Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Thing (Matthijs van Heijningen, 2011)

Peter Maloney in the far superior 1982 verison

Stinks on ice

Far as I'm concerned, Matthijs van Heijningen's The Thing isn't a proper prequel, isn't even a proper remake--rather, it's a lame, lunkheaded effort at tribute that misunderstands everything that made John Carpenter's 1982 remake of Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby's The Thing From Another World (1951) a genuine horror classic.

According to interviews the filmmakers were interested in the Norwegian side of the story, what happened before their camp was demolished. Turns out 'what happened' isn't half as persuasive, or as entertaining, as what happened in the American camp; apparently the Norwegians are taciturn loners who seemed perfectly comfortable living for months in the deep snow. They don't have the Norwegian equivalent of 'copter pilot McReady trash-talking a computer chess-program, or men rollerskating down hallways, doing what they can to kill time. The enclosed conditions would drive anyone nuts, and in fact someone points to assistant mechanic Palmer (David Clennon) in one corner listening to his Walkman as an example of someone who's already cracked. The incongruity between nobility of the men's duties and pettiness of their actual actions recalls Kubrick's introductory shots of the bomber crew in Dr. Strangelove (1964)--another nightmare comedy about the possible end of the world.

Actually, this picture's characters slavishly avoid resembling anyone in Carpenter's film--to this end we are given paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), on loan to the Norwegian station to help with their new discovery. Winstead in interviews insisted that her character not experience any sexual or romantic tensions, this being “inappropriate”--but when you think about it, what other kind of tension can there be in an Antarctic ice station when women are present? Does the most tangible tension onscreen have to be the need to be politically correct? Hawks himself didn't avoid the problem; if anything, he faced it head-on, made it not just part of a scene but its liveliest, spiciest element--his women are known to be strong, provocative characters who didn't wilt in the face of male machismo, but responded with their own brand of proto-feminism, formidable adversaries for strapping men.

Carpenter didn't use women in his film, ostensibly because there were no women in John Campbell Jr.'s original short story (Carpenter's is a more faithful adaptation than Hawks'). That said, a homoerotic subtext can easily be read into the men's interactions, particularly in the simmering rivalry between the Caucasian McReady (Kurt Russell) and the African-American chief mechanic, Childs (Keith David).

No such interaction--sexual, romantic, homoerotic--to be found in Heijningen's movie; if anything, all we remember are Winstead's Lloyd and (a distant second) Ulrich Thomsen's Dr. Halversen (mainly because he is not Winstead, and after her is onscreen longest). More vivid in memory are the creature's various incarnations, many of which are digitally enhanced, and the way said incarnations kill or assimilate human fodder (xenoeroticism, anyone?).

Concerning treatment of the creature--Heijningen insists that mostly practical effects were used, the shots lit and framed to conceal them; the CGI enhancements are plainly visible, however, especially when the creatures leap and run after their prey. Heijningen's creature tips its hand early, when it uses its arms like living grappling hooks; later, in the movie's most effective scene, the creature fuses into its human victim, grows legs, crawls away. Carpenter's different; there was a progression in the way his creature revealed itself, a kind of strip-tease where each shadow fell away exposing dog-thing shifting to man-thing shifting to worse. And (as with the best of Carpenter) there are images of unmatched horror, tinged with an eerie lyricism--meteorologist Bennings (Peter Maloney) sitting in snow comes to mind, his hand unnaturally distorted, his cry an unhuman bellow.

Some sequences go beyond poetry into a kind of nightmare slapstick--the moment, for example, when the head of geologist Vance Norris (Charles Hallahan) drips to the floor and scuttles away, and Palmer looks on with incredulity: “You gotta be fucking kidding!” The effects, impressive enough for their time, have abandoned the realm of relative realism and strayed into the surreal/corporeal horror of Bunuel, Cocteau, Cronenberg; we need to express our indignation at Carpenter's effrontery, and Palmer's words are the perfect expression of that outrage. The whole thing isn't just for the sake of being grotesque, either--it's a crucial moment that plants the idea in McReady's head, of how they can beat the monster.

By way of contrast the most imaginative response anyone has in Heijningen's picture to the creature is to shoot and run--no funny exit line, no existentially defiant response to a patently unbelievable sight ("you gotta be--"). The humans take the creature as seriously as it takes itself, and we resist believing accordingly; the picture's too literal, too straightforward for its own good.

Frankly, it's easy to distinguish between Heijningen and Carpenter; you only need distinguish between novice and seasoned master. Heijningen's finest moments are perhaps the scenes where people are in a room reacting to an attack; he eschews quick cuts to keep the action coherent, and his staging is fairly inventive. Carpenter often opts for even simpler setups--like when McReady applies his test on the rest of the crew, and has the unproven ones tied up, including the corpses (a reasonable precaution). The creature's reaction immediately reveals a flaw in McReady's scheme, and they have to scramble to save the situation (it's just the sort of fast-moving, quick-thinking action Hawks might have staged, if he had the money and technology available).

For its finale the action moves out of the base and into the alien ship--and here the picture practically buries a pickaxe into its boot. The idea of an alien loose in fairly familiar surrounding--an Antarctic base--is at the very core of the original's appeal; even when earlier films set the action in outer space, they were careful to give their hallways an industrial-factory look, complete with pipelines and leaking steam valves (Ridley Scott's Alien, 1979). An alien ship by its very nature is exotic, threatening; you're so primed to see every odd shape, every dark shadow as disguised menace that when the creature itself finally appears you don't feel any sense of escalation (the best disguise, of course, being a simple shadow). You need the contrast.

By story's end the prequel attaches itself smoothly and effortlessly into the beginning of Carpenter's film--and here you wonder if you aren't seeing the core problem of the whole production. It's so obsessed with dovetailing with the better film, with 'reverse-engineering' what happened at the Norwegian base, that the movie's plot is seriously distorted, a case of confused priorities; it wants to be consistent when its first duty is to be entertaining, and imaginative. At best this serves as a case study of why one film is better than its successor; at worse it's like a monstrous outgrowth of the creature itself, more eager to mimic and meld than it is to develop its own identity, be its own creature.

First published in Businessworld, 11.3.11

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