A Thing of Irrelevance

John Carpenter’s an interesting fellow. Creator of some of the most beloved cult movies of all time in Big Trouble in Little China, Halloween, and Escape from New York, he’s also managed to make a considerable number of mediocre flops. Often times he’s strangely insisted on creating the musical “compositions” for his works, a travesty that regularly plummets them into the realms of absurdity (I’m looking at you, They Live). He fortunately did not do the music for The Thing, a movie that stood out in 1982 as a masterpiece of suspense and horror and today has the sort of cult following that has made it his highest rated movie and even one of the top 250 on IMDB. It’s a bit goofy and campy at times, but only enough to entertain you up until the genuine thrills start. And honestly, who can complain about a sombreroed Kurt Russel in giant black shades and leather jacket piloting a helicopter? It’s also a showcase of awesome practical effects, giving us some of the most gruesome alien imagery in cinema. So, despite the looming IGF submission deadline, up until which my crew and I were to be working feverishly and without rest, I wanted to be front-seat for the Norwegian-made premake The Thing (ooo, clever) to bare witness to what could be a subtle well-executed thriller, but was far more likely to be a screaming, shrieking, CG-infested craptacular.

Boy was I in for a surprise.

The new The Thing is absolutely phenomenal. A true work of art. An expertly pooped film that henceforth shall proudly sit on my shelves next to titles like Troll 2 and Battlefield Earth. You see, it absolutely was all of those things, but good lord, this “movie” far surpassed even my wildest of predictions. It was so bad, and got so many things so wrong, that my own sarcastic monologue was quickly rendered largely unnecessary and I had to simply lean back and marvel at the volume of diarrhea being vomited from the screen and showering the audience.

Before the spectacle began I leaned over to my snarky brother and his snarky friend and mused on the possibility that others were in attendance ironically as we were. We assumed most were in it for some genuine thrills, but were delightfully surprised later on in the film, when things had risen to undeniably comedic proportions and the majority of the stands were laughing, teary-eyed along with us.

It started out well-enough. A threesome of Norwegian researchers make their way across the vast expanse of Antarctica in an awesome yellow snow-cat. The one in the rear traces a signal as the two up front give us actually a pretty decent joke. Quite risky there, starting your movie with a joke. Especially one involving sex with Grandma. They reach the supposed source of the signal, finding nothing, but no sooner can they check their instruments than they are promptly swallowed by the Earth itself, as a giant chasm opens up in the ice beneath them. The snow-cat plummets downward until the chasm narrows and the vehicle catches between the two sides, knocking the scientists down to its now bottomward front windshield. They catch their breaths, realize they haven’t died quite yet, and then look down into the darkness to find a massive cavern – and I do mean massive – with some sort of alien structure occupying it. And here’s where we get our modernized version of the classic creeping, burning THE THING title shot.

An effective opening scene! And one that got my hopes up. Hey, maybe this actually won’t suck. Sure, we didn’t need a prequel, but maybe a couple relatively unknown Norwegian dudes directing and writing can pull it off. Tense, mysterious, and gripping. Just what The Thing should be, right?

Well, don’t worry, they fucked it all up pretty quick.

Dr. Mary Elizabeth I Can’t Save This Script

We’re introduced to Ramona Flowers, our heroine, and the other members of the main cast in a research lab over a horribly wounded and gruesome grizzly (I think) carcass, and once again my hopes rose slightly. Practical effects! They’re using practical effects! That grizzly bear..thing.. is real! Look how gross it is! But then the first alarm of an upcoming deluge goes off as the head researcher introduces himself with some painfully-written dialog: “I’m Dr. Sander Halvorson.” “Kate Lloyd.” “Yes. Do you know who I am?” Uhh, yup. You just told us.

Now, yes, I know what they meant. But lines like this really need to be rewritten. Like, really obviously. How about, “Have you heard of me?” There you go, problem solved. It’s not a good thing when five minutes in, I’m already aware that I’m a better writer than the person who did the screenplay. The following introductory scenes of our characters flying to Antarctica, exchanging quips in the plane’s cabin, and visiting the site are mostly passable from a director’s point of view, but the writing continues its aggressive mediocrity and I’m starting to get a little worried. And another alarm goes off the moment I notice that none of these damn people look cold.

Antarctica!

This is fucking ANTARCTICA right? A place that regularly reaches like, -50°F? On a good day? Sure they’re wearing coats, and I commend the filmmakers for at least actually filming the exteriors on-site in British Columbia rather than on some sound stage, but that’s just the thing: they look like they’re in British Columbia. They look kind of like how my friends and I look when we’re scraping ice off our cars in the morning in Colorado. Cold, but like, 10 or 20°F cold. Not Antarctica cold. In the original, and even the original original The Thing from Another World, the locations play a huge role in the story, as not only do the heroes have to battle an alien menace, they are forced to attempt to survive in freezing storms and rapidly deteriorating conditions that threaten their very lives. Often even more immediately than the monster itself. I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt, because they start off in similar gear, and since we aren’t told where exactly the film takes place, we could assume it’s in one of the warmer areas near the coast, but as those films go on temperatures drop severely and people are actually freezing to death. The weather is a constant, inescapable threat. MacReady nearly kicks the bucket when he’s locked outside for a short time so much that he’s pretty much at death’s door the rest of the film. They set the entire camp on fire in a last-ditch effort to stave off the cold of the storm. In this one by the end Ramona’s running around outside in her Lululemon yoga jacket like she’s on a crisp November jog in Central Park.

So here’s where the film begins to fall apart. Our characters discover the creature frozen in the icy wasteland and decide to chop it out and bring it back to base. They take samples of the life form and proceed to celebrate the history-defining discovery of alien life with liquor and music. One of the American members of the team takes his leave from the festivities to gaze upon the crew’s handiwork, and here’s where we get our first scare scene, and the one that’s going to be repeated ad nauseum for the remainder of the movie. Here I’ll break it down for you: Look at stuff. Wait. Build tension. Wait. Look. Strings building. Wait. Build tension. Strings getting louder. Waitsomemoreandsuddenly BOO ORCHESTRA STING AAAHHH!!! Oh, haha wait that wasn’t BOO BIGGER ORCHESTRA STING AND LOUD SCREAMING AND SHRIEKING AND CGI MONSTARS OMFGWTFAAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!!!!

So yeah, the alien explodes out of the block of ice and scurries up into the ceiling in our first overhanded CGi blahfuck. Like, really? This is exactly what I was dreading would happen from the moment they dug the damn thing out of the ground. Or, to be more accurate, from the moment I heard there was going to be a prequel to The Thing. Immediately I’m groaning in frustration as this pretty much gave me a sense of what I was in for for the remaining  hour. Oh good, it’s one of these. Do we really need to start missing opportunities already, in favor of cheap shitty jump scares? Even if we believe that an alien life form that has just revived itself from death possesses the expansive strength to erupt from a frozen ice-encased stasis through a foot of glacier with such force that it launches into the rafters, was there not a more creative way to do this?

We’re quickly bombarded with pretty much every horror cliché that’s made the genre a joke since the 80s as the movie degrades into a clusterfuck of bullshit. The guy runs back screaming that the alien escaped and everybody laughs and pokes fun. One even cries “Cuckoo! Hahaha!” Could we just, for once.. ugh. They run to see the block of ice which now retains the bowl-shape from Carpenter’s original, with our first bit of continuity between the two, but any possible connections are shattered by the fact that considering how the alien rocketed its way out of the thing it should probably be in scattered chunks throughout the room. Not in a perfect bowl? Then they go out into the freezing cold to search for the supermutant alien creature and split up into groups since the script says they’re supposed to. One duo finds the creature hiding under some shack and one of the researchers inches closer and closer, looking into the alien darkness, before being speared straightaway by a CG tentacle prong thing. He gets dragged under and eaten all CGey and they throw a bunch of molotov cocktails or whatever the fuck under the shack and “Sigh,” say I, as my fleeting last hopes for the movie burn along with the alien, in another sequence that would be repeated no less than five-thousand times before the end credit roll.

Bottin’s creepy-as-hell REAL effects in the original made him ill, and then us, too

This is the moment where I was most depressed while watching, so if you’ll permit me to rant for a moment, WHAT THE FUCK. Why is there CG IN THIS MOVIE? If these filmmakers masturbated to Carpenter’s film as much as they appear to have, recycling any and all imagery possible, sometimes cleverly, but eventually so much we wonder if they have any original ideas in their skulls at all, then why in god’s name are they abusing their computers to the point it makes George Lucas blush? Did it even cross their mind to keep it real with practical effects? God damn this infuriates me. Every movie ever now is filled to the brim of the toilet bowl with CG diarrhea, but did a prequel to The Thing, a movie on which a man named Rob Bottin worked something like 400 days straight, to the point of making himself ill, to make sure the effects looked freaking awesome, REALLY need to be infested with this garbage? Yes, you can do more with CG. Yes, it’s “easier.” THAT DOESN’T MAKE IT GOOD. Oh right I forgot, it’s cheaper.

Oh god I haven’t even gotten to the hilarious parts yet. So Ramona Flowers takes samples of the crispy alien and its half-digested scientist. She finds, in another scene stolen straight from the original, that the foreign cells are copying the human ones. Then she finds some bloody lumps of metal on the bathroom floor and a bunch of blood smeared around in the shower which of course causes her to leap immediately to the conclusion that the alien is replicating people. Nice sciencing there, Ramones. She runs to stop a copter that’s taking the traumatized second half of the duo – the one that didn’t get eaten – to a medical base because I guess she knows now that one of the people on board is an alien. It is, and the dude’s head splits and opens into a gaping shrieking tentacle vagina. The copter crashes. So I guess the alien’s plan was to crash the copter? Instead of just chill and stay hidden? When Ramona explains her theory the other researchers react like cocky unconvinced idiots, immediately becoming aggressive and accusatory rather than entertaining the possibility of a scientific hypothesis, so we’re lead to believe that they’re up to something.

Oh and we still have no fucking idea who any of these idiots are. There’s like fifteen of them.

She then expands her science by claiming that the alien can’t copy the lumps of metal, which are apparently fillings (which she says she found by a “puddle” of blood in the shower – it wasn’t a puddle, it was smeared all over the walls and floor in streaks, let’s work on that script there boys) that the creature spit out onto the floor. Everyone scoffs and leaves and she’s approached by the only other female at the facility, who brings her into another room and immediately CGizes and “attacks” her, by which I mean instead of killing her instantly it adheres to the script and stumbles around the room smashing into things. And here we get our first truly comedic moment (I’d only been chuckling up to this point) when, as Ramona runs away down the hall and the monster begins to devour one of the less important researchers, an apparently clairvoyant Norwegians flies into the scene with a flamethrower armed and at the ready. The attack has only been happening for ten seconds at this point. Hey, good thing you had your flamethrower on.

You’ll be seeing a lot of this.

By the way, in the original, the alien was methodical, patient, plotting, and careful. It killed silently, and tried not to be caught. But obviously that’s stupid.

So now the film’s dissolved into an unsalvageable mess, and from this point on every scene is just a comic riot. I mean just awful in every respect. They burn the alien again, since it worked so well the first time, and suddenly the two Americans that were piloting the copter emerge from the darkness – they’ve hiked all the way back to camp. “It’s impossible for a human to survive that crash!” screams the head scientist, as he’s apparently also a clairvoyant expert on helicopter crashes now, and not a scientist. “Burn them!” They all agree that they should be burned alive, and point primed flamethrowers at the pair, and at this point not only are myself and my company laughing, but now the rest of the audience can’t help but to laugh either. But Ramona saves the day. Ahh, hilarity.

They then attempt to get together a blood plasma experiment like the original did, but the alien burns down the lab in a blaze that viewed from outside appears to be a forty-foot inferno that would threaten to destroy the entire facility, but is actually apparently just a small interior fire that can be doused with a single fire extinguisher.

Oh jesus, and now we have the infamous filling scene. Now that the blood test is impossible, Ramona proceeds to command everyone to show her their fillings. Since we’ve established the monster can’t copy metal, and since she apparently has fillings herself, if you have fillings in your teeth, you’re not a monster. I guess this is reasonable? I mean might as well get the possible aliens down to as few people as possible, right? But they way that it’s executed is positively silly. We get five straight uninterrupted minutes of Ramona demanding to see inside everybody’s mouths. Like, we literally watch all ten or twelve scientists purse their lips together and shake their heads like indignant teenage girls as she screams at them to open their goddamn mouths!!  and what’s his name shoves a flamethrower in their faces – even the fucking ones who have fillings! Just show her your fucking fillings! Then more CG happens I think.

I’m going to take this opportunity to explain an important aspect of film making to you. It’s called “subtlety”. It’s not only something that’s required to make pretty much every story good, it’s something that’s extremely important in building tension, since they really go hand in hand in movies like this. In John Carpenter’s film, after the initial alien reveal in the dog kennel, we don’t really see the creature for another forty minutes. We merely get hints of it – we see that it has almost successfully inhabited a human body, but we barely see the effects of this as the alien is caught, making it just steps outside the facility before being surrounded by the others and burned alive. The majority of this time is spent building character, allowing us to get to know everybody better, expanding the story and creating suspense in the distrust between our potential heroes and enemies, showing the psychological impact of an unsolvable situation as one character goes crazy and is exiled, building the growing threat of a devastating Antarctic storm, and most importantly, making us even doubt ourselves, as the characters turn upon MacReady, our main character and supposed hero. Furthermore, we know the alien is around. It’s doing stuff, but we don’t know what. Thus when we get to the blood test scene, and our characters discover that each molecule of the beast will react to a threat, making a hot poker a lethal weapon to a sample of blood plasma, we’re on the edge of our seats because we’ve gotten to know each character, and seen them doing things, and are desperate to know who’s a horrible creature and if we’ve been deceived and maybe even MacReady’s an alien monster himself. Compare this to the premake’s absurd filling scene, where not only haven’t we gotten to know and thus don’t care about any of the characters, we’re expected to feel tension in a scene that first immediately proves to us Ramona’s not an alien because she has fillings, and then proceeds to do what, exactly? Divide the group in half? Okay…?

The only tense, subtle scene in the film

There’s precisely one scene early on in this movie that’s actually quite subtle and really good. This is the drill scene. The team has just brought the block of ice, creature within, back to the lab, and the head researcher decides that he wants to take a sample before thawing the thing out. Ramona objects, but he pulls rank and they continue. So we get a scene where everyone’s watching and waiting as they use a hand-drill to cut into the huge block. The soundtrack fades back, and all we can hear are the deafening sounds of the drill forcing its way deeper and deeper into the ice. Tension builds as the bit nears the frozen alien life form and we’re not quite sure what’s going to happen. It’s a great scene, and probably the only tense, subtle one in the entire film.

Anyways, the rest of this spectacle is just a mess, but at this point we were all – not just the three of us, but the entire theatre – watching comedically. The alien arrives again and is now just running around as a gory multi-limbed mess without even bothering to disguise itself. SUBTLE. I’d compare to Carpenter’s version again but by now there’s no reason anymore. There’s an absolutely side-splitting scene where the creature’s in a room surrounded on all sides whipping tentacles everywhere, and then – let’s see if I can describe this effectively – bursts limbs out of a supine scientist and crawls towards an injured character with said scientist’s head inverted and still intact, then mounts the injured character and further encroaches until their faces are rubbing together, back and forth in such a loving and adorable way that all it was missing were purring sounds.

Everyone runs around like idiots and hides and the director still tries to scare us with the fucking strings and orchestral stings and threats of an alien we’ve seen for like ten minutes straight by now and have begun to see more like some silly malformed dog than a horrible alien creature. *Pant pant* Rarina rentacles! *pant* It kills pretty much everybody and then suddenly decides to disguise itself as one of the last remaining scientists after it’s killed everyone? Why? It then escapes into the night in a snow-cat that the team incapacitated earlier in an apparently pointless wire-cutting vehicle-disabling scene. I guess world-renowned scientists know how to splice together wires. Go figure.

And we keep going, apparently?

Sigh. So Ramona and the other American who I guess is the other hero now run after the alien! They chase it back to the ship, and then – get this – climb aboard the ship and start running around inside? Are you fucking insane? LEAVE. Yes, the human race and all, but at this point it appears the alien’s just trying to gtfo, so fucking let it! What the hell! You’ve had your entire team brutally slaughtered, your entire facility destroyed, and you’ve burned the monster to death like fifty times. Good effort, I think we can all say, so just let the damn thing go! If you believe it’s going to attack, fine, take that snow-cat over to one of those other bases, use a radio, and tell the fucking Pentagon to nuke the shit out of the gigantic flying saucer when it comes to shoot lasers at the White House! Arg. Also, wasn’t this ship frozen underground for 100,000 years? Frozen in such a desperate way that the alien abandoned it to attempt to escape up onto the frozen wasteland only to be turned into an ice cube itself? So then like, after 100,000 years, now it just starts up all systems go, apparently? And are you really telling us a hideous living mucus membrane really invented and pilots this massively sophisticated wonder of a craft? Finally, hey film makers, are you fucking idiots? Did we really need to go INSIDE THE SHIP?

Whatever, Ramona goes and looks at a big 3D Tetris game for like five minutes so that the alien can creep up behind her and give us another jump scare that we yawn at. It roars at her more and she goes down a tunnel or something and loses her grenade, and then tries to get it for five more minutes while the monster shoots tentacles at her, only to finally retrieve it and make the monster go kablooey the end. Oh, she also burns the other guy alive, ‘cuz I guess he was a monster or something but he decided not to kill her too the end. Oh, and finally we just totally ditch Ramona Flowers and go back to the camp so we can get in a scene to blend directly into the first film, with one of the dogs escaping the camp and the crazy flamethrower guy following it in a copter with his rifle in a segue that appears to have been all the film makers really cared about to begin with, since we completely forget about the actual heroine we’ve followed for 80 minutes and have no idea what becomes of her.

Holy Lucifer is this movie both god-awful and just staggeringly brilliant. The number of things wrong is just mind-boggling. It’s just everything. Every shot, every scare, every CG mess. The camera cuts to characters looking on in silent stupidity as horrific acts of gruesome alien slaughter occur before them. So-called scientists make enormous leaps in logic, turning into raving militants as they attempt to simply burn everybody alive before any hypotheses can be made. People run around outside in spring jackets while expositing about an approaching Antarctic blizzard. Every character is made to be evil, conniving, and wicked, rather than sympathetic and likable. Subtle, creepy, disgusting practical scares are replaced by repetitive shrieking CG vagina tentacle monsters. And every opportunity to do something creative with imagery from the original simply plays to the lowest common denominator.

What happened in the Norwegian camp? Well, everyone died, the end! Fascinating.

And I guess ultimately that’s one of the big problems. This story probably could have been done well, yes, but in the end it’s not as interesting a story as the one that Carpenter told 30 years ago. We didn’t need clarity on the origin of the alien. We didn’t need to know that fleshy gobs of mucus pilot behemoth flying Tetris saucers. And we didn’t need to see how all the junk the guys from the American camp found at the Norwegian site came to be. All that stuff was much more interesting as back story, and much more intriguing and mysterious when we didn’t quite know exactly what took place. It is true the film makers appear to have a genuine passion for the original film. But they simply don’t have any new ideas of their own, and they don’t understand what made the original so good. When they aren’t connecting dots to Carpenter’s version, they just trip and stumble around blindly, clutching their copy of How to Make a Shitty 21st Century Horror Flick. If you really need a prequel, just watch the 1951 version. It nearly acts as one, and it isn’t garbage.

But if you want a damn good laugh, by all means, give this Thing a go.

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