I went to see “The Thing” the other day, and was treated to perhaps the sharpest slice of satire on democratic capitalism I’d seen in years. It’s the tale of three vacuous charismatic twentysomethings who go to a movie. They line up in their chairs with Cokes in hand, and — well, see for yourself:
I couldn’t have shown it better: the world transforming itself into a magical place full of wonder and enchantment while these bubbleheaded morons suck back their Big Gulps and stare slack-jawed at a corporate logo in the sky, utterly oblivious to the world-changing events unfolding around them. I don’t think there could be a more scathing commentary packed into such a short span of seconds. The fact that it was most likely inadvertent1 only adds to the tingle; and the fact that no one else in the audience seemed to get it only sharpens the point.
Too bad the main feature didn’t live up to the short.
To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect from this Thingquel. The official reviews were pretty crappy — given my recent overdrive head-down push to get this damn novel done by the month’s end, I seriously considered skipping it entirely — but then again, Carpenter’s 1982 version was savaged by the critics upon its release, and is today recognised as a classic. Also, as most of you know, I have a certain emotional connection to the franchise. So I put the back end of Dumbspeech away for the afternoon, braced myself with a couple of pints, and headed into the Multiplex.
Minor spoilers follow. You have been warned.
To start with, it’s not as terrible as some folks are saying. There’s a moment or two of something approaching true pathos on the journey. The variation on the blood-test scene, while not as dramatic as in the original, makes sense. One scene near the end contains either a nice moment of deliberate ambiguity, or a memo from the producers to the effect that the production was going over budget and they’d have to scale back the CGI on that last bit (I’m talking about the earring scene, for those of you in the know). And speaking of CGI, I’m not on board with those who decried its use here; had Rob Bottin had access to that technology back when he was doing Carpenter’s film, you can be damn sure he would’ve gone to town with it. The ending of the movie does bolt quite nicely onto the beginning of the ’82 film; and at least I was never bored.
But the fact is, when I first saw The Thing back in 1982 I came away thinking that I had seen a classic. I didn’t care how many critics shat on it; I knew what I’d seen, and I thought it rocked, and in the three decades since my view has remained unshaken. This movie? No fucking way.
For one thing, there are just too many similarities between the two films for me to accept that this is truly a prequel and not just a remake. This goes beyond the fact that both films feature camps mysteriously well-equipped with flamethrowers. Too many plot elements have been cut-and-pasted from one to the other; the direction and cinematography of too many 2011 scenes seem to have dropped through a wormhole from 1982. In both movies, characters under suspicion are locked in the shed; in both, they escape by digging through the floor. Both movies feature scenes in which a group of increasingly-paranoid characters bicker and argue over what to do about the potentially-thinged cast members trapped outside in the storm, and in both cases the argument is cut short when said potential-thingers break into the main building through a window. The 2011 Thing has a scene in which parka’d survivors cluster in the dark around a pile of thingly remains, lit from behind by the lights of their snowcats and wondering how to tell human from imitation; even the framing of that shot was so spot-on that for a moment I actually wondered if they hadn’t just spliced in footage from the ’82 version as a cost-cutting measure.
Some of this may have been unavoidable. After all, there’s a logistical limit to how widely divergent scenarios can be when both involve the same shape-shifting alien infiltrating isolated Antarctic research stations. And remakes are not in and of themselves a bad thing; except in this case the director is on record as explicitly stating he didn’t want to do a remake because the original Carpenter movie was “perfect”. There’s no point in redoing something unless you bring a new perspective to the material. Eric Heisserer’s script gives us nothing that Carpenter didn’t do better.
There are other problems, deriving not from the use of CGI in principle so much as from the temptations that result when such technology is too easily invoked: the desire to show cool squick trumps basic storytelling logic. For example, we are shown early on that the Thing can fragment at a whim. An arm will drop off, sprout centipede legs, race across the floor and hump some poor bastard’s face like the facehugger from Alien. Pieces chopped in half will skitter autonomously across the wall, meet up again after work at Starbucks, and reintegrate without a second thought. Given that, we should never see a scene in which the protagonist finds refuge in a space that’s too small for the alien to follow her into; all the Thing has to do is split into smaller pieces. Except we do, and it doesn’t.
I’ve also spent the past thirty years assuming that the burned monstrosity MacReady found at the Norwegian camp had been killed in the process of transformation: an alien caught with its pants down and dispatched before it had a chance to zip back up. Now we find out that that wasn’t the case at all. The Thing morphed into some weird deformity with two upside-down, half-fused faces, a variety of spliced-together bug/human limbs, and a gait so awkward the damn thing could have been a poster child for spinal meningitis— and it just kinda leaves itself like that, spending the next ten minutes stalking red shirts through the halls. I mean, isn’t the whole point of the Thing that it blends in? And even if it did decide that the whole imitation riff had run its course and it was time to come out fighting, wouldn’t it choose some kick-ass predatory phenotype that was, you know, integrated? Why choose an ill-fitting hodgepodge of twisted body parts that wouldn’t be caught dead together outside some cheap carnival freak show?
Well, obviously, because it looks cool.
Leaving the theatre, I didn’t feel that I’d completely wasted my money — but only because I can write the ticket price off as a tax deduction. I cannot in honesty recommend this film to anyone without the same option. That said, though, I retain a certain fondness for van Heijningen Jr.’s vision; it may tank on its own merits, but it’s certainly rebooted interest in my own take on the story. io9 posted a glowing piece on “The Things”, calling me a “master of scifi mindfuckery”. Simon Pegg tweeted its praises. When the movie actually premiered, the twitterverse filled up with don’t-waste-your-time-on-the-remake-read-Peter-Watts’s-story-instead messages, a signal boosted by folks ranging from a World Federation Pro Wrestler to the front man for Anthrax. Last I heard it had even landed on the front page of IMDB, which presumably gave Clarkesworld’s hit count a nice boost.
So, yeah. On balance, I really liked that movie. Just not for any of the reasons that would make you actually go see it.
1At least, I assume it was inadvertent — although a part of me hopes that some self-aware realist working in the belly of the beast took an opportunity to shake his ball sack in the faces of the sheep he was helping to fleece, knowing they’d be too stupid to get the joke.