It began in 1938 with a John W. Campbell novella entitled "Who Goes There?" In 1951 that story was adapted by Howard Hawks into a movie called The Thing from Another World. In 1982 John Carpenter and Bill Lancaster delivered a rendition called, simply enough, The Thing. That film died a miserable death at the box office (mostly because of a different sort of alien film, one called E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) and the critics were none too kind to the flick either.
But the early '80s were the golden era of the video cassette (in addition to heavy rotation play on HBO), and so John Carpenter's The Thing has gone on to become one of the most widely-adored horror films of the past fifty years. Often just dismissed as a "cult classic," The Thing has still been mainstream enough to inspire action figures, comic books, video games, and now (of course) a prequel. And don't let the new movie's title fool you: just because it's called The Thing, don't mistake this for a remake.
As any hardcore horror fan knows, what happened "before" The Thing was this: a group of Norwegian scientists at a distant Antarctic base discovered a massive spacecraft and a frozen alien, which somehow thawed out, killed everyone, and showed up at a nearby American base as a normal-looking dog. That's precisely where Carpenter's film begins. Bill Lancaster's clever screenplay from 1982 offers us a vague but logical "what if?" scenario regarding the creature's origins and its nefarious activities at that Norwegian outpost -- and all of the blanks that your mind filled in 25 years ago are now fleshed out, made literal, and (unfortunately) very basic, obvious, and perfunctory.
Saddled with a screenplay that wavers between lazy, generic, and plain old silly, The New Thing borrows big chunks from Jurassic Park, Alien, and (obviously) The Thing, but brings absolutely nothing new to the table. Judged purely on its own, and divorced entirely from any relationship to Carpenter's classic flick, this is a very pedestrian monster movie that's laden with loud, fake scares; wide-eyed but uninteresting characters; a potentially creepy setting that goes unused; and an over-commitment to CG special effects that, frankly, have no place in a monster movie -- let alone a monster movie inspired by some of the finest practical effects ever committed to film. (In other words, the 1982 version stars Rob Bottin as amazing monster maker; the 2011 version stars ... a whole lot of gooey, gory, largely ineffective computer-generated splatter.)
The digital gore is far from the only issue. First-time feature director Matthjis van Heijningen Jr. pays virtually no attention to the isolation, suspense, claustrophobia, and paranoia that ran rampant through the 1982 film, and the result is a movie in which a bunch of interchangeable bearded men wander down hallways holding flashlights. Then we get a fake scare, then a real scare, then a geyser of digital gore, and then we're on to the next slow-witted Norwegian. In an effort to add a little color to the cast, we get Mary Elizabeth Winstead (adorable, talented, woefully miscast) as a super-genius paleontologist and Joel Edgerton as an American dreamy hero type, but the script has no interest in fleshing the characters out. The Thing (2011) is little more than a glorified slasher flick that can't be bothered with questions like "who among us is a monster in disguise?"
The screenplay by Eric Heisserer (he did Final Destination 5, as well as the Nightmare on Elm Street remake) is a mash-up of dull dialogue, random banter, and tedious wheel-spinning. Although there are a few clever references to the earlier films, the new Thing is little more than a bunch of idiots wandering down hallways and a curiously aggressive alien who keeps attacking everyone in its native form. (The "thing" I know is a bit more subtle than that.) The cinematography is dreary and uninspired; the editing is clunky and confused; the third act gets progressively more silly as the minutes tick by. Compared to Carpenter's film, this is not a very good movie. Compared to nothing and judged solely on its own merits ... this is not a very good movie. Kudos to the producers for trying to deliver a legitimate "pre-story" that fits snugly inside of a widely-adored horror classic -- but it seems they chose the safest, simplest, and most obvious choices every time out.
Ultimately, the new Thing takes a creepy little backstory from a classic horror film, expands it to feature length in drab and methodical fashion, and offers nothing to indicate that it deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as its two cinematic predecessors. It makes sense that someone at Universal would finally get off their ass and try to do another version of The Thing; one only wishes it hadn't been done in such an obvious, unimaginative, and lazy fashion.