Did you ever wonder just what went on before the opening scene of John Carpenter's 1982 remake of The Thing? Nor did I. It's really pretty well explained in the first act of that film and the ensuing acts demonstrate it. The dogs, the search through Norwegian station, the icebound spacecraft, the mayhem back at base. It's all there.
So, someone caught the now popular meme that the only two movies that have survived the remake treatment with honour are Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (twice!) and The Thing. Like a lot of people to whom that thought occured I believed I'd discovered it. It's a strong demonstration of exception proving rule. So what's to lose by taking that one up? Read on.
Ok, plot. Fade in to the great white Antarctic, sweeping strings whose tonality bears a striking resemblance to ... you get the idea. Three Norwegians are travelling o'er the ice in a truck with tracks. You know they're Norwegian because their unsubtitled dialogue sounds like the chef from the Muppets. But the guy in front is telling a joke to the driver and the guy in the back is getting worried about some readings on an instrument that we don't need identified. The truck suddenly falls through a thin stretch of ice and lodges between the walls of a huge fissure, through which we see a spacecraft the size of Greater Geelong. A light suddenly gleams from its centre.
Cut to a lab at McMurdo Station, home of the good guys, the people who speak 'mer'can. A young woman in Antarctic fatigues listens to a year-marking Men at Work track on her walkman headphones. Enter a clean, ash blonde, humourless and so immediately suspect older man who speaks in an accent which casts him far from the safety of 'mer'ca (ie he's the baddie and shall be hoist on his own petar in due course). He's one of the Norwegians and he's looking for a paleantologist. He's found one. Right! Everybody in the chopper!
Back at the Norwegian camp they find a creature, dig it up and suffer the consequences finding out along the way that it can replicate any living thing it comes across. This offers an opportunity for this film to replicate the earlier version's powerful blood test scene but wait, there's something clever they're doing with it. But it isn't really, it's just a way of acknowledging the source material and claiming a smidge of originality to keep the meme about remake-able films hale and hearty. End of original stamp. Everything else you see on screen in this outing was done in Carpenter's version. The SFX are superior but expectably so that they just run by. Oh that's happening. Oh that's happening. Right. There's a famous moment in the 1982 version where a character witnesses something bizarre and speaks for the audience when he intones: "you gotta be fucking kidding me!" No chance of that here.
There are two aspects of Carpenter's version that are notably absent here: he honed in on one theme, trust, and steered through it with an unflinching hand, knowing its potential to create situations of tension and horror; Carpenter was working with his first sizeable budget but still thought like an indy director, allowing for nothing that didn't serve to squeeze the narrative to claustrophobic tightness until the climax which blazed gigantically by comparison. This prequel, already hampered by its audience's guaranteed awareness of the groundbreaking earlier version, makes the mistake of both trying to extend the '82 one backwards as well as provide something new. It was doomed to fail on both accounts and does. Worse, it provides none of the suspense of the earlier film, keeping its unmanageably large cast muddling the waters until in desperation it has to remove them just to clear the stage for the great drama hiding at its centre. Trouble is when that happens there's nothing left but routine. The final scene of Carpenter's film is funny, unsettling and despairing all at once, an intimate and inesacpable truth delivered as a kind of joke. The ending of this one has already been told in the beginning of that one. I know that's the idea but I also know that when it happens it just ... happens.
I hate claiming expertise in what movies should be rather than what they present themselves to be but I can't help but feel that if anything it might have benefited from the weary found footage approach which can effectively withhold information until its potential matures. Not here.
The Thing's hold on the title of repeatable films (owner of said title since the 2000's remake of Bodysnatchers dropped the pod) has loosened. Not forever perhaps but the only reason that Carpenter's is on a par with the Hawks/Nyby original is the further originality he poured into it. That's just not present here.
Oh (this time for real) and another thing! There's a great fact about the '82 version: finally having enough money to hire a great composer for the score he got Ennio Morricone on board who delivered exactly the kind of music Carpenter himself might have written for the movie. Morricone had been a fan of Carpenter's movie music for years (understandably, it's brilliant). The score to the 2011 film is like none of that ever happened. Someone picked it off a shelf at Woolies and gave it to an orchestra. It sounds like there's an old school action movie happening in the next soundstage. New approach? Nope, same damn Thing!