There’s no reason that a logical flaw should be central to an evaluation of a movie about shape-shifting aliens in Antarctica. It’s a premise so absurd that stepping into the theater signals a sort of implicit contract between viewer and filmmakers to suspend disbelief for an hour and a half and just enjoy the ride. Sit back and be scared; that’s what should happen. But, in his prequel to 1982 horror flick “The Thing,” director Matthijs van Heinjningen Jr. (in his feature film debut) so thoroughly messes up the pacing, action scenes and and general vibe that there’s excruciatingly ample amounts of time for the mind to wander. And it wanders to one question: On a scientific research base, even in Antarctica, why is there no line of communication whatsoever with the outside world?
“The Thing” opens with extended shots of the vast Antarctic snowscape, but quickly sets up the story to come. The main character and heroine, Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”) is contacted by a Norwegian team in need of a paleontologist. A helicopter ride later, she’s in Antarctica, where, long story short, the Norwegians have discovered a massive spaceship and an alien body buried in the ice. Unfortunately, it’s not dead, it can imitate human form and it’s really, really hungry. Since there’s no reliable way to tell whose body has been taken over and because the only way to kill the alien with any certitude is to burn it alive, there are a a lot of flamethrowers jammed in a lot of people’s faces.
Apparently, though, the writers and van Heinjningen never quite decided whether they wanted a sci-fi movie, a suspenseful thriller or an all-out gorefest, and they end up taking the worst parts of each. The result is an boring pseudo-scientific action movie with unconvincing special effects.
What van Heinjningen probably intended as a restrained approach to camerawork renders the movie impotent. Time and time again the lens finds the least interesting thing happening in a scene. For instance, at one point it’s revealed that one of three characters who has boarded a helicopter is, in fact, an alien. Rather than show the interior of the helicopter, there’s a reaction shot of Lloyd as she watches the chopper slowly, soundlessly spiral to the ground miles away.
Similarly suspense-draining techniques are in place throughout, even as the titular “thing” grows and chases scientists around their complex. Instead of allowing the alien to stalk its prey, van Heinjningen employs smash cuts to teeth on flesh. Instead of characters turning on each other and becoming their own worst enemies – because that’s where an intelligent script would have taken the concept, right? – there’s an interminably fraught makeshift dental exam because the extraterrestrial can’t replicate fillings.
Although that’s certainly not the only time the writing treads on uneven ground, the script actually does a decent job of sidestepping common genre pitfalls. Aside from that weirdly specific limitation on the space monster’s powers, the writers avoid setting too many arbitrary rules for their already outrageous premise, which means the plot can unfold without seeming too obvious or too cute.
Likewise, for a movie that could so easily swing in to cult cheese territory, the dialogue is impressively realistic and well-written throughout. Dramatic irony virtually drips from characters’ lines in the early portion of the film, which is far more useful foreshadowing than the wandering camera shots of random Norwegian crewmembers. In fact, it’s fair to say that had the writers not been saddled with such a one-dimensional concept (and, presumably, some measure of allegiance to the original film) their script could have made for an altogether watchable movie.
But it would need different directing and production. The flaws in “The Thing” are such that by the time its namesake finally hits the screen, all emotional investment in the movie’s characters has long since dissipated. It’s by no means scary; rather, viewers should not be surprised to enter a state of prolonged incredulity. Here’s a shape-shifting alien life form – an invention that could take literally any form – and that’s what they came up with? “The Thing” may be a horror movie, but that’s no reason not to laugh.
Two stars out of five
Correction: Due to a reporting error, this review identified the movie as set in 2011 rather than 1982. The movie is a prequel, rather than a remake. The writer had not seen the 1982 movie of the same name and regrets the error.