Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Robert Frost, "Fire and Ice"
A few weeks ago cinema goers had the choice of two Sam Peckinpah remakes, Straw Dogs and Killer Elite. Now they have a choice between remakes of two '80s films, Footloose and The Thing.
Killer Elite wasn't really a remake, as it turns out, and in fact it was a far better film than the hash Peckinpah deliberately made of the thriller novel it's based on.1 Straw Dogs is a Psycho-style remake, as is Footloose, in which the original screenplay and indeed many of the shots and scenes are frame for frame, but with certain nuances made more clear. The Thing, however, is presented, somewhere within its early publicity, as a "prequel" to the John Carpenter version released in 1982. Carpenter's version was much derided at the time and did little business, but in subsequent years its historical importance and moral ambiguity has come to the fore, in large part thanks to Anne Billson's excellent defense of the film in a BFI Modern Classic monograph. If nothing else, Carpenter's Thing changed cinematic special effects.
Another characteristic of Carpenter's approach to The Thing, a film that means a lot to him as both a thriller and as a Howard Hawks production2, is that for his version Carpenter went to the original short novella by science fiction writer and magazine editor John W. Campbell, Jr., whose "Who Goes There?" was published in Astounding Stories in August of 1938.3 Campbell's story is arguably the most influential sci-fi text written, leading to three movie versions so far, as well as an influence on the film versions of Jack Finney's tale "The Body Snatchers," as well as random science fiction films from the 1950s onward, including the Alien series.
As a prequel, The Thing 2011 eventually ends where Carpenter's Thing begins, with the thing disguised as a sled dog racing across the South Polar tundra, chased by Norwegian scientists in a helicopter. In the experience, however, the movie seems to exist in a parallel universe in which the events of Thing '82 have no consequence. Thing '11 is "ageless" in that there are not even any telephones, much less cell phones or computers, but it seems to be taking place in the present. Credited screenwriter Eric Heisserer (a Final Destination contributor) and director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.'s4 innovation is to make the main activist in the film a woman, one Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, of Live Free or Die Hard). Ms. Lloyd has been contacted by a Evard (Trond Espen Seim), a representative5 of a Norwegian science base in Antarctica because she is a paleontologist and his colleagues have "found" something. A short chopper ride sequence later, and Lloyd is ushered into a ice chasm where a space ship and a big block of ice containing the thing resides. "Science" demands that the block of ice be melted and the thing examined. Dr. Lloyd advises caution. She is more or less told to shut up by the Norwegian boss, who pulls dubious rank. Naturally, Dr. Lloyd is correct and the thing soon proves to be what it was in Thing '82, a shapeshifter who absorbs and duplicates other beings while harvesting itself in the cocoon.6
Another innovation is that the thing cannot absorb non organic materials, so telling human beings from thing poseurs can be aided by such things as teeth fillings and titanium bone replacements, which the thing must leave behind, like irrelevant packaging dropped to the floor. As the thing begins to spread through the group, absorbing and spitting out human beings as they race to distinguish who is whom, the alien victimizes the usual set of red herrings (among them TV's Eric Christian Olsen, Kim Bubbs, Ulrich Thomsen, and Joel Edgerton among a bunch of others who go by too fast to log accurately on a first viewing (and who are much set off from each other).
The thrust of a Thing adaptation at least since Thing '82 is the cosmetics of biological change, and there were some terrific and "no fucking way" moments in Carpenter's film. Here the effects are equally yucky and surprising, and the guessing game of who's a thing is well done. Unfortunately, the film is as cloistered and hobbled by cold-inspired lassitude as its characters. Still, someone somewhere saw the utility of making yet another contemporary film with the theme of "home invasion," though here yet again it is on a global scale. Like the spate of home robbery-siege movies, the recent alien invasion movies seem to mirror a general sense of unease about the security of where we live, especially in a time when homelessness is a constant worry.
More so than the other Things, Thing '11 pits elemental forces against each other, fire and ice. Ice is bad, evil, for it is where the thing can hide for centuries. It slows things down. Fire, in the form of the film's weapon of choice, the flame thrower, brings illumination and destroys the things in one burst. The flame thrower in fact brings more "illumination" than the scientists in charge of the polar mission, but as with most Thingy movies from Body Snatchers to Solaris to Alien leaves ambiguity about the goal and limits of human intelligence.
1. In fact, it is a much better film than a lot of movies that have come out this year.
2. Carpenter "quotes" The Thing in Halloween.
3. Possibly because Campbell was also the editor of Astounding, he used the pseudonym Don A. Stuart.
4. He is the director of various short films, commercials, and videos, and of the upcoming zombie film Army of the Dead. He is not Norwegian, but Dutch.
5. I think. It may be another character with whom Lloyd butts heads. Sometimes it's hard to tell the characters apart.
6. In the original Campbell story, the thing was also telepathic.