28
Nov 11

CSI Antarctica

Do You See + FT16 comments • 1,517 views

It was always going to be hard pleasing me with a Thing remake. The John W. Campbell short story it’s based on was the subject of the inaugural episode of A Bite of Stars, a Slug of Time and Thou. Not having read it before then, I immediately took to its tight-knit team of scientists whose ability to rationally work through the horrific problems that increasingly beseige them is undermined by the M.O. of The Thing: it can become someone so completely that the victim may not even be consciously aware that he is no longer himself.

Every Thing fan who hasn’t read Ann Billson’s wonderful BFI book on John Carpenter’s The Thing should do so immediately; I quibble with Billson here and there but it’s a pleasure to read a good writer given free rein to create a searching, detailed love-letter to the object of her obsession.

The review you’re reading right now is not, unfortunately, that.

When the 2011 prequel to Carpenter’s 1982 version was announced a couple of years ago, Billson wrote an article for the Guardian about it. It ends like this:

The prequel will be set in the Norwegian camp, which, as we already know from Carpenter’s film, is doomed.

But is the prequel doomed as well? Perhaps, but only if the slow-burning tension is broken up by fashionable staccato editing and camerawork. Only if the Norwegians all turn out to be young studs with six-packs, apart from maybe a couple of hot lady scientists played by skinny chicks under the age of 25. Only if everyone speaks English with cod Norwegian accents, if the special effects are all rendered by CGI and if Ennio Morricone’s chilling orchestral score is replaced by a hard rock soundtrack. What are the odds?

Pretty good, actually. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a shade over 25 but you’d never know it. The special effects are, indeed, CGI. Morricone’s score makes a tantalizing appearance in the opening seconds but immediately gives way to conventional orchestral underscoring, never to be heard from again. The controls in the Norwegians’ snow trucks are all in English. The Norwegians themselves aren’t exactly studs (and what lurks beneath their woolens remains blissfully – or is that criminally? – unexplored) but they appear to all be cut from curiously similar cloth, a pretty serious flaw in a movie with such a large cast of victims.

But you know, none of these things is really a dealbreaker on its own, or even in combination. What sinks the movie is a complete blindness to what made Carpenter’s film so great, combined with a paradoxical unwillingness to deviate even an inch from its template. As many critics have noted, it’s as if the 2011 movie is a Thingified version of the one from 1982. The details come correct. It’s the humanity – the problem-solving, the sex, the recklessness, the swagger – that’s been noisily eliminated.

Unfortunately this applies as well to Winstead who, unfairly or not, has to compete with Kurt Russell’s barnstorming turn in the 1982 version. Winstead plays a sweet, smart kid who’s plucked from obscurity doing research in the States and flown immediately to Antarctica at presumably enormous expense by a Norwegian research team who have stumbled across what appears to be an intact alien, frozen just inches below the surface of the ice.

It’s handy that her job affords her this kind of leeway; she appears to have no boss to ask permission from, no classes to cancel, no boyfriend to check in with, no out-of-office reply to turn on. Just your average idealized brainy beauty, ripe for knighting into the Order of the Action Movie. But the sum total of the team’s expectations for her turns out to be advice on how to get the t(T)hing out.

She suggests cutting a rectangle shape.

After that she’s ignored.

It’s her subsequent attempts to dent the cloddish control of the man who recruited her that create the only substantive narrative in the movie. As the Norwegians stumble from one Thing attack to the next, she keeps finding clues, and her pleas to the others to use this evidence to make good their survival resemble a desperate whistleblower filing reports to a calcified bureaucracy. It could hardly be otherwise, given that Winstead’s character is a triple outsider: non-Norwegian, non-male, and not part of the camp in the first place. So the shifting group dynamics of earlier Things, with all the heirarchy games and paranoia they entailed, is out the window. This is a modern tale of individual pluck. This is Winstead versus the world.

Which is a shame. It would have been cool to finally investigate what sort of “distractions” Carpenter and Campbell were deliberately avoiding in making their casts exclusively male. The only boy toys here are Platonic. Can you imagine – being schtupped by a Thing without realizing it?

Other notes:

* The opening titles tell us that it’s “Winter, 1982”. Surely no one goes to Antarctica in the winter! The sun never rises, so you can’t see anything! And it’s 70 below. Right? I watch Frozen Planet, I’m no fool.

* Getting Thinged is in some way already a kind of schtupping – you are entered, changed, merged with another. It’s probably no accident that the first victim in the new version is penetrated from behind, or that the first woman-Thing committed to film is witnessed here engaged in a kind of weirdly tender moment with her victim.

* I’ll take any chance I get to share this link, an essay called “Fecund Horror” by Noah Berlatsky. “We have seen the enemy, and it is coming out of us.” – http://gayutopia.blogspot.com/2007/12/noah-berlatsky-fecund-horror_12.html

* Carpenter’s movie was delayed by about a year, allowing him time to comb over each line of the script and get everything the way he wanted it, a rare luxury for a director. Its ambiguities and mysteries have withstood a cavalcade of obsessive Youtube deconstructions. Not so with this one. What happened to the storm that was supposedly on its way? Why can you see everyone’s breath at the beginning, but not at the end? Why don’t we ever see the famous shredded clothes, clues that provided so much of the suspense in the 1982 version?

That said, there were enormous leaps of illogic in Carpenter’s movie, far more egregious than the above, but somehow we just accept them. The blood test, for instance. Macready, a helicopter pilot, conjures an idea from his whiskey-addled imagination that blood cells from the Thing might somehow become motile when threatened with heat. It’s just lunacy, a kind of hallucinatory dream-logic, but it nevertheless winds up being bang on the money. It’s as if the craziness of the Thing has created a world in which your own imagination creates its laws. That would never fly in the 2011 version. Audiences, you can practically hear the producers saying, are more sophisticated now. The test has to be believable. And so it is. It involves dental records.

Comments

  1. 1
    swanstep on 30 Nov 2011 #

    That ‘Fecund Horror’ essay seems interesting (I’ve only read its The Thing section), but, good lord, the harping on the idea that there has to be some deep explanation of/meaning behind the all-male-ness of the cast of The Thing (1982) gets tiresome. The author refuses to take the s/writer’s preference just to avoid romantic sub-plots (that he’d vaguely felt as a kid had weakened earlier horrors/monster movies) at face value, and seems blind to the force of one his own ideas: that The Thing (1982) could *easily* have had Ripley- and Lambert-figures a la Alien. Almost nothing would have to have been changed had that been so, the film’s robust that way, hence – the obvious conclusion – no interpretation of The Thing (1982) that turns on sex-specifics can matter or be importantly correct. (Cultural studies/interpretations really needs something like significance testing or base rates calculation included into its methodology.)

    BTW, agree that The Thing (1982)’s blood test is a bit silly as stated (although I don’t think it’s *that* fanciful for McCready to conclude that a super-shape-changing critter must be *extremely* decentralized in its vital capacities etc.). Of course, for the Thing to have such remarkable imitative/shape-changing/survival powers there must be plenty of detectable bodily mechanics and fluid differences in its finished product. A Thing/final stage *can’t* be just like one of us all the way down (cf. testing replicants cognitively might work, but if they’re as physically superior-but-also-time-limited as they are supposed to be, then all that has to show up in their bodily mechanics/fluids etc.). One way of understanding the blood test that’s devised is therefore just as a very dramatic/thematically powerful stand-in for most-likely, efficacious procedure (similarly for Blade Runner’s Voight-Kampf test).

  2. 2
    Elisha Sessions on 30 Nov 2011 #

    I dunno, I’m pretty on board with Berlatsky’s interpretation of the all-male cast. It does more than just dispense with romantic sub-plots, it ensures the only “Other” is the Thing. In Alien there is something about Ripley that allows her to confront the Alien on something like an equal footing. They’re both women! (The most iconic moment of the whole movie: “You BITCH!” Or is that in Aliens?) It works for Alien, because the whole series of movies really turns out to be the story of Ripley and her survival. But The Thing’s about a group: which one of us is NOT “us”? In The Thing 2011, the answer is obvious! It’s Winstead! Nobody knows who the hell she is, she’s female, she’s American, she’s significantly younger. The group trust issues are clouded by all this. The feeling of species kinship so keenly felt in the earlier versions – Us against It – is diffused. It’s She against Them against It. Against Them. Against She. Eventually it just turns into a Final Girl movie:

    The character in question tends to follow a certain set of characteristics. The most obvious one is being (almost) Always Female. She’ll also almost certainly be a virgin, avoiding Death by Sex, and probably won’t drink alcohol, smoke tobacco or take drugs, either. Finally, she’ll probably turn out to be more intelligent and resourceful than the other victims, occasionally even evolving into a type of Action Girl by the movie’s end. Looking at the Sorting Algorithm of Mortality, you could say that the Final Girl is a combination of The Hero, The Cutie and the Distressed Damsel – which obviously gives her a very low deadness score. The Final Girl is usually but not always brunette, often in contrast to a promiscuous blonde who traditionally gets killed off.

  3. 3

    (“You BITCH” is in Aliens, which pedals to the metal on girl-on-girl stuff that Alien somewhat downplayed — or anyway excised from the first released version)

  4. 4
    Elisha Sessions on 30 Nov 2011 #

    I just think if you’re going to make such a huge break with the previous movie, to whose structure you’re otherwise slavishly devoted, spin it out into something less boring than “one girl against The Man, maaaaan”.

  5. 5
    Elisha Sessions on 30 Nov 2011 #

    Actually now I think about it there’s another big break with the 1982 version – how the Thing itself behaves. In Carpenter’s movie it’s very secretive (as befits a sexual act).. leading to all sorts of mysteries. It only reveals itself against its will. In this one it comes right and and gets ya, no qualms about it

  6. 6

    On the ilx thread we were discussing how smart Carpenter’s Thing actually is: forget whose point it was — might have been mine — that it’s presumably only as smart as the brain in the body it’s mimicking.

    (ie it didn’t build the spaceship, it piggybacked a ride on the ship-builders)

    (there’s not much point going into this all NO SPOILERS, is there?)

  7. 7
    Ed on 1 Dec 2011 #

    “It didn’t build the spaceship”…. like the alien in ‘Alien’, which was also a parasite in someone else’s craft.

    I’m not sure why, but that makes it more eerie, somehow. Perhaps it’s the intimation that the universe is thronged by a Cthulhu-esque proliferation of creatures unknown to us.

  8. 8

    In the original Campbell story — which is a hecatomb compared to the films, they execute like a dozen thing-people — someone says, mournfully, “I miss Blair. I’d almost even prefer having a thing-Blair back.” The eerie and unnerving element about the piggyback-type thing is that it will dump its entire Blair-brains without a second thought to become a seagull winging it to more flesh to mimic. The detail of the imitation — the wisdom taken in — means nothing to it in its onward parasite flight; it can perfectly reproduce what we value most deeply, but because the reproduction comes so easily to it, it values it not at all.

  9. 9
    DietMondrian on 1 Dec 2011 #

    Vehicles to enable our DNA to replicate – that’s all we are.

  10. 10
    DietMondrian on 1 Dec 2011 #

    #9 – Good lord, I didn’t mean to sound so nihilistic. I’m actually a cheerful soul.

  11. 11

    *prepares blood test*

  12. 12
    thefatgit on 1 Dec 2011 #

    IIRC, the actual thing/man (1982) was a bit DILLIGAF during the blood test.

  13. 13
    Elisha Sessions on 2 Dec 2011 #

    But only when provoked! It plays its cards very close to its glistening vest unless being prodded with a hot wire or being surgeried open by a doctor with a nose ring. It tries to keep its machinations out of view, so you get this battle-of-wits whodunit vibe. But this one just launches itself around all over the place, harum-scarum

  14. 14

    There’s a small bit of illogic in the Campbell original, come to think of it: Campbell’s Thing has a certain amount of telepathic capability (it broadcasts daunting ideas of what it can do into sleeping human minds), but cannot deploy this telepathy to demand that a blood-test swab of Thing bravely takes one for the team. So the mind-reading functions as cross-species leakage but NOT intra-species tactical planning.

    The theory behind the blood test is that every mote of Thing is its own self-protecting organism, and that individual survival (esp of a Thing-mote w/o a brain at all) will trump collective lay-low strategy. If indeed Things can achieve collective strategy, or EVEN RECOGNISE OTHER THINGS (“Get yr tentacles off of me you big THING, it’s just me”)

  15. 15

    also: The shredded clothes were a misdirection, though — weren’t they? ie possibly the specific red-herring tactic of a Thing-with-a-men’s-evil-brain (Thing-Blair?)

  16. 16
    swanstep on 15 Dec 2011 #

    Interesting/depressing interview with The Thing (2011)’s screenwriter here. Although there could well be some self-serving blame-passing going on, it reads to me like a credible case-study of how film studio heavy-handness at every level turns competent film-making into incompetent: reject slow-build-up plots out of hand, force ‘preview audiences get the final cut’-driven reshoots, ensure sequelizability…. One bright spot: it sounds like enough stuff was filmed only to be rejected by the Studio that a radically different ‘Director’s Cut’ might emerge at some point.

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