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Terminal Ennui

by Ann Morrow on October 19, 2011

The Thing
Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen

Winstead in The Thing.

The thing about The Thing is its sustained element of surprise. In John Carpenter’s 1982 cult classic, a palpable sense of dread begins in the very first scenes, when an apparently gone-mad Norwegian pilot runs amok in an American research base in Antarctica. Based on the timeless Lovecraftian novella, “Who Goes There?” this sci-fi gross-out balanced groundbreaking material effects (the iconic title visual was created with a cardboard box, a flashlight and some smoke) with the suspense of an Agatha Christie-style plot in which the station staff were infected one by one until . . . the iconic nihilism of the ending. Among the film’s enduring pleasures, aside from the creepy creature effects, is how the cast managed to create strong characterizations in the mere minutes between eruptions of paranoia and carnage. Most indelible were Kurt Russell as an alcoholic helicopter pilot, and to a lesser degree, a then-unknown Keith David as the other macho guy.

But even if you haven’t seen Carpenter’s The Thing, you may not enjoy the new The Thing. As adapted by first-time feature director Matthijs van Heijningen, the isolated research station and its Norwegian inhabitants succumb to an oozy, moody ennui apparently leaked from bleak Nordic thrillers such as Let The Right One In and Insomnia even before the alien infects its first host. It’s a poor substitute for good ol’ fear and distrust. And as for the parasitic monster from another planet, let’s just say that the film’s CGI isn’t an improvement over original effects guru Stan Winston’s imagination.

Heijingen’s biggest change comes from the inclusion of a woman in the lead. After finding a frozen alien life form, Dr. Halvorsen (the excellent Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen, wasted in a poorly defined role) sends for a paleontologist, and gets doctoral student Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Kate mostly stands around gazing cautiously at the others, and doesn’t even suggest posting a guard in the examining room where the alien’s ice block melts while everyone else is celebrating their discovery. Not that it matters, since the fractured chronology—the spaceship is discovered before the staff realizes what’s hit them—dissipates the tension instead of increasing it. It does, however, lead to a clever ending, but you may already know what it is, since unlike the creature, the film’s publicity couldn’t keep its mouth shut until the audience was sucked in.