You can tell a lot about Mathijs van Heijningen’s The Thing from its rough handling of the materials supplied by its predecessor, using these commonalities both to identify the bond between the two and signal how much further it’s willing to push things. Case in point is the Alaskan Malamute that set off the action in Carpenter’s version, acting as the crux for most of that film’s early suspense. Here it’s introduced for a glimpse of recognition, then splattered into a smear of blood, the first salvo in a grisly, generally effective horror assault.
Positioned as a prequel, the film follows a team of scientists at an Antarctic dig site, where they’ve discovered a hundred-thousand-year-old spacecraft wedged below the earth’s surface. There’s also an ice-encased alien, whose strange biological makeup demands the expertise of sexy paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The positioning of this dryly competent woman as the film’s protagonist, compared to the roguish silliness of Kurt Russell’s R.J. MacReady, acts as yet another sign that we’re verging into full-on horror territory.
Rather than attempt to recreate the precarious mix of psychological tension and gore struck by Carpenter’s version, The Thing favors the latter, maintaining a sideline interest in suspense but no real devotion to prolonging it. The resulting film establishes potentially anxious scenarios and then explodes them, compulsively returning to gruesome money shots of the alien at work, created through a mix of CGI and makeup. This means that, despite its repeated attempts to connect with picayune details from its predecessor, The Thing feels like a much different movie, one whose monstrousness is scary and impressive but eventually exhausting.
Slaking the blood lust of this kind of Grand Guignol procession requires a large cast, and the ensemble here is mostly padded out with anonymous Norwegians acting as disposable creature fodder, given names and jobs but not much else. This is one area where the film feels markedly inferior. The welter of characters means that nearly every scene is jittery and busy, which prevents the proceedings from becoming intimate or constrained enough to really be effective.
The mess of faces also makes it impossible to figure out who may have been infected by the revivified alien, eliminating one of the primary mental pleasures of Carpenter’s version. Despite setting up scenarios that might allow some heavy thinking, were they given time to breathe, The Thing instead it makes its bones on loud shocks and body-shredding transformations. It’s lowest-common-denominator stuff to be sure, but the effects, if a little clunky at times, are routinely disgusting, contributing to an atmosphere of stifling chamber horror on this isolated Antarctic base.
A lot of the credit here remains with John W. Campbell’s source story (“Who Goes There?”), which has now sustained itself over three very different adaptations. The desolate Antarctic location is such a perfect trap setting, the shape-shifting alien interloper such a creepy and allegorically portable villain, that the structure seems almost impossible to screw up. But this version definitely begins to wear down in its third act, with a perpetually flaming compound that never seems to burn down, the action devolving into a dreary carousel of slaughter. An offsite venture to the alien spaceship further strains things, but for the most part The Thing remains an efficient, if entirely graceless, piece of horror filmmaking.