Running a movie studio is very hard. Your job is to make as much money as possible without wasting any time coming up with new ideas. Ideally, you'd do nothing but produce remakes of movies that your studio already owns. Problem is, whenever you do this, fans of the original movie complain that you're "ruining" it, or "being lazy," or that you've "run out of ideas," all of which is true but still hurtful.
I am deeply impressed, therefore, by the ingenuity demonstrated by the Universal Pictures executives responsible for The Thing. They have found a way around the usual dilemmas. They realized that to simply remake John Carpenter's 1982 horror classic would be blasphemy. It would make too many people angry.
So they went ahead and did the remake -- but they're calling it a "prequel."
See how brilliant that is? Fans don't object to prequels as vehemently as they do remakes. A remake could supplant the original in the public consciousness, whereas there's very little danger of a prequel doing that. A prequel takes place before the "real" movie and usually requires an entirely different set of actors. It's easily ignored. A prequel won't replace the original, not on the DVD shelf or in people's hearts and minds. People don't usually love the idea of a prequel, but they can tolerate it.
That's how Universal managed to avoid being burned to the ground by angry Carpenter fans when this film was announced. "No, no, no, we're not remaking The Thing!" they said. "We would never do that! Heaven forfend! No, we're paying tribute to it by exploring its ideas and characters further in a prequel. A prequel! We promise!" This placated the mob, and they dispersed.
But the joke is on them! The Thing, while technically a prequel to The Thing -- it ends with the events that lead to it -- is clearly a remake. The characters have different names, but they fill the same functions, and they die in approximately the same order, and in approximately the same fashion. The plot is essentially the same. If this were labeled a "remake," people would describe it as a relatively faithful one. If it were released under an entirely different title with no connection to The Thing, people would describe it as a complete rip-off of The Thing.
(Side note: We never should have fallen for this. The alleged prequel to The Thing is called ... The Thing? Come on. Prequels don't use the same exact titles as the movies they're prequelling. A prequel would be called The Arrival of The Thing, or The Thing: Beginnings. You know what movies DO use the same titles? Remakes. Universal really pulled one over on us here. They remade a movie -- they even gave it the SAME DAMN TITLE -- and still convinced us it wasn't a remake. Well played, boys.)
This version is about a paleontologist named Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who is recruited by Norwegians to come to Antarctica to check out something awesome they found frozen in the ice. The awesome thing appears to be an alien life form, and it appears to have arrived in a giant alien spacecraft a very long time ago. One thing it appears to be but is not is dead. Everyone discovers this when it hops out of the ice and starts killing them.
It does this in a particularly insidious manner, altering its physical appearance to imitate the life forms around it. So you think you're talking to one of your fellow Antarctic researchers, until WHOOPS! A multi-tentacled CGI monster bursts out of his chest. Now everybody's paranoid that whoever's standing next to them might be an alien. You'll agree that this is a terrific premise for a tense, atmospheric horror movie! John Carpenter sure thought so! (For the record, while Carpenter's film has itself been called a remake of 1951's The Thing from Another World, it was more accurately a new adaptation of the same source material, a novella called "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell.)
Are you interested in the names of the other actors who appear in this film? Some of those names are Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen, Eric Christian Olsen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Paul Braunstein, and Kim Bubbs. The director, in case you were wondering, is a newcomer named Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., and the screenplay was written by Eric Heisserer, whose other credits are Final Destination 5 (a sequel) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (a remake).
But I haven't addressed what will surely be the primary question on many moviegoers' minds: regardless of how it relates to 1982's The Thing, is this The Thing any good? And the answer is eh, not really. There are no scares in it, which is a serious drawback for a movie that's supposed to be scary. None of the characters matter to us, so we aren't terribly concerned over questions of who will survive and who's already been infected by the alien. Some of the computer-generated creature effects are eye-catching, though, and there are a couple moments of sheer mayhem that allow us to get caught up in the horror of it all, albeit only fleetingly. For someone who's never seen Carpenter's version, this one might be passably entertaining, in a matinee-price, lower-your-expectations, I've-seen-everything-else-and-this-starts-in-10-minutes kind of way.
For anyone who has seen Carpenter's The Thing, however, this The Thing is pretty useless. Prequel, remake, reimagining, reboot -- whatever you want to call it, there isn't any element of it that improves upon any element of Carpenter's, nor does it enhance our understanding of the story's themes. It's the horror equivalent of one of those cheap, straight-to-video animated sequels that Disney's always putting out: same title, same story, none of the inspiration.