REVIEW: The Thing Spells Out Every Little Thing Yet Tells Us Nothing
As we all know by now, Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.'s The Thing is not a remake of John Carpenter's 1982 The Thing, which in turn wasn't really a remake of Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby's 1951 The Thing from Another World. So now we have two Things that are only tangentially related to the first Thing, although the thing about the third Thing is that it explains how the Thing of the second Thing demolished the Norwegian explorers who were dead by the time that Thing was even a thing. The Thing of the third Thing basically does the same thing we saw it do in the second Thing, so the third Thing probably isn't for you if the second Thing wasn't your thing.
Or maybe even if it was. The Thing -- Heijningen's Thing -- comes from a world where everything needs to be explained in meticulous, knowing detail. If Carpenter's movie opened with the mystery of an Antarctic camp filled with dead Norwegians, it's no longer good enough to take that as face value: We need to know what happened to them, and how, and Heijningen has taken it upon himself to explicate. The movie does a lot of talking, figuratively speaking, without really illuminating -- to the extent that illuminating matters at all in a work of horror or science fiction.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Kate, a bright paleontologist-in-training who's summoned to the Antarctic by poker-faced Norwegian scientist Dr. Sander Halvorson (played by Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen). Some explorers have found a spaceship that evidently crash-landed in the area's icy surface thousands of years ago. Nearby lay a frozen-solid beastie. Halvorson wants Kate to examine the creature, but he jumps the gun in extracting a tissue sample from it. You can probably guess why that's a bad idea.
Because the Thing isn't really dead, and once a human -- or sled dog -- is infected by it (though exactly how that infection occurs isn't made clear), it begins replicating and mimicking that creature's cells. So before you know it, that Norwegian Antarctic explorer sitting next to you might have a pinkish chicken carcass -- complete with mini shark's teeth and giant insect pincers -- jumping out of his chest. That means you can't tell who's human and who's alien, so mistrust and paranoia breed faster than salmonella. Before long Kate, the Norwegian members of this once august expedition, and two Americans who have gotten entangled in the mess (played by Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) are eyeing one another suspiciously and examining one another's dental work.
You read that right. Heijningen and screenwriter Eric Heisserer -- using, as the earlier Things did, John W. Campbell's short story "Who Goes There" as a springboard -- are so desperate for their own catchy sci-fi gimmick that they even have characters looking in one another's mouths for clues. (The Thing, it appears, can't replicate fillings.)
Beyond that, the paranoia in The Thing is the garden-variety kind, with people skulking about and casting accusing "Colonel Mustard in the dining room with a candlestick" glances. The special effects are hokey and overcooked: There are some body-horror gross-outs if you're into that sort of thing, but mostly what you get are a bunch of too-obvious leftovers from the Alien stockroom, including a selection of moist innards, slimy tendons, dripping fangs and the like. The first half-hour or so of The Thing -- before the Thing starts wreaking havoc -- is the best: In that section Heijningen, showing how the explorers and scientists find a kind of slapdash camaraderie in their snowy isolation, comes closest to capturing the mood of cozy claustrophobia that's the hallmark of The Thing from Another World, a horror film that's more suggestive than overt.
But we can't expect this Thing to be anything like that Thing. Heijningen is clever about knitting certain specifics of Carpenter's film into the fabric of his: The movie's final shot is a clear echo of the beginning of Carpenter's. But Heijningen is so fixated on spelling out the answers that he forgets that what's left unsaid is usually what scares us the most. Today's sci-fi leaves so little to the imagination, and The Thing comes and goes without making any kind of impression -- it begins vaporizing as soon as the credits start rolling. Virginia Woolf said, "Nothing is simply one thing. But sometimes a thing is nothing at all."