(The Thing, BFI Southbank, 8.45pm, 29 November 2011)
Last night I got to see a preview of the new version of The Thing, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and a lot of men, most of them beardy Norwegians. I suppose it should be regarded as a remake because it has the same name as John Carpenter’s now-classic body-horror piece from 1982, but the final inter-credit sequences of this film are supposed to resemble the beginning of Carpenter’s, so that it functions as a form of prequel as well.
It begins fairly promisingly with a teaser sequence in which three of the Norwegians fall into a glacier and inadvertently discover an alien spaceship. (Yes, a spaceship: we’re already in Predator or Alien territory.) The highlight of this sequence is a joke, told in Norwegian, whose combination of tastelessness and hilarity almost matches the one Michelle Williams tells in Blue Valentine. At the end the three men are stuck in their ice truck, wedged in the ice and facing downwards into emptiness, which suggests that it’s all over for them; yet there they are some minutes later, being introduced to the heroine Kate, with no word as to how they were rescued. What has happened? Are we supposed to think that they have been taken over by the monster? Probably not, since there is no monster at this stage. This is one of the first signs that the narrative is falling down on the job, or perhaps that the film has been poorly cut down from a longer original.
However, suspicions may have been aroused earlier with our first sight of Winstead’s character Kate, who is some kind of palaeological pathologist. She is first seen in a single, barely perfunctory scene, which I’m guessing (since it is insufficiently made clear) is set in a US university and is so devoid of the usual gimmicks of introducing a character that it hardly seems worth bothering with, except that it does give us some people speaking English after the all-Norwegian prelude. It appears that Kate has forgotten an appointment with a colleague and/or friend Adam, played by the rather anonymous Eric Christian Olsen (an American despite his Nordic name), though I couldn’t work out what that appointment was (business or pleasure). Adam then introduces his boss Dr Halvorson (the excellent Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen, hopelessly wasted), who gives her three facts about her proposed new job: 1) it’s in Antarctica; 2) they’ve found a ’structure’; 3) they’ve found a specimen. After the barest consideration Kate says, ‘I’m in’, and boy is she ever.
The flight to the Norwegian base gives us enough time to register a possible love interest in the American pilot Carter. This character, decked out with an earring and an unnecessarily anti-Norwegian attitude, is played by the Australian Joel Edgerton, whose rise through the ranks of young male stars in Hollywood seems rather mysterious: though a serviceable enough actor he is not especially charismatic or good-looking. In the end this is neither here nor there, since when all hell breaks loose, as it does fairly quickly (which may be a point in the film’s favour), there’s no time for anything as fancy as romance, and as for a gratuitous shower scene for Ms Winstead à la Kate Beckinsale (in the Antarctica-set Whiteout), forget it. (No sex please, we’re being eaten.) Once they have transported the ice block specimen to the base and begun work on it, it is only a matter of time before the creature gets out, and the film gets going. The creature’s escape appears to be facilitated by a decision Halvorson makes to take a preliminary sample, a move opposed by Kate. Since Halvorson never gets round to doing anything with the sample, it looks as if it was just there to show his wrong-headedness and Kate’s good instincts. This trope has been standard stuff in these sci-fi versions of And Then There Were None ever since Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley tried to stop her shipmates bringing the doomed John Hurt back onto the ‘Nostromo’ in Alien, and its familiarity is hardly improved by the tediously high number of times that Kate is subsequently right and Halvorson wrong; indeed, Halvorson sometimes seems more of an antagonist for Kate than the creature itself (a fact which is very much borne out by Kate’s climactic encounter with it).
The special effects which come thick and fast after the creature escapes are undoubtedly effective, particularly the first time it breaks out of one of the human characters: the man’s head splits in two, each half maintaining a perfect image of the actor’s face in a way that Rob Bottin’s marvellous mechanical recreations of the 1982 actors could only approximate. However, we have been spoiled by CGI, and this stuff now only works if the characters react in interesting and affecting ways to what’s happening to them. (This is usually interpreted as ‘characters we care about’, but that feels like an unnecessary sentimentality.) Carpenter’s 1982 film really scores in having a group of not especially well known but very experienced character actors (Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat, David Clennon* and the wonderful Wilford Brimley among them) who are able to do a lot with their necessarily brief screen time and constrained reactions; this film, on the other hand, has a load of Norwegians with beards, dull Americans (Adam and Carter, plus Carter’s black co-pilot, no match for Keith David’s lone black character in the 1982 version) and a very iffy Cockney. Oh, and there’s a short-lived Norwegian female, who has been made mousy and inconspicuous (rather than some giant blonde Nordic goddess) so as not to detract from our ‘final girl’.
Which brings us to Mary Elizabeth Winstead herself. In the unlikely event that we could ignore the special effects this would undoubtedly be her film. She is the lead, after all: indeed, it’s her first lead performance in a film of this size, and she does everything asked of her, even if that doesn’t add up to very much. She’s far from the most unconvincing dollybird-scientist Hollywood has given us, has the action moves down pat and is pretty good at looking scared; better still, when the camera fixes on her enormous, dark eyes, she occasionally gives the impression that something is going on behind them. She’s an appealing and sympathetic presence with a short but nicely turned-out CV, and, as far as I can tell, has a considerable number of people looking forward to seeing her break into the big time. If this film does nothing more than help her do that, it will have got something right.
* That early Norwegian joke is no guide to the rest of the film, which feels pretty devoid of humour: there’s no equivalent to Clennon’s fantastic reaction to a particularly outré special effect, ‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding…’