Friday, February 10, 2012

The Thing 2011 Prequel: Body Horror from Another World



When I first heard about Universal's production of a prequel to John Carpenter's classic The Thing (1982), I wasn't sure what to think. I loved Carpenter's movie, and I kept up with many of its unofficial sequels, such as the three Dark Horse Comics miniseries and the 2002 video game by VU Games. In fact, if you love horror/sci-fi stuff like I do, it's impossible not to notice the lasting influence of The Thing--both in terms of Carpenter's direction and Rob Bottin's innovative creature effects work--in other movies (Isolation, Splinter), TV shows (Something is Out There, Threshold) and video games (Resident Evil, Dead Space). With so many pseudo-Things scurrying around out there, I was disappointed that we Thing fans never got a big-screen return trip to the freezing Antarctic to see more of what cinema's most terrifying shape-shifter could do. Yet with Hollywood's recent tendency to remake and reboot all sorts of horror and sci-fi titles and franchises, I couldn't help but approach news of the prequel with some trepidation, that a new version of the inherently messy and bleak Thing would be dumbed-down and sanitized for a new audience.

Fortunately, the 2011 prequel to The Thing proved to be much better than what I had imagined it could be. Sure, it doesn't reach the same level of intense fatalism as Carpenter's movie (very few movies do), but it still works as a fitting prologue to the grim fate that later befalls the crew of Outpost 31. Considering the amount of studio interference that plagued this film, which features explicit displays of gloriously grotesque body horror, such an accomplishment is worthy of appreciation. Read on for my complete review and a few thoughts as to why both Thing movies are among the most feral and ferocious body horror films ever to hit the silver screen--which may be why they both flopped in the first place.

As its prequel status suggests, The Thing depicts the events that lead up to the 1982 movie of the same name; like its predecessor, it is also based on the short story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell Jr. In the prequel, a team of Norwegian and American scientists discover an enormous alien spacecraft buried deep below the surface of Antarctica, as well as what appears to be one of its passengers. After they take the frozen alien back to their base camp, it thaws to reveal its true nature: a highly infectious creature that can assume the appearance of any organism, including humans.


I'll begin this review by saying that as horror movies go, Carpenter's The Thing is a very tough act to follow. His movie bombed at the box office and was trashed by critics when it debuted in 1982. The critics who panned it dismissed it as nothing more than exploitation-style horror that placed gory special effects ahead of plot and characters, so anyone who would do a continuation of Carpenter's film with the same amounts of gore and gloom was inevitably going to face at least some of the same critical backlash as he did. For example, Roger Ebert gave the 2011 The Thing the same number of stars as the 1982 The Thing, and he still concluded that the first adaptation of Campbell's story, 1951's The Thing From Another World, is superior that its subsequent adaptations. Let's face it: Gory horror is tough for some to find entertaining, but gory horror that's also drenched in bottomless despondency is an act of cinematic sacrilege for many.

Another problem with doing any kind of continuation of The Thing is rooted in the titular monster itself, because the creature is almost impossible to stop due to its ability to attack and survive on both macro- and micro-biological levels. Such invincibility puts writers into a corner, which leaves them with only three options for continuation:

1. Have a sequel where the protagonists discover an infallible solution to permanently vanquish the monster;

2. Have the monster leave the Antarctic and arrive in a densely populated area, and then focus the narrative on how the protagonists deal with the new, larger-scale Thing outbreak; or

3. Place the monster in another isolated area with a small number of people, which amounts to repeating the original story but in a different location and with different characters.

Obviously, Universal would reject the first option because it would kill the possibility of a franchise, and it would also balk at the hefty price tag that would inevitably come with the second option. (Case in point: This second option is also why we’ll never see an Alien sequel where the biomechanical parasites invade and conquer Earth.) This process of elimination leaves the third option, so The Thing prequel runs with it by filling in a narrative blank space in Carpenter's movie: the ruined Norwegian base scene. However, Carpenter left that scene in his movie deliberately vague for the purpose of stoking the audience's imagination of what the Thing could do to his protagonists. In other words, that scene served the purpose of providing viewers with examples what the Thing is capable of doing, just as how other horror movies show you the aftermaths of attacks and not the attacks themselves (such as in Jaws, Aliens and Se7en) to keep you guessing with nervous anticipation about what can happen next. Thus, basing a prequel on a narrative device designed to provoke the imagination is tricky, because the number of surprises available are limited.

I have to give the prequel's cast and crew credit: From what I saw, they clearly went into this project knowing the limitations with which they were faced and worked efficiently and effectively within them. They changed the aspects to the story that could be different from Carpenter's while at the same time remaining (mostly) faithful to the details that would fit within the narrative framework provided in the 1982 movie. This may sound unoriginal and derivative but considering that this is the third film inspired by a short story that itself was greatly influenced by the H.P. Lovecraft novella At the Mountains of Madness, I’m not going to quibble about originality and focus instead on execution.



The two most notable changes from its predecessor are the film's character hierarchy and overall mood. In the first Thing, the characters were a group of weary, maladjusted men who seemed to be in the Antarctic because they didn't belong anywhere else; in contrast, the prequel's characters are a team of scientists who just made a revolutionary find and who largely defer to the overbearing authority of Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), their leader. The prequel's mixed cast of male and female, American and Norwegian characters also works well, allowing the story to play around with interpersonal tensions and paranoia in ways that the previous film couldn’t. Indeed, there’s something morbidly ironic about how a completely amorphous organism can exploit differences in gender, nationality, language and professional status--details that are valued greatly as part of being human--to its advantage.

Following the new set of characters, the prequel’s tone is lighter (at least initially) than Carpenter’s film. Part of this is due to the film’s pacing: While the previous movie moved at a measured pace that allowed for its oppressive dread to permeate the story, the prequel moves along at a much faster rhythm. In fact, once the prequel Thing figures out how to imitate humans, it doesn't take long for it to tear through its available human prey. Such a pacing allows the new Thing movie to provide a series of intense shocks in short order, right on up until its hopelessly futile ending. Whereas the characters in Carpenter’s Thing come to embrace the immutable finality of their situation so that they can keep the threat from reaching others, the characters in the prequel frantically run through every solution they can think of to fight the alien menace until there’s nothing left but death itself. The two different portrayals of ice-cold despair complement each other better than you’d imagine.

I could end my review here, but I can’t really do justice to explaining why I enjoyed The Thing unless I go into its elements of body horror. The body horror in the Thing movies is what sets them apart from their most similar cinematic counterparts, the pod clones from the Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies. The pod clones have a sense of structure and purpose; in each Body Snatcher film, the clones replace specific people for the greater purpose of replacing all of human society itself. In contrast, the Thing has no greater drive than the insatiable need to propagate its DNA through infection, assimilation and mutation, like a disease. Furthermore, the pod clones are very rational and they will clearly explain their plans for conquering the Earth when they are exposed to be imposters. In contrast, when a Thing is exposed as an imposter, its reaction is purely biological: It erupts into a contorted, asymmetrical arrangement of writhing appendages, toothy orifices, and vestigial parts. Anyone who has ever experienced a sudden and violent loss of control of his or her body--say, because of a grand mal seizure, a severe allergic reaction or an overpowering panic attack--can appreciate what the kind of body horror that The Thing movies are trying to portray.

It has been suggested by some that the horror behind the modern zombie movie is that it's a twisted parody on how many perceive the relationship between mind, soul and body. Religions place the mind and soul as the intangible, everlasting elements of humanity; the modern zombie movie reverses that notion, portraying thousands of reanimated bodies moving around on their own without a single mind or soul among them and quickly overrunning the living through acts of mob violence and raw cannibalism. The Thing takes that conceptual reversal a few steps forward by making its monster the literal manifestation of the biological imperative to survive by passing on DNA, and that the monster's imperative is not limited by any known biological process (such as cognition, digestion, and sexual reproduction) or structures (organs, bones, and skin tissue). Essentially, Carpenter's The Thing and its prequel takes biologist Richard Dawkins' idea of the "selfish gene" and pushes it to its most nightmarish extreme. This kind of body horror rarely appears in the movie theaters and I think that the Thing prequel did a great job at bring it back, however fleetingly. For an alternate reading of the body horror in The Thing prequel, click here to read Matthew Haigh’s interpretation on his blog site.

Invasion Tip: When sprouting an appendage to absorb another organism’s DNA, 
be sure that the appendage is capable of secreting large amounts of lube.

Body horror has never been a blockbuster subgenre at the movies. Even when it’s part of what would otherwise be considered as a monster movie, and it could very well be that the notion of losing control of one’s body on a deep, immeasurable level is simply too terrifying for many people. Other body horror-themed films of late, such as Slither (2006) and Splice (2009), also tanked at the box office, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that The Thing prequel tanked as well. But don’t let its failure at the theaters put you off from seeing this movie. If you loved Carpenter’s 1982 movie and appreciate body horror, you should give The Thing prequel a chance to crawl under your skin.




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