A signal from a derelict vessel draws an isolated group of people into a conflict with an aggressive xenomorph, an alien with the ability to change shape. Swiftly overwhelmed, they know that if they allow the creature to reach civilisation it will trigger a domino effect in which humanity will be destroyed. Unable to call for help and ill-equipped, they attempt to destroy it armed with little more than flamethrowers, and as their numbers are whittled down, one woman stands forward to defend her planet.
Except this isn’t a synopsis of Alien and the woman isn’t Ellen Ripley, but this supposed prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece The Thing, which has so little original material to offer that it can’t even come up with a new title, has managed to take what little difference there was between the plot of those two divergent films and blend them into one.
Which is not to say that this is a bad film; in fact, it is far better than it has any right to be given that it has nothing to add to an inspiration that has lain dormant in ice for three decades. It is well structured, competently filmed, with excellent practical effects (the digital effects sometimes less so) and good performances; the problem is that, despite repeated assertions by the studio, it is not a prequel, it is most definitely a remake. A prequel must tell a different story that is consistent with and leads up to the original; despite switching location to a different Antarctic base, this tells almost exactly the same story with the same events in the same sequence as John Carpenter did in 1982.
Admittedly, some of the recreations of established scenes have new ideas; working on the erroneous assumption that the Thing cannot synthesise inorganic materials, instead of blood tests to isolate those who may have been infected, anyone with perfect teeth is now suspect, as the fillings in their teeth will have vanished when they were replaced. That the Thing has already been able to recreate the clothing of all those assimilated including buttons and zippers is conveniently overlooked by the script, and the new version of the scene manages to be as effective and tense as before.
Mary Elisabeth Winstead’s Kate Lloyd is pretty, but good as she is in the part and in the film as a whole, she lacks the experience and authority to be convincing as a palaeontologist. Is there any reason she had to be an expert rather than just a graduate student, if the producers demanded a young cast? Unlike the Carpenter version, where Donald Moffat and Richard Dysart were both in their fifties, here the oldest member of the cast is Ulrich Thomsen, in his mid-forties when the film was shot, and most are considerably younger, with Winstead a full five years younger than Kurt Russell when he played MacReady.
Thomsen’s character, Doctor Sander Halvorson, is an outdated cliché, the stubborn scientist who breaks rules and ignores human concerns in his quest for answers. While not as offensive as Armageddon‘s blanket portrayal of scientists as incompetent buffoons, it is facile shorthand that writer Eric Heisserer and director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr take all too often in this film in preference over creating real characters the audience might care about. With the exception of Kate and the expendable Juliette, all the roles are mirrored from the predecessor.
The only unique moment is the visit into the flying saucer in the final moments of the film, but like the Special Edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the scene seems to be inserted for no better reason than because it could be, adding nothing to the narrative other than a new iteration of the Thing that further emphasises the Lovecraftian feel of ancient aliens interred beneath the Antarctic ice. It also raises the question why Blair scavenged helicopter pieces to create a makeshift flying saucer when it would have simply been easier to repair the existing one.
This is one example of how this “prequel” does not mesh with the existing continuity; a montage over the end credits links the two films, but not in a convincing or organic way. Why does a sole helicopter arrive at just the right time? Showing a frozen body in the correct position with a slit throat matches the required setup, but how the body got there is not shown. Why does the dog, missing presumed dead since the start of the film, suddenly reappear in this montage? And as the nearest base is stated to be Russian, fifty kilometres away, how long did the Norwegians track the dog across the continent, failing to shoot it before arriving at the presumably even more distant American Outpost 31?
The dog is a missed opportunity in this film; the audience knows that it will be the final carrier of the Thing, so rather than eliminating it early on, why not have it as a constant source of tension, even humour, throughout the film, with the characters trusting it, above suspicion, while the audience knows the truth that it will ultimately be their downfall? Similarly, in Carpenter’s version, Kurt Russell is accused when he manages to make his way back to the base through the storm; Winstead’s character is never absent from the narrative, and neither the audience nor the other characters ever question her authenticity.
Allegedly set in Antarctica in the winter of 1982, the cold is never felt onscreen in the way that other films have achieved; even when the roof is torn off a building by the rapid departure of the reawakened Thing, none of the characters shiver or reach for warm clothing. Still, at least when the few Norwegians occasionally speak their native language, the film does have subtitles. How that enforced piece of continuity must have galled the producers, who nevertheless have managed to minimise the intellectual engagement of the audience despite this meagre artistic compromise.
The most interesting questions raised by John Carpenter’s adaptation, more faithful to the 1936 John W Campbell story Who Goes There? than the 1951 Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby version, are those that are unvoiced by the characters, but that the audience reflect on afterwards. If the Thing was an intelligent, technically advanced being, capable of interplanetary travel, why did it make no attempt to communicate? Was it an advance guard, a scout, or did it crash on Earth by accident?
Considering the length of time the ship had lain in the ice, it may not even have a species anymore; it is certainly alone and possibly in panic. If it is to get home, it cannot take a chance of trusting the native species, so it uses its primary defence mechanisms, but how much of the individual remains? When their personalities were absorbed by the Thing, were the copies aware of their true nature, or did they believe themselves to be human, the ultimate sleeper agents, until triggered by an immediate threat? Would it have been possible to communicate, possibly even negotiate with the Thing? We do not find out in this film, for no effort is even suggested, let alone attempted.
The opportunity here was to expand and enhance the narrative of an established classic of science fiction and horror, one that consolidated the reputations of two genre favourites, and the disappointment here is the waste. Battlestar Galactica writer Ronald D Moore did a previous draft of the script that was entirely abandoned; one wonders how different it might have been from this presentation, and whether that very difference from both this end result and its inspiration was the reason for its rejection, as this film is all about keeping things the same.