The Thing ✮1/2
by Glenn Lovell
In 1951, we had the military to thank. In 1982, Kurt Russell’s wisecracking, flamethrower-tottin’ cowboy held off the alien threat. Now, in the third incarnation of “The Thing” ‒ actually a days-earlier prequel ‒ your family dentist holds the key to survival. Seems the alien that crash-landed a hundred thousand years ago in the Antarctic and, since being defrosted, has been replicating humans can’t process mercury fillings and other metallic materials.
So, in place of the blood test in John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” we now have an impromptu dental exam.
“Open up!” orders the heroine-turned-oral hygienist, shining a flashlight in each subject’s mouth.
Pity the fool who listened to mom and brushed three times a day. Minus cavities, he’s immediately suspected of harboring alien cells and summarily segregated from the healthy, who proudly display their silver fillings.
If you think this is dumb, sit tight, genre fans, there’s more idiocy to follow. And by film’s end, I think you’ll concur that this “Thing” is the worst sci-fi redo since Tobe Hooper’s “Invaders from Mars.” Universal must have had franchise in mind when it commissioned this variation on John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella “Who Goes There?” So what if the opening installment just sort of sits there, like a steaming alien carcass. It comes with a natural hook, which spells sequel.
We’re now in a Norwegian research station. In charge: Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), whose team of scientists have stumbled upon a spacecraft and its frozen pilot, which, through the ice, resembles a bug-eyed arachnid, only with large talons. Dr. Halvorson sends for a grad-student paleontologist (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and then proceeds to ignore her every suggestion.
When she warns that taking a tissue sample might expose the camp to who-knows-what, he takes her aside. “You’re not here to think ‒ you’re just here to get that thing safely out of the ice.”
Of course, the Thing doesn’t need any help exiting its icy tomb. It blasts out and, one by one, absorbs most of the station’s crew, beginning with the unfortunate Henrik. The problem is, we don’t really care because first-time director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. does such a lousy job of individualizing the victims. It doesn’t help that the bearded, beer-swilling Norwegians all look and sound alike.
When someone yells, “Peder, they have Lars!” you’re welcome to scratch your head and shout back, “Say WHAT?!”
The earlier versions of “The Thing” worked because they conjured a strong sense of paranoia. You never knew who was OK, who was infected. Carpenter even referred to the story as a variation on Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians.” This new version ‒ which, we discover in the end credits, dovetails with Carpenter’s “Thing” ‒ packs none of that sense of encroaching dread. It’s too busy showing the alien cracking open its latest victim like a charbroiled lobster. In fact, some of the over-the-top hydraulic effects that were cut from Carpenter’s version (see the DVD extras) appear to have digitized for this one.
Obviously aware that his script offered nothing new, Van Heijningen ordered up a climactic tour of the (not yet incinerated) spaceship. Unfortunately, Winstead is so underwhelmed by what she sees, she might as well be strolling through the hull of a derelict tanker.
Besides Winstead, the suspicious Americans are played by Eric Christian Olsen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Joel Edgerton, who’s so good in “Warrior” and so forgettable here. Olsen, Halvonson’s mouthy assistant, responds to each development with a “That’s not possible!” or “This doesn’t make any sense!” I felt like grabbing him by the neck and yelling, “Dude, we’re talking Man from Mars here!”
THE THING ✮1/2 With Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen. Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr; scripted by Eric Heisserer from John W. Campbell novella. 103 min. Rated R (for profanity, gory make-up effects)