, and then … nothing.
And then the merriment at discovering alien life begins — as does delightful group drinking and dancing, complete with Norwegian folk music. But Kate? She smiles, nods along, but she’s just not one to give in to the moment. By showing her reserve and thoughtfulness — not exactly prominent features in American film — director van Heijningen and actor Winstead silently make their case for why Kate will be the person of the moment when the chips come down.
Meanwhile, there’s yet another threat; it's us Americans. Throughout the film, there’s a low-key tension between the Scandinavians and the Yanks. Later, Adam cravenly wimps out on Kate’s findings at a crucial juncture; this will lead to more deaths, and an American will accidentally kill a Norwegian; none of this will help international relations. As if to allay viewer fears that they're reading too much subtext into the film, subtitles confirm that a character is yellingm “The Americans are the real enemy!” Later, when some Americans survive, a Norwegian aims his gun at them and yells, “Don’t move, demons!” Bush-era blowback? Anger at the very idea of U.S. exceptionalism? The film's disoriented anger is inarguable, and adds another layer of paranoia.
Knowing he can’t eclipse Carpenter in the slow build, van Heijningen shock-destroys the party with explosive chaos. Watching The Thing, I was 12 again, seeing my first horror film and riding the thrill — the weird liberation at having total anarchy reign. No shit, I forgot to breathe. What a rush. Perhaps that’s why I’m oddly protective of this movie. Is it as good as Carpenter’s? By new film's halfway mark, the question no longer applies; at that point, it is Matthijs van Heijningen’s The Thing.
He improves on Carpenter's creature and his hero. Creature effects masters Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis perform cover versions of original effects master Rob Bottin’s greatest hits while updating the idea of The Thing itself, which looked like pissed-off abstract art. Woodruff and Gillis’ Antarctic Lovecraftian monstrosity is superficially similar to Carpenter and Bottin's, but there’s a design logic to how it functions, specifically in how it splinters into smaller but still deadly versions of itself. The film's biological specificity lets us imagine where the creature might hide. Van Heijningen’s Thing is just plain scarier than Carpenter's.
And its protagonist is more interesting. The director found somebody born five years after Alien was released, someone who had no interest in playing an assembly line badass, tomboy or tough. Courting hipster media disaster, Winstead plays Kate as — her words in an interview — “smart … strong and kind of put together” and decidedly not “neurotic or shrill … the things we [women] are in movies.”
Despite the ambient fear of America and Americans, the crew members trust and cleave towards Kate. Why? She represents some kind of class revolt against those at the top — namely the head dick, Dr. Halvorson. But there’s more to her than that. Kate is easy to trust. The others have watched Kate observe and process the whole crisis. The know that she identifies problems before others do, and asks for input, and comes to useful conclusions before everyone else. They stick with her for the same reason Kate stays alive: because she's smart.
I keep returning to my negative opinion of Drive because in the way it uses, or fails to use, genre, in many ways it's The Thing's polar opposite. While I consider Refn’s Valhalla Rising and Bronson as two of the last decade’s bravest, strangest, most singular films, I think Drive encapsulates much of what is wrong, even poisonous, in mass culture. The treasuring of unearned irony above all things, the embrace of genre out of laziness, the reduction of human behavior to wading-pool pop psychology, the viral acceptance of the Zooey Deschanel option as a desirable identity kit: it's as if a great artist made contact with American culture and the aesthetic part of his brain just fried. Drive pales in comparison to near-great genre film art like The Thing, especially in its pitiful excuse for a lead female character: a damsel in distress.
Kate's character in The Thing builds on a type perfected in Ridley Scott's original Alien over 30 years ago. She also reminds us that the brand of feminism that James Cameron showcased in Aliens and Terminator 2 drew on butch, top-girl fetish. Kate's character is an update and a corrective to that vision of action heroines. Just as van Heijningen’s camera is so elegant that you don’t notice any filmmaking! going on, Kate requires no big movie moments. Even in that giant, labyrinthine alien ship, events take place in confined, metallic, intestine-like spaces in which a woman’s smaller body mass is a plus for survival. In the end, van Heijningen makes a final nod to the film that spawned this onel he also adds a witty twist that’s symbolically tied to Kate being female that separates it from Carpenter’s macho bleakness. When facing the Final Guy who may or may not be an alien, Kate doesn’t want to spend her last moments freezing over a bottle of Scotch. She wants to live. In its own weird way, The Thing is optimistic.
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. His column "Grey Matters" runs every week at Press Play. To read another piece about Drive, with analysis of common themes and images in all of Refn's films, click here.