Friday, February 17, 2012

The Warmest Place to Hide

Connant stopped at the bend in the corridor. His breath hissed suddenly through his throat. “Great God – ” The revolver exploded thunderously; three numbing, palpable waves of sound crashed through the confined corridors. Two more. The revolver dropped to the hard-packed snow of the trail, and Barclay saw the ice-ax shift into defensive position. Connant’s powerful body blocked his vision, but beyond he heard something mewing, and, insanely, chuckling. The dogs were quieter; there was a deadly seriousness in their low snarls. Taloned feet scratched at hard-packed snow, broken chains were clinking and tangling.

Connant shifted abruptly, and Barclay could see what lay beyond. For a second he stood frozen, then his breath went out in a gusty curse. The Thing launched itself at Connant, the powerful arms of the man swung the ice-ax flatside first at what might have been a hand. It scrunched horribly, and the tattered flesh, ripped by a half-dozen savage huskies, leapt to its feet again. The red eyes blazed with an unearthy hatred, an unearthly, unkillable vitality.

--John W. Campbell, "Who Goes There?"

There's a scene near the end of the 2011 version of The Thing (directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.) that depends on the audience noticing a small detail that is absent. In another movie, this detail might be a continuity error. It's a subtle tell in a movie that is generally not subtle. The audience for this film isn't watching it for the cleverness of its filmmaking. It's watching for the carnival of monsters. For the freakshow, as it were. The Thing doesn't skimp on that, but it's nice that it has some ambitions as a film beyond chewing with its mouth hanging open. I kind of wish that this film weren't designed as a prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 version. I wish it were a straight-up remake. The need to sync the details of this film with the Carpenter film will likely have a smart viewer asking too many questions. Really, this should be able to stand on its own and it's frustrating that it doesn't.

The conceit of this film is that it depicts what happens to the Norwegians from the beginning of the Carpenter film. A perusal of the DVD extras will reveal the lengths to which the filmmakers here have reverse engineered their narrative from the sets and clues in Carpenter's film, such that individual set pieces are designed to leave the evidence Carpenter's characters find. The broad outlines of the plot of this film are taken from Carpenter and from John W. Campbell's short story, "Who Goes There?" A team of scientists find an alien space ship in the ice of Antarctica, they find the pilot frozen in the nearby ice and they take it back to their base, where it wakes up and begins to imitate the scientists. This becomes an exercise in paranoia, where determining who is human and who is not is a matter of survival, and where preventing the alien from escaping is a matter of averting the apocalypse. The details are largely familiar from both Carpenter's film and Howard Hawks's original. This film provides a scientist as appeaser, a figure absent from Carpenter's film. Ulrich Thomsen's Dr. Sander Halvorson, this film's scientist, bears a familial resemblance to Robert Cornthwaite's Dr. Carrington in the Hawks film. This breaks from both of its predecessors at the climax when it sets its final conflict on the alien ship itself.

This version of the story is different from its predecessors in one other respect. It has a final girl. The lead in this film is played Mary Elizabeth Winstead, playing paleontologist Kate Lloyd. Regardless of the Hawksian characteristics of the women in the 1951 film, they were still basically hero's girlfriend/den mother characters rather than protagonists. Women were famously absent from Carpenter's film. This film is integrating influences from the films that were in turn influenced by the earlier versions of the film, most notably Alien. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is totally playing a version of Ripley, so much so that the image of her toting a flamethrower late in the film seems copied directly from Aliens. The film makes a fair amount of hay from Lloyd's gender, given that the menfolk in this film are disinclined to believe her conclusions about the alien and, worse, are disinclined to follow her lead because of her gender. This is a dynamic that's new to this film relative to its predecessors, and it's skillfully done. Like that scene I mentioned at the start, it's actually kind of subtle. Kate Lloyd actually serves a secondary purpose in this film. She's the medium through which the filmmakers translate everything into English. The film is daring enough to assemble a mostly Norwegian cast, but there's no way Universal was going to release this film with a bunch of subtitles. There are still subtitles, but they're minimized by both Lloyd and the helicopter pilot, Sam Carter (Joel Edgerton). It's awkward, but it works. Sort of.

One of the concerns that horror fans expressed about this film before its release was that it would substitute CGI effects for the Carpenter film's practical effects. The Carpenter film is often thought of as the Citizen Kane of creature effects films (that's what the filmmakers of the new film call it, actually), and substituting run-of-the-mill CGI effects for practical effects smacks of philistinism to many horror fans. As a personal preference, I like practical effects better, myself. Those fans shouldn't have worried. This is a film that is dominated by practical effects (with one glaring exception), and they're generally very good. The state of the art even of practical effects has advanced dramatically in the last thirty years, and this film accomplishes things with its various creature puppets that the original film would have killed to do. One sequence in particular, involving a whipping tentacle, was an effect I was SURE was CGI until I watched the DVD extras. The one exception to this is the creature at the end of the film, which unfortunately screams CGI. It's one of the effects department's few missteps.

The nature of the creature has evolved a bit, too. There's a suggestion that the human hosts of the alien here are passengers when the alien takes over their bodies. That they're conscious of their predicament but can't do anything about it. This is particularly evident on the first monster we get a really good look at. This is a nice extrapolation of the Carpenter film's horrors, and it works pretty well. The filmmakers elaborate a bit on how the alien can be detected too. It doesn't restage the blood sampling scene (which is taken from the Campbell story, it should be said), but instead substitutes another perfectly logical means of detecting the alien. This, too, works pretty well. In general, the filmmakers have succeeded in adding just enough to their vision of The Thing to justify making their film in the first place, and, had it been a straight-up remake unto itself, unconnected to the Carpenter film, it would be a pretty good movie. Unfortunately, this isn't the case. There's a slow accumulation of details that make me wonder if this film moots the horror of the Carpenter film, whether it's the fact that someone back in the world undoubtedly knows about the alien based on the early scenes where Halvorson convinces Kate Lloyd to fly to Antarctica, or this film's suggestion that Kate escapes at the end. I mean, I suppose you could justify most of this; the original film ended with our heroes telling the world to keep watching the skies, after all, but this lessens both its own horror and the complete nihilism of the end of Carpenter's movie. The value of this movie shouldn't be contingent on its association with its predecessors. Unfortunately, the fact that this film ends with a dog being chased across the snow by a helicopter insures that this film MUST be judged in association with Carpenter's film. That kind of comparison does this film no favors, and tends to reveal where the seams are showing.


Ivan said...

Dr. Morbius, most of the open-minded critical consensus seems to side with you--that if we try and ignore the "prequel" aspects, treat it as just another entry into the "isolated frozen outpost dealing with unspeakable horror" subgenre (which can stretch from "At the Mountains of Madness" to the various adaptations of "Who Goes There?" to the TV movie "A Cold Night's Death"), that then, the new The Thing is not some cinematic crime.
Anyway, that'll be my mindset when watching it next week...
BTW, I recently re-read the short story "Who Goes There?" and except for its ideas, the story was very disappointing to me. Hawks & Carpenter really expanded and improved the characterizations in their unique ways.
Keep up the good work,

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Ivan. I have no antipathy toward remakes as such. Some of my favorite movies are remakes. I think it's beholden upon anyone who writes about film and puts that writing out into the marketplace to give every film a fair shake. I mean, I know I'm guilty of letting my prejudices influence me a lot of the time, but I try to be open-minded.

"Who Goes There?" might have been better had Campbell handed it off to one of his Unknown writers. Theodore Sturgeon, for instance, would seem to be a perfect fit. Or A. E. Van Vogt. I mean, he handed so many ideas to his writers that it's always a surprise when he keeps one himself. I know that at least one of Robert Heinlein's novels was given to Heinlein by Campbell as an assignment for Astounding.

Anyway, I'm rambling.

Ivan said...

Doc M., maybe we should be thankful Campbell didn't pass along the idea to a "better" writer. I tend to agree with William Burroughs' comment that "good books make mediocre movies, but mediocre books make good movies" (he was talking about Marathon Man)--that the ideas in those mediocre books were worth exploring and expanding on, but not necessarily holding faithful to the source material. Had "Who Goes There?" been a straightforward adaptation, gosh, we would've had a bunch of tough he-man, square-jawed Mary Sues to bore us in-between monster attacks. I think Hawks & Carpenter & Co. did well to inject their own flavors into the mix.
I think all sequels and remakes are initially "greenlit" with only the thought of additional profits to back those decisions. But what happens afterwards? Ahhh, that's what makes the difference. Have you got a Cronenberg or Carpenter on your team, or have you got a Marcus Nispel?

In the words of Led Zeppelin, "Ramble On!"