Some cinematic experiences are so foundational they simply can’t be replicated.
John Carpenter’s The Thing is one such experience. First released in 1982, this chilly masterpiece — which celebrated its 39th anniversary on June 25 — is widely considered to be one of the greatest sci-fi horror films ever made.
When a prequel to The Thing hit theaters in 2011, comparisons to Carpenter’s film were inevitable — and not very kind. But despite falling short of classic status, the newer film succeeded as an enjoyable thrill ride in its own right. Here’s why 2011’s The Thing is worth another look, especially since it’s streaming for free online right now.
Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s prequel doesn’t exactly go out of its way to distinguish itself, even using the same title as Carpenter’s film. And while 2011’s The Thing takes place immediately before the events of the 1982 film at the Norwegian research station its script references, the prequel’s first two acts play much like a remake.
As the prequel opens, a team of Norweigan researchers in Antarctica discover a spaceship buried in the ice. American vertebrate paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is hired to assist the team with excavating said ship, from which an alien body is recovered. From there, things take a familiar and bloody turn. The alien first inhabits a dog, then one of the researchers. The question of “who’s who” arises sooner rather than later.
Suspicions grow, allegiances are made, and Kate partners with the research base’s Vietnam-vet pilot Sam Carter (Joel Edgerton) to determine the nature of the threat turning researchers against one another. Unfortunately, given the film’s positioning as a prequel, audiences will know going in that Kate and Sam won’t succeed in destroying the alien. This deflates some of the tension. But there’s still some mystery in discovering how their failure went down and who, if anyone, will survive humankind’s first encounter with the thing.
Kate and Sam’s efforts lead them back to the alien spacecraft where The Thing takes a major left turn away from Carpenter’s film. The prequel goes for a large-scale, digital-effects-driven third act inside the spaceship. This may reveal too much about the alien’s origins, but it also gives Heijningen the opportunity to escape Carpenter’s shadow, if only fleetingly.
2011’s The Thing often feels at war with itself, not unlike the movie’s titular alien trying to replicate another form but struggling to retain it. For both the alien and the prequel, something is undeniably off.
Heijningen’s The Thing is hiding inside the body of Carpenter’s The Thing. The result is a movie with plenty to enjoy but nothing particularly original.
Despite these noticeable flaws, Winstead and Edgerton tie the film together with convincing, engaging performances that will make you root for their survival. Their unique skillsets and personalities feel different enough from Kurt Russell’s MacReady and Keith David’s Childs to stand on their own as protagonists.
There’s something thematically compelling about the idea that the two American characters in Antarctica find themselves leaning on one other even as their suspicions about the Norwegian crew members are gradually validated. A vein of xenophobia runs through The Thing, and while Carpenter’s film sowed distrust among neighbors, Heijningen’s approach is more global.
Much has been said about the special effects used on Heijningen’s The Thing in the decade since it released, and it’s become something of a cautionary tale. The film’s creature effects were originally practical, offering up a bevy of monstrous designs full of nods to Bottin’s original concepts. Many of these designs can be found online, and they’re truly things of horrific beauty.
Unfortunately, Universal Studios didn’t like the practical effects, believing it made the film look too dated. Instead of keeping them, the studio execs ordered reshoots that replaced the practical effects with digital ones, which simply don’t hold up given how quickly that technology has progressed since 2011. Despite some neat CG designs, this was a bad call on the studio’s part, stripping the film of any chance it might have had to craft its own identity — at least in the form of its alien monstrosities.
Following the announcement of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, there’s been an online movement to release the director’s cut of The Thing with the practical effects and original third act reinserted. This would certainly be great to see, though with Blumhouse and Universal planning a new version of The Thing — based on John W. Campbell’s original unabridged manuscript, Frozen Hell — it might be time for fans to set their sights on something different (pun intended).
With that in mind, this 2011 prequel can be enjoyed as the strange attempt at replication it is. No masterpiece, Heijningen’s The Thing benefits immensely if one goes in with the knowledge that it won’t touch Carpenter’s film. Instead, what the film delivers is an entertaining, monster-filled B-movie, and certainly a good-enough option for a Friday night in.
THE THING (2011) IS CURRENTLY STREAMING FOR FREE ON PEACOCK in the U.S.