Just how many “Things” do we need? First there was the famous Christian Nyby (or was it Howard Hawks?) version, “The Thing from Another World,” in 1951. Then there was John Carpenter’s hugely underappreciated 1982 remake, which was much more faithful to the source material. And now John W. Campbell, Jr.’s story “Who Goes There?” is back for a third telling.
Technically Matthijs van Heijningen’s picture is s prequel to Carpenter’s, telling a tale that ends precisely where his begins. But its narrative arc is pretty much a repetition of his, except the characters have changed. A Norwegian Antarctic expedition finds an alien ship buried in the ice and calls upon renowned researcher Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) to quickly put together a team to investigate both it and the creature found similarly encased nearby. He enlists Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a paleontologist, who will become the heroic protagonist and audience surrogate, performing the same essential function that Kurt Russell did in Carpenter’s film, though she’s joined through the finale by Carter (Joel Edgerton, seen recently as the overage fighter in “Warrior”), one of the camp’s two American helicopter pilots (the other being Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).
The plot quickly kicks into drive as the creature is brought to camp still encased in ice, but suddenly breaks out after the Halvorson unwisely decides to drill through to its supposed corpse and extract a tissue sample. That apparently reinvigorates the beast, which proceeds to escape and do what it does: take over other living beings with its snake-like tentacles, absorb them and transform itself in a grisly process into their near-exact duplicates. So anyone—human or animal—might be not the original but an imitation that might itself explode into spider-like entities that can repeat the process.
As in Carpenter’s picture, that introduces the long stretch in which the characters struggle to determine which of them has been infected in order to prevent the creature from escaping into the wider world and, theoretically, taking over all mankind. The device used here—checking for fillings in everyone’s teeth, since the beast can’t replicate inanimate matter—is far less suspenseful than the one employed by Carpenter, of sticking a red-hot wire into a blood sample. And that disparity points to the overall weakness of the new film: it simply doesn’t generate the same level of edginess and unease. Whether you liked it or not (and many didn’t), the 1982 picture exhibited a cold, unnerving style and a clear directorial vision. Van Heijningen’s work, by contrast, feels anonymous, and but for Kate, one of only two women in the company, the characters are bland too, so much so that except for Edgerton, Thomsen, Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Eric Christian Olsen (as Halvorson’s fresh-faced assistant), you’ll probably have trouble telling them apart at all.
But the relatively ineffectuality of this new “Thing” isn’t merely the result of the unexciting acting and direction; it also reflects the ho-hum nature of the CGI creature effects. They’re certainly done well enough by contemporary standards, but all the shape-shifting and flailing tentacles have nowhere near the visceral punch that the three-decade old pre-digital ones in Carpenter’s film possessed. The 1982 transformation scenes were genuinely scary (indeed, some found them so repulsive that they hated the picture because of them). The ones here have nothing like the same impact. It’s not merely that we’ve seen them all before (and can catch similar stuff any night on the SyFy Channel). It’s that they really don’t blend with the live action going on around them; the result looks waxen and unreal, lacking the tactile authenticity of the gruesome makeup-and-model-based sequences in the earlier picture. Nor does it help that they’re all situated in the dark confines of the Norwegian camp fashioned by production designer Sean Haworth, art director Patrick Banister and set decorator Odetta Stoddard, which in Michel Abramowicz’s dim, color-parched cinematography makes them look murky and blurred. The brilliant light in which Carpenter chose to present those moments in his film made them all the more palpable—and therefore shocking.
The end result is a third-rate knockoff, lacking either the Cold War paranoia of the first version or the grim post-Vietnam and Watergate mentality of Carpenter’s visually blistering remake. This third “Thing” could lead you to rewrite an old Monopoly card to read: “You have won third prize in a beauty contest.” And as Alec Baldwin told his salesman troupe in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Third prize is you’re fired.”