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.” –

* 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.