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Dissecting the Thing: The Premake’s Road to John Carpenter’s Vision

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First off, consider me to be a full-fledged obsessive fan of John Carpenter’s The Thing. It was one of the formative films of my youth and remains to this day one of my all time favorite movies…period. It’s an expert examination of escalating paranoia and pressure-cooker suspense with a stellar cast, nimble and effective screenwriting, dread-soaked photography and score, and expert finely-tuned direction that never missteps once. All of this, and one of the most kick-ass “downer” endings that earns its hard-won finality from a film whose tone signals death and resigned self-sacrifice from the very get-go.

I am one of those devotees who loves to debate when the creature assimilated certain characters and who exactly was responsible for the sabotage of the blood supply. When was Blair assimilated? In the shack, or even before that point? Is Childs still himself at the end of the picture, or is he some “thing” else? Shit if I know, but I’ll continue to theorize until my last days, I promise you.

It’s a film that upon every viewing has me looking down Carpenter’s darkened hallways and around every shadow with never-ending nervous anticipation. The few “jump out of your seat” moments might have worn off some over time, but the film’s inherent unsettling nature has only been enhanced by the decades since its release. It’s truly a masterpiece. No genre qualifier needed. End of fuckin’ story.

Dissecting the Thing: The Premake's Road to John Carpenter's Vision

When word came of a “prequel” being developed by Universal Pictures, I was ambivalent but intrigued. I was relieved that the option of a full-blown (and completely unnecessary) remake seemed off the table. I was also encouraged by the announcement that the production was interested instead in tying the new effort to Carpenter’s classic by way of exploring the unseen incidents at the Norwegian Camp that threaded the fabric of the 1982 film.

Still, it has been my experience that prequels are almost always a sketchy and creatively bankrupt business to be in. First off, your ending tends to be written in stone from the get go, since the events in your new film must inevitably lead into pre-established storylines. Also, you run the risk of explaining events that were better left shrouded in mystery in the first place. One need only look at the recent travails of the Star Wars series to see how filling in the gaps can backfire horribly in more ways than one.

However, despite my misgivings about the prequel concept in general, I was encouraged by the early development of the new Thing. Strike Entertainment was on board to produce, and their efforts on the Dawn of the Dead re-do from 2004 remain one of the high-water marks for the remake trend in general from the last several years. Also numerous comments from the film’s screenwriter and director assured me that their mutual respect for Carpenter’s film would guide their efforts in putting together a film that tied into multiple visual elements from his film, while still revealing interesting twists and surprises along the way.

The Thing (as it was eventually and confusingly titled) was originally slated to open in the spring of 2011, but was suddenly pulled from the schedule without official explanation. Nary a word about the film’s fate was heard for many months. I heard vague rumors of additional shooting, but since nearly every film has reshoots or additional scenes done after principal photography these days, I was hardly alarmed.

Then in late summer, the trailers, still images, and full-on ad campaign assault began to ramp up, and from what I could see, the movie certainly had captured the look and feel of the ’82 film and stood a good chance of being exactly the respectful and entertaining film it was intended to be by its makers.

I avoided as many of the early reviews as possible and at long last, took in a screening at noon on Friday, October 14th … opening day.

I walked out two hours later. I felt and still feel confused and somewhat baffled by what I saw.

For a film that gets so many little details right, it feels curiously disjointed, and the final third of the film feels completely disconnected from the rest of the movie. For the most part, I was intrigued and impressed by the film’s technical quality and moody atmosphere. I really felt like we were being given witness to the events that so ultimately doomed the American Research Station many miles from the Norwegian camp. Everything from the set design of the camp (which recreates the camp seen in Carpenter’s film to a perfectionist’s degree, albeit in much better condition), to the timing of certain crucial events and the new characters, many of whom would have felt right at home at the American Research station.

And yet, the new movie seems to have suffered a fate worse than death. As the minutes ticked by, The Thing ’11 began to morph and reshape itself into a standard action/sci-fi programmer and suddenly the final third of the picture descends into routine creature feature showdown territory that became old hat in the 1990s. These scenes are maddeningly routine and predictable and completely at odds with the tone established in the first two-thirds of the picture.

For all the intended aspirations and claims of fidelity and integrity by the filmmakers, the climactic scenes end up generating so many needless logistical errors and Earth-sized continuity issues with the 1982 film, it ultimately negates most of what comes before it. And judging from several key clues present in the version in theatres right now, I would find it nigh impossible to believe that this film didn’t go through significant alterations in post-production. This THING has the stink of compromise all over its final act, and it can even be sniffed out in scenes earlier than that.

I was not involved in this film’s production, though I do know several people who worked on it in various capacities. From everything I heard coming out of the film’s shoot in Toronto in 2010, there was little reason to doubt that the end result would least be a coherent and worthwhile film in most respects with a careful balance of practical and computer generated effects that would allow this film to stand side by side with its venerated predecessor. First-time feature director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. clearly has a way with atmosphere and pacing, and was an excellent choice IMHO to helm this tale. Writer Eric Heisserer loads his script with countless nods and links to Carpenter’s film that greatly enhance the action, even if several scenes can’t help but cover previously explored territory. Producers Marc Abraham and Eric Newman of Strike Entertainment clearly formed a production that had its eye on the ball as far as its production value and steadfast adherence to the previous Thing‘s style and ominous tone.

The cast, headed by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton, was eclectic enough and evoked the previous stellar cast without resorting to imitation. I was initially concerned at the idea of bringing in token Americans to the Norwegian base, but the film handles this aspect well, and I was able to believe in their presence there without any real issues. The film’s other technical credits are all first rate, with special mention to creature designers Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis and their team at Amalgamated Dynamics, who admirably step in the shoes of previous THING creator Rob Bottin and deliver elegantly twisted and horrific extensions of his influential practical creations. Obviously CGI enhancement comes into play here, but until that problematic final act, the blend is actually very successful for the most part.

So there are a lot of positives to be found here, and that’s probably why I find it somewhat heartbreaking to see so many talented and obviously right-headed creativity flushed down the toilet by some clearly boneheaded and poorly thought out revisions that end up costing the film its narrative structure and tone.

Dissecting the Thing: The Premake's Road to John Carpenter's Vision

To illuminate the problem … consider this. In the 1982 film, the sequence of events concerning the Norwegian camp are as follows. A dog shows up at an American Research facility in Antarctica while being pursued by two men in a helicopter who are desperately trying to kill it. The two men end up dead, and an investigation reveals them to be from a Norwegian facility some distance away. Two of the Americans take a helicopter to the Norwegian base, only to discover it a smoking wreck, and partially frozen over. There are signs of murderous chaos everywhere. A fire axe imbedded in a door, a frozen corpse of man who apparently slit his own throat for reasons unknown, and various equipment and papers scattered about the place. Further discoveries involve a huge block of ice that appears to have either partially melted or had some object of considerable size removed from it, and the hastily burned remains of some “thing” than appears to be a man but ends up being something much much more.

Upon returning to the American facility, several videotapes and documents taken from the Norwegian base are reviewed that reveals that the scientists and researchers there had been studying strange signals from an area not far from their camp. Videos also show multiple members of the team out on expedition on a huge flat of ice that they videotape being loaded up with explosives and detonated in a massive blast.

Members of the American team determine the location of this event and venture out discovering a huge open crater with the scarred remains of a what appears to be an alien spacecraft. Not far from the crater is a rectangular abscess in the snow that clearly indicates the source of the previously discovered block of ice.

As far as the Norwegian story threads present in the original Carpenter film, that’s pretty much the extent of what information we are given about the incidents and events out there that happened before the 1982 film began. How did the Norwegians come across The Thing? How did it escape the block of ice? What decisions led them to use explosives to remove the ice from the spaceship, and did they ever venture inside? These mysteries were the pivotal building blocks that the 2011 film used to construct its plot and character dynamics, and it was honestly a blast to see such amazing detail given to even the smallest visual touches from John Carpenter’s classic. We now know how that axe ended up stuck in that door, and why the manlike creature found burned outside in the snow looked the way he (or it) did. These are only two of many examples of such attention to detail.

It is this clear and apparent detail work that helps to show the 2011 film’s final 30 minutes for the poorly conceived and ill-thought out patch job that they are. The climax of the prequel takes place onboard the spaceship that the Norwegians uncover in the ice. Which would be fine, except for two rather large problems. Number one is that the spaceship is never uncovered from the ice at any point. Portions of it are revealed by the end of the picture, but it is never even close to being in the open-air state that the Americans find it in the 1982 film. The second and most glaring error present here though clearly illustrates, for me, a film that has been carelessly revised without thought to basic storytelling logic or cohesion. Underneath all that snow and ice that shouldn’t be there, is a spaceship that is in pristine shape and apparently still in working order. At no point in the film do the Norwegians, American visitors, or any combination thereof detonate any explosives or videotape themselves doing anything of the sort. For a film that seems borderline obsessed with tying every piece of visual bric-a-brac to a previous motion picture, it seems more than odd that it would forget to include and acknowledge one of the most important events established in the Thing of 1982.

I could easily just write that off as bad filmmaking, but I can’t. Something happened here, and I’m very curious as to what it was. I cannot believe that the creative team that set out to make a film that could be honorably and fairly compared to a modern masterpiece of horror and science fiction, would succeed in so many ways only to completely botch and derail their efforts by forgetting about the circumstances surrounding the damn spaceship!

Not to mention the fact that once the action hits the spaceship, the movie turns into a standard stalk n’ scare that plays out like a slightly more serious take on the giant bug fight from the end of Men in Black. As for the film’s previously handled balance of practical and CGI creature work … all of that goes out the proverbial window at the end, with a super-sized Thing creature that seemed to carted in from a completely different movie altogether. Not to mention the fact that the animation of the creature is only partially effective and not of a piece with the creature work seen in the rest of the film. The Thing‘s final appearance in this movie is why people rant so passionately against CGI in films these days. The final “thing” exists in its own space and for no other reason than to show off the skills of its animators. It is out in the open for everyone to see…no mystery, and no intrigue. Which is not something I felt I could say about the vast majority of the monster effects seen before the climax.

Then there’s the matter of Edgerton’s and Winstead’s character resolutions. Logic would dictate that neither one gets out of this picture alive, since obviously neither character appear in the Carpenter film. Plus, any miraculous escape would surely lead to them getting word out about what was going on, which undoubtedly would have gotten to the American camp in pretty short order, radio problems or not. Since the 1982 film establishes only two survivors from the Norwegian camp (who don’t last long anyway and are clearly Norwegian), we know that the fates of these two Americans are not bound to be happy ones. I was intrigued by how would they meet their ends, but sadly the movie quickly offs Edgerton with some rather dubious business involving an earring, and then cuts to the end credits after a few seconds of Winstead sitting in a working snow cat, pondering her next move. What next move? There’s some mention of a nearby Russian encampment, but if Winstead makes it there, doesn’t it stand to reason she’d be up and about quickly thereafter warning any nearby camps about the situation? Or does this poor girl just freeze to death there at the base of the spaceship? Wouldn’t the Americans find their frozen corpse later on, once they turned up to investigate the site? The site that is now still covered in ice…that mysteriously vanishes somehow. Did the people who came up with this “ending” even see Carpenter’s film? While I appreciated the final moments that play out over the credits (another sign of something amiss in the editing room) they come as too little too late to make a difference. The damage had been done.

Look, I could be wrong. Maybe this Thing is exactly the movie its makers intended for us to see. If that’s true, then blame should be appropriately afforded to the filmmakers for fumbling the ball so embarrassingly in the 4th quarter.

But I don’t think I am wrong. At some point, a decision was made to “fix” things. Whether there were true problems with the film or not, who is to say … but if this was the solution, then clearly it was made by those who did not understand the film they were trying to save. This movie’s ambition seemed to be from the onset to create an experience that was both its own unique creation and yet a close relation to a now-established classic of the genre

Maybe that was an approach doomed to keep the film from being fully successful in its own right, I don’t know. All I can say is that whatever was done to this movie to make it “work” now stands as yet another sad example of what can happen when good and earnest creative impulses and decisions are countermanded by traditional thinking and “yes men” mentalities.

I’m only a paying moviegoer here, but I would love to know what happened to The Thing, and why.

Or am I just being paranoid?

Michael Felsher

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5 Comments

  1. I would like to think they shot a scene where they blew up the ice around the space ship but had to cut it. A lot of films shoot scenes and have to leave them on the cutting room floor as we all know. Though they may not of. We really won’t know until official word is given. As to the first film where Macready and crew didn’t notice the snow mobiles from Norwegian camp, perhaps, if you look at the last wide shot of the area they use you see the giant hole in the ice (where they could have potentially blown it up in a scene they shot but did not use) is in the background and the cave/snow mobiles in the foreground below line of site. Macready and crew could have come from the complete opposite direction and not see the snow mobiles or cave.
    I was really not sure about the prequel at first, but the attention to detail for everything else they did, I’d like to think they had all their bases covered. I was overall pleased with the movie. The original still better mind you. Going back to the attention to detail, I think the fact that they proved Childs is human at the end of the original (the whole earing thing with Carter at the end of the prequel proving he was the Thing and at end of original Childs has his earing) shows that they were paying attention to detail. So I hope that they did shoot the scenes and didn’t use them just so they did pay attention to detail. If not then they did drop the ball. We will just have to wait til the commentary I guess.

  2. Unfortunately,even though those on the creative side of the production may have had their hearts in the right place, I doubt very much that the financiers cared for anything other than profit. It’ll be interesting to hear from the makers exactly what elements of the final film were suggestions from the studio.

  3. That describes my exact feelings to a tee. It’s 100% spot on. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought this. 2/3 of the movie is a great companion piece then…what the fuck?!?! It’s like they brought in someone who never once saw Carpenter’s flick to rewrite the final 1/3 of the movie. It’s dumbfounding, confusing, and ridiculous. I just..I just..I just don’t fucking get what happened. All the pieces were present to be an amazing movie.

  4. Nicely written! I agree with what you said, though I think this film, most of the time, tries to be good and true to the original… plus that picture of Macready made me LOL. I think they tried to style the ending like the original, and I liked it, I love Marry as an actress and thought she would die, so in the end it really worked for me. Even the final is the type that I like, reminds me of the first Alien. :)

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