As with most modern remakes, the knives have well and truly been out since Universal announced its plans to reboot John Carpenter's stone-cold classic paranoia-feast The Thing. It should be remembered though that the 1981 favourite is itself a remake, as are two of its similarly-celebrated and comparably themed sci-fi horror companions, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and The Fly. The gaps between those iterations and their inspirations was actually smaller than that between the three Thing films (with 30 years distance apiece), so we can at least take comfort in the fact that this new incarnation isn't a rush job.

It's also a sensible choice to opt for the prequel route, giving the excuse to tick all the boxes that worked before while addressing some of the old ambiguities. Unfortunately, debut director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr doesn't quite succeed in either regard and while his gooey thriller is enjoyable in its own right (especially for those unfamiliar with its predecessor), several crucial details are missing from this film's genetic code.

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Opening with a pleasantly old-school Universal logo, we're taken straight to the Antarctic region where a group of Norwegian scientists have discovered a star-craft buried beneath a glacier - as well as its alien pilot frozen under the ice nearby. An excited Dr Sander recruits crack American paleontologist Kate Lloyd with an urgent request to help excavate and examine an unidentified specimen. Her piqued interest turns to astonishment upon arrival, despite her caution conflicting with the Dr's less measured methods. As the group celebrate their discovery, it awakens from its frozen tomb and runs amok, killing one of the party before they burn it to a crisp. The subsequent autopsy and cell observation leads them to believe the creature may have a more insidious agenda, one that has only just begun to take shape.

Things (no pun intended) start promisingly enough, with spectacular shots of the vast tundra and a well-staged crash through the ice leading to the unearthing of the otherworldly vessel. However, alarm bells will automatically be ringing with scriptwriter Eric Heiserrer's decision to open on an admittedly funny sex joke, made the more amusing for being told in Norwegian. It's a brave gambit that generates a little tension, but it signals how empty-headed this film will probably be in comparison to Carpenter's.

Functional scenes follow where characters are fleetingly established through wittily dry exchanges and a particularly funny celebration, again designed to build suspense for what's happening simultaneously. Sadly, van Heijningen Jr (what a mouthful!) fails to establish the requisite foreboding atmosphere due to the bland score and sheer generic slickness of his style; Carpenter's sinister, Kubrickian steadicam flourishes and stark minimalism are sorely missed.

The cast all rise to the challenge, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead making a fairly good fist of the Ripley role, despite its omission being one of the best ways Carpenter previously transcended his obvious debt to Alien. Ulrich Thomsen is excellent as the dubiously motivated Dr Sander, his awestruck fascination with his find offset by greedy self-absorption. Joel Edgerton, Eric Christian Olsen and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje all make for suitably nervy thing- fodder, but for the most part they and their co-stars don't make enough of an impression and never really seem fazed by the horror around them.

Think back to the shrieking panic and unhinged insanity of the 1981 version, and you'll realise the situations here operate on simple music-cued jumps and slasher- flick tropes. Here, the thing sneaks up behind people in plain view, writhes around the floor while everyone watches, and mutates for no other good reason than to demonstrate the CGI budget. Ultimately though, the biggest disappointment is that the thing just isn't alien enough. Last time around, 21-year-old Rob Bottin's superlative practical effects had the fluid flair and subhuman menace of Gustave Dore's engravings, giving Carpenter's camp the frightening feel of some wintry circle of Dante's Inferno.

The flailing tentacles and gaping maws here all seem too familiar from modern videogames and Sci-fi channel B-movies, while the transformations are nowhere near as sudden or unpredictable as before, even if the victim order isn't overly obvious. It's a real shame, as the insectoid beast that initially breaks free from the ice is kept out of sight effectively, and the script gives us a teasing understanding of its modus operandi, leading to an imaginative spin on the thing-test from before.

But van Heijningen Jr tragically fails to exploit our fear of the unknown and the potential tension of the paranoia-stoking premise, aside from a few nicely-played points of misdirection. By the end, logic has long since left the building and the thing has revealed itself to be a singularly stupid entity, despite its apparent universe-traversing abilities. Reruns of Jurassic Park's kitchen scene and a million showdowns inside spaceships leave the viewer disenchanted, despite the fanboy-gratifying references and the general competency of the whole endeavour.

Keep in mind that Carpenter's vision was the eighth film of his career; taken as a lead into that this works as a mild aperitif, with enough of its own flavour to be not entirely unpleasant. There's enough gore and action to appease modern audiences and open-minded Carpenter lovers will appreciate the respect the film pays to his own, but in the end this is another pale facsimile of an admittedly untouchable classic, which like its titular beastie tries hard to convince but inevitably goes down in flames.

Reviewed on: 03 Dec 2011
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At an Antarctica research site, the discovery of an alien craft leads to a confrontation between graduate student Kate Lloyd and scientist Dr. Sander Halvorson.
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Director: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr

Writer: Eric Heisserer, John W. Campbell Jr.

Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen, Eric Christian Olsen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Paul Braunstein, Trond Espen Seim, Kim Bubbs, Jørgen Langhelle, Jan Gunnar Røise, Stig Henrik Hoff, Kristofer Hivju, Jo Adrian Haavind, Carsten Bjørnlund, Jonathan Walker

Year: 2011

Runtime: 103 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US, Canada


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