Movie Review: The Thing vs. The Thing vs. The Thing

Wherein our reviewer bravely tackles the three-headed monster
Sat, 02/01/2014 - 3:00pm

A grotesque life-form lays lifeless on an operating table, bound with restrictive cord, oozing a substance from its appendages into the gauze-like tarpaulin that covers it. A short, balding biologist carefully performs an autopsy, discovering the mime-like nature of the beast: loose strands of sinew cocoon the half-mimicked structures of its past hosts. Is this unknown being — this Thing — part-dog or part-human, or are its parts the sum of its wicked design?

More than 75 years ago, a sci-fi writer named John W. Campbell wrote “Who Goes There?” a story about a research team in Antarctica that discovers, encased in ice, an alien spaceship and the frozen remains of an unknown being. What to do with this historic discovery — scientific, political and moral standpoints are discussed at length. During these discussions the thing reawakens from a sort of cryogenic sleep, breaks free and slips its grotesque body into a variety of hosts, taking on their identity, from sled dogs to humans. Who has left the room, who is not accounted for, who goes there: a paranoid game of who-is-really-who unfolds in the cold isolated confines of the research lab.

Considered a major landmark from the early years of science-fiction, “Who Goes There?” (originally written in ‘38 under Campbell’s pseudonym Don A. Stuart) has been made into three different movies: 1951’s “The Thing from Another Planet,” 1982’s “The Thing,” and 2011’s “The Thing,” a direct prequel to the ‘82 version. Howard Hawks’ 1951 version of “The Thing” (from Another World!) embraces the mania and wide-eyed terror surrounding monster movies at the time. This first attempt of “The Thing” on film ditches the more sterile passages from the novel (more on that problem later) for snappy, upbeat dialogue and zero distinction between the main characters — each man (and one woman) are cool and casual, smart and suave whether facing life or death, decision or indecision, the entire cast acting as one big wisecracking Thing with no chemical bond to speak of. Only the news reporter looking for a story (an original role not in the novel) feels separate from the bunch. Classic sci-fi purists will still find much to love in this rendition, reveling in its dated effects and languid pacing. After all, a young John Carpenter, decades before his remake, found it incredibly scary (at the time).

Carpenter’s vision of “The Thing” (1982) is wildly different than Hawks’, scaling down the dialogue even further while ramping up the gore. It follows “Who Goes There?” more faithfully; it feels more claustrophobic, it has (slightly) more defined characters. And The Thing itself is positively hideous.

To most moviegoers, there is only one Thing, and this is it: a gruesome, lurching mass of half-digested animal tissue that bursts out of bodies like worms feast on cadavers. It’s total gross-out cinema that’s all meat, fat and gristle. Kurt Russell plays MacReady, a boozed-up no-nonsense pilot that becomes our unlikely hero once everyone else stops making sense. Other known actors are in the cast, like legendary “diabeetus” spokesperson Wilford Brimley (Dr. Blair), but you don’t watch Carpenter’s “Thing” for its ensemble. You watch it for special effects wizard Rob Bottin and his sick parade of gelatin arms, wax bones, disembodied heads and innards of melted plastic and chewed gum.

It’s disgusting, completely over the top (and beyond), and overshadows any slow-burning tension the film may have had in its infancy. It’s also USDA-quality entertainment if you have the stomach for it.

I did not have the stomach for the 2011 prequel. Outside of a gender-swap for the lead character (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead with the intensity of a cardboard box), there’s nothing to report. Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., a Dutch filmmaker whose prior credentials include short films of no risk or consequence, it’s baffling that this prequel became a reality. Without improving on either of the past film’s shortcomings — no distinctive characters; not enough isolation to feel truly spooked — we’re left with a slick, hopelessly generic CGI-monster movie, all limp bravado and empty calories.

But are the flaws, different but present in every version, inherent in John W. Campbell’s original story from 1938?

“Who Goes There?” has a strong premise that’s burdened by faceless characters and clumsy writing. As a psychological thriller, it had the potential to astound: the greatest discovery in the history of man. But to open Pandora’s Box or not, and to debate this matter in cold, claustrophobic conditions; 12 angry men debating the scientific and sociological ramifications of thawing out a strange entity mummified in ice, the probable host of a long-dormant plague. An alien that can imitate perfectly and transmogrify itself and remain undetected. But that’s lost in tireless rants from characters defined only by their height and weight combinations, their actual names lost in the endless back and forths, human automations drifting in and out of scenes, all tidy speculation and no cutting remarks, no risks and no action until the final hour.

An editor must be ruthless, and a writer like Campbell must know that twentyfold; he was the longtime editor of “Astounding Science-Fiction” magazine. I’m surprised he approved his own adverb-heavy text:

“The huge blow-torch McReady had brought coughed solemnly. Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily. Then it laughed gurglingly, and thrust out a blue-white, three-foot tongue.

The Thing on the floor shrieked, flailed out blindly with tentacles that writhed and withered in the bubbling wrath of the blow-torch. It crawled and turned on the floor, it shrieked and hobbled madly, but always McReady held the blow-torch on the face.”

Even so, somewhere there’s a writer/director who can alchemize this lead into gold.