By Steven Boone
Press Play Contributor
One “thing” in The Thing is the penis. The protagonist doesn’t sport one, so, despite being the smartest scientist at an Antarctic base camp full of boorish Norwegian men, she finds herself relegated to the sidelines. It’s 1982. “You aren’t here to think,” the lead researcher (Ulrich Thomsen) warns her after she questions one of his bonehead decisions in front of the men. But her thinking comes in handy after that decision rouses a shape-shifting, bone-crunching space alien, and she emerges as the tough-minded leader, like Sigourney Weaver in Alien (1979).
The Thing (2011) feels like it was made by folks who really know their Alien; they know their sci-fi/horror history and aren’t out to trample over it nor reverently kiss its feet. The film starts with a memorable Ennio Morricone musical cue lifted from the 1982 The Thing, to which this film is a prequel. The general clean, crisp look conveys a genetic link to John Carpenter’s classic, and both films owe their hyperbolic title animation to the Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby The Thing from Another World (1951). Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis’ creature effects are exquisitely ghoulish, a tribute to their hero, Rob Bottin, whose elegantly splatterific creations in the ’82 film inspired a thousand S.F.X. careers. Even the C.G. monster effects blend seamlessly with their work, and dynamic sound design sweetens the blend. (Too bad Marco Beltrami’s score is a straightforward series of musical gasps and gotchas better suited for the 1951 version.)
As for the Sigourney factor, director Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr. discreetly orchestrates the workplace tensions and ambiguous relationships that Ridley Scott so skillfully managed in Alien (a film whose basic premise sprung from Dan O’Bannon and pal Carpenter’s fascination with the ’51 Thing). As with Weaver’s Ripley and Tom Skerritt’s Dallas in Alien, we sense that there’s some unspoken past between Dr. Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Adam (Eric Christian Olsen), the research assistant who recommends her for the expedition. Just a few lingering glances between them suggests a hint of chemistry or history or … something. Yet they remain distant. Van Heijningen and screenwriter Eric Heisserer don’t pry, raising our curiosity for handy suspense purposes. When the scientists get to the base camp, there is a sliver of friendly tension hovering over Dr. Lloyd’s interactions with these burly Norwegians. She and Adam are in a minority of Americans at this impending slaughter.
That’s the other “thing” in this film: American exceptionalism. With gorgeous restraint, van Heijningen sets up the Americans as more humble and straight-shooting than their hard-drinking, sneaky, blustery European teammates, then shatters any sense of tribal loyalty when it turns out that a manifestation of the creature could be inside anybody. “The Americans are the real enemy,” one of the Norwegians unconvincingly attempts to assure his countrymen. The real enemy is whoever happens to spontaneously explode with tentacles, claws and rows of shark-like incisors. Paranoia sends the team in a panic that results in several preemptive executions by flamethrower.
“I walk out of this movie feeling like there is no one in this world you can trust,” said my Cameroonian friend as we exited our screening of The Thing into Manhattan streets coursing with strangers off to their own kills. We immediately started speculating about which of our neighbors back at the building we live in would fit the various roles assigned in The Thing; who would wield the flamethrower and who would burn? But I realized that there are no set roles in this film. The only way to survive these mercenary times is to follow the advertising words of the freak-out flick Contagion: “Don’t talk to anyone, don’t touch anyone.” It’s ice-cold stuff. The Thing ends with a male and female survivor exchanging glances while catching their breaths, saying, “What do we do now?” But don’t expect any romance. Aside from headlocks, I doubt there’s a single embrace in the entire film. The emphasis on prickly paranoia goes back to the source of all the movie Things, the 1938 John W. Campbell Jr. novella Who Goes There?, but this latest descendant takes things to a positively schizophrenic level. It knows its history, and it understands the present historical moment, where surveillance isn’t just what cameras and cops do, but what we’ve come to expect of each other.
Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist for Fandor and Roger Ebert’s Far Flung Correspondents. He writes a column on street life for Capital New York and blogs at Big Media Vandalism.