Thing, The: John Carpenter’s Prequel to his 1982 Cult Picture

A prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 cult picture “The Thing” has arrived—almost thirty years after the fact, and it is also titled “The Thing.” This sounds like a questionable idea—and it is–but the new film has some merits; it’s not trashy or utterly dismissible, just not a good one.

The “Thing,” directed by newcomer Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., who plays off of Carpenter’s visual scheme to imitative effect, conjures up that whole era of 1980s science-fiction/horror movies, much as the remake of “Fright Night” recently attempted.

Those films functioned to a great degree as black comedies, and this “Thing” is no exception to the rule.  “The Thing” is quite humorous, in addition to being intermittently creepy and at times downright disgusting.

The main problem of “Thing” is not so much in the characterization as in the narrative, which suffers from lack of coherence and continuity.  The first reel is a decent buildup with the requisite tension, but then scenes appear out of nowhere, and the last reel and its resolution have little to do with the text that precedes it.

The geographical setting and thematic premise are familiar from the other film versions. Antarctica is revealed to be a place of stark, awesome beauty, serving as home to an isolated outpost known as Thule Station, where a crew of international scientists makes a remarkable discovery.

Eric Heisserer and Ronald D. Moore have come up with a sharply uneven screenplay, which shows some respect for the source material, and also adds a twist by putting a woman center stage.

The tale begins with Norwegian scientists tracking a mysterious signal in Antarctica while sharing a very dirty joke among themselves. Naturally, their punishment is imminent: no sooner is the punch line let loose than their vehicle is swallowed by a giant crevice that deep within houses a massive alien spaceship.

A surviving alien, presumably dead but preserved in ice, is also discovered, inspiring one of the Norwegians to exalt in his mother tongue (subtitled in English), “We found a fucking alien!”

Adventurous Columbia University paleontologist, Dr. Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), is enlisted to free the body from its encasement and then give it a full physical exam.  We learn that Kate has left behind the safety of her sterile laboratory in order to travel to this desolate region for a risky expedition.

But the alien, first glimpsed as just a bit of claw under the ice, is awakened before Kate can really get started. Worse yet, it is immediately off on a gruesome killing crusade.

For those who remember the Carpenter feature, which was loosely based on the 1951 Howard Hawks and Chrisian Nyby 1951 classic, titled “The Thing from Another Planet”  (see below), this alien is a shape-shifter.  The pattern is as follows: The alient attacks the prey, completely absorbs it, and then perfectly imitates its appearance–until it’s time to kill again, when the shifty one again reveals itself as monster.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, this visitor to earth must have at least some respect for the human form. But the scientists soon discard any sense of wonder at their discovery.  They become consumed with survival and keeping their visitor from reaching, and perhaps destroying, civilization.

Under these conditions, familiar group dynamics begin to manifest themselves. The members become confused, disturned and paranoid, as a result of which they start to deeply distrust and mistrust one another, breaking into small factions and new coalitions.

There is no way of knowing for sure who among them is still human–and who is not.  Expectedly, power games come to rule the day, and the crisis essentially becomes every man–and woman–for himself on this remote research outpost, which a blinding storm has also descended upon.

In one of the film’s few clever scenes, Kate, having ascertained that the alien cannot replicate any inorganic material, examines each of her reluctant teammate’s teeth with a flashlight. No fillings, and you are automatically a suspect.

Horror movie veteran Winstead may not yet be in the league of Sigourney Weaver (think the “Alien” series), who was firm, tough, and commanding.  Nonetheless, Winstead brings some refreshing Ripley-esque toughness to this film. She winds up the last woman standing, the only other female on the team having been one of the first to succumb to the alien. (In this respect, the filmmakers obey some gender and genre rules while disobeying others).  The protagonists of Hawks 1951 and Carpenter 1982 films were, of course, males.

A scene of an alien autopsy is a balanced combination of gross and amusing. Inside the alien’s body, the scientists rather hilariously discover the body of one of their colleagues—still in the process of being digested.

The writers also try to bring some subtext. Sparks tend to fly when horror and sex meet, and this “Thing” is rife with sexual tension. Kate is a woman alone in a man’s world, every hunk on the outpost constantly checking her out. but none of them predisposed to listen to her common-sense proposals.

The creature meanwhile gradually becomes a fleshy CGI mélange of protruding phalluses and vaginal openings, a crawling and slithering sexual mess. Eventually, the monster gloriously sports two heads it has appropriated from team members.

The writers add a touch of political subtext by presenting tensions between the Norwegians and Americans, which always threatens to boil over.

Much of the dialogue is in Norwegian with subtitles, so the audience knows what the Norwegians are saying, while the Americans onscreen do not. When things get really bad, the authoritarian lead scientist (famous Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen) warns, “The Americans are the real enemy!”  Though it’s a good punch line, it also indicates the film’s major weakness

Too bad “The Thing” overstays its welcome by at least 15 minutes.  The director and his technical team seem to be awed by the special effects, which occupy a disproportionate amount of time vis-a-vis the story, which, as noted, is not particularly clever (to say the least).   A shorter version would have made the film better and tighter.

Please watch the Howard Hawks’ 1951 film, “The Thing from Another Planet,” which is short (only 87 minutes), in black-and-white, has no special effects (the alien is never fully seen and even the spaceship is only suggested) and yet far more effective as a sci-f-thriller than the new “Thing.”


Kate Lloyd – Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Sam Carter – Joel Edgerton

Sander Halversen – Ulrich Thomsen

Derek Jameson – Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje

Adam Goodman – Eric Christian Olsen


A Universal Pictures release.

Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.

Written by Eric Heisserer and Ronald D. Moore.

Produced by Marc Abraham and Eric Newman.

Cinematography, Michel Abramowicz.

Editing, Jono Griffith and Julian Clarke.

Original Music, Marco Beltrami.

Running time: 102 minutes.