You know they’re making Bladerunner 2 right? Can you hear that sound? It’s a million cinephiles slapping their heads in frustration at the stupidity of it. If there is a glimmer of hope with making a sequel to that seminal sci-fi classic it’s that the director Denis Villeneuve (who’s filmography is rather great) said he’s only directing it because it is such a scary proposition. The very fact that it is a sequel to a classic is a daunting, terrifying proposition and that what has drawn him to it. With his talent there is a possibility that it might turn out okay, maybe. If we’re lucky.
A similar fear must have gone through Matthijs Van Heijningen’s head when he signed up to direct this prequel to John Carpenter’s undisputed classic. How could you top that? What could you bring which would be new and interesting? How could you use modern filmmaking techniques to improve on what was already perfect?
The answer to those three questions are:
You couldn’t. Very little. You couldn’t.
I saw this update on opening day in the West End and went with an open mind and tried to enjoy it on its own merits. And in a limited way that’s exactly what happened: I thought it was okay, nothing great but not the bastardisation of Carpenter’s original that it could have been and a perfectly serviceable bit of horror. When I watched it again for this review I thought I’d be able to do the same again, watch it objectively and judge it in and of itself. But I couldn’t do it. Maybe it’s the passage of time, or maybe it was just initial very low expectations but when I watched it this time I could feel the anger building up inside me. I’m actually not against a remake or prequel or whatever of The Thing, what I am against it a banal and lifeless bit of filmmaking, so I’m not going to say that the 2011 version of The Thing is okay or passable. I’m going to rip it a new one.
I’ll give them a break though, at least they tried to get some things right. It was a really good idea to keep away from the 1982 version by making a prequel: can you imagine trying to recast Kurt Russell for one? Of course like all prequels it runs head long into the problem of the audience knowing where things are heading so a lot of the tension disappears, not that there’s much anyway but I’ll get back to that. Within this framework though there are lots of nice nods to Carpenter’s film with the slab of ice in the cellar and the axe in the door having their origins. And then the ending literally leads up to the very moment the 1982 film begins which is nice and neat. Also the serious tone with professionals working together under difficult circumstances is kept and it is obvious that the cast are taking the material seriously and not just hamming it up in any old b-movie. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a good alternative to the masculine leading man characteristics Russell brought to the role. Her sex is never mentioned even though she (and one other woman) is surrounded by men. Winstead plays it low key and intelligently and is quite believable as a scientist with her brain working overtime to find solutions to the problems at hand. I also love that we get to see inside the crashed spaceship which has some wacky vents and crawl spaces although I have no idea what that computery cube thing in the middle of it is meant to be. The stuff with the fillings is okay I suppose. Erm….. I think that’s your lot.
So the 1982 version is not just fondly remembered for its incredible effects work but they still hold up today as a benchmark of what can be done with latex, animatronics and a tank full of fake blood. It doesn’t take much research to see that when the prequel was conceived they tried to use as many practical effects as possible. You can see on the short making-of alone lots of animatronic creatures waddling about and being all Thingy. Even then though they wanted to combine the discipline of practical effects with computer advancements which is a jolly good idea. Why not get the best of both worlds? However, somewhere along the way something must have gone terribly wrong because it seems that the effects weigh far too much in cgi’s favour and not in a good way.
I should be clear here that I have worked for Image Engine who did the effects and they are a fine bunch and have done a good job here. It’s more that there seems to have been some conceptual problems that undermine the vfx. If you think about The Thing you think of weird limbs and alien body parts springing out from everywhere and that is all present and correct here. However there is also a shit load of blood and goo that is just missing here. When someone splits open or scuttles across the screen you can see lots of veins and innards but where is the blood? Without it all the monsters look like pale purple lollipops. I know The Thing is meant to be alien but these Things look too alien, like they were never human in the first place. The guy who splits open in the helicopter has all manner of bits and bobs popping all over the place but without the red stuff it just doesn’t look real. There is an attempt to make the monsters look wet and shiny but often it is too shiny like the spec has been pushed too far up and doesn’t match the lighting in the rest of the shot. Also, stretching skin is a really tricky thing to do on a computer, it frequently looks like a weird warping effect and not like skin at all. I hope I haven’t offended anyone I know, if so I apologise, but I don’t think it’s your fault at all. Well, maybe this guy:
Rob Bottin’s effects had a tactileness to them which obviously can’t be recreated with cgi but they also added a weight to the monsters which doesn’t come across here either. For example, when the alien bursts out of the ice block early on it practically flies out as if it was light as a feather. Of course the most annoying thing about all this is that there were much more practical effects made for the film than were actually used as you can see on the showreel Amalgamated Dynamics released a couple of years after this movie’s release. There’s some really lovely work going on there and it all seems to have been actually shot (apart from that alien pilot chap who looks incredible) its just lost under a cg sheen.
If it was just the effects that were a problem then maybe it wouldn’t be so bad but John Carpenter’s The Thing was a movie where you might have come for the fx and gore but you stayed for the tension and paranoia. Carpenter was at his peak when he made the ’82 film. If you watch it now you cannot deny the mastery he has over cinema. Not just in the goo but how he handles a large group of purposefully thinly written characters and makes you care about them and fear them at the same time. He can shoot a bunch of men staring at each other in the dark and make it feel like the whole world is at stake. The film starts with a jolt as the Norwegian’s arrive shooting at the dog and after than things just get more and more tense. No one trusts anyone, even Russell who becomes the hero seems paranoid and separate early on, not wanting to deal with the nightmare head on. The blood testing scene is one of the most nail bitingly tense moments in cinema history. Even the nihilistic ending is riveting and that’s just two blokes sitting round a fire sharing a drink. There’s none of that here.
I believe that Heijningen had the best intentions in the world but a man who has never directed a feature film before and comes from a commercials background just is not up to the challenge of such out and out DRAMA. Not just with the experience of directing actors (although there are some very odd reactions by some to the events unfolding) but also the muse-en-scene just isn’t as tight as it needs to be, and might well have been under a more experienced director. There are numerous scenes of guys running down corridors with flame throwers and shouting at each other but there’s no life to them, the stakes aren’t there for us to give a shit. It doesn’t help that a lot of the actors look identical: there are way too many white men with light brown hair and beards. I didn’t have a clue who was who half the time. A couple of the actors disappear with no explanation and it’s telling that their deaths are on the deleted scenes. It seems no one cared enough for these guys (or the audience) to show what happened to them. There are big stretches of the film where everyone seems to be going through the motions of making a horror movie but without the focus on creating an atmosphere to scare anyone. Things just happen.
In Carpenter’s film there isn’t a moment which doesn’t add to the overall mood and uneasiness, it’s as tight as a drum. The Thing 2011 biggest crime isn’t that the effects aren’t as good or that it even tried to tread on Carpenter’s masterpiece, it’s that it is as loose as I was at university, and that was pretty damn loose I can tell you…