Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Thing (2011)

The Thing (2011)
Dir. by Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr [sic]
Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jørgen Langhelle, Joel Edgerton

Recently I’ve been watching a trend which seems to be developing. This trend is the creation of films which honestly have no legitimate reason to exist except that they are perceived to capitalize on name recognition which already exists for some other film --which originally did have some reason to exist—and yet are pretty good anyway. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. FRIGHT NIGHT REMAKE. THE MECHANIC REMAKE. THE GREEN HORNET. These films tend to either have awkwardly derivative titles (the firs two) or an identical title to the well-known original they’re trying to coast on (the rest). When you make a remake of things which obviously need no remake or extend a franchise where it clearly didn’t need to go, you know who you’re working for. It ain’t the audience. It’s the marketing department.

                So when these movies get made, the reason is obvious: the Dark One is trying to ruin everything cool. But there’s a second aspect here which is much harder to explain, and that is that some of the people making these films seem to be, against all reason, actually trying to make something good. I mean, not all of them, obviously. For every FRIGHT NIGHT REMAKE which demonstrates some real hustle, you’ve got your STRAW DOGS REMAKEs, your GREEN LANTERNs, your CONAN THE 2011 BARBARIANs, your which range from the profoundly lazy to the profoundly ill-conceived. But that’s not news, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Studios and film types both know crap like that is the cinematic equivalent of a sidewalk shell game, a quick and dirty way to cash in on people’s ignorance and laziness and-- it goes without saying-- strictly for rubes. So why the spate of entries into this dismal cannon where people seem to be actually trying? Don’t they know? Didn’t anyone tell them? It hardly seems fair.
    THE THING PREMAKEQUEL (which as you can see requires an entirely new noun to properly describe) is at the shallower end of the trend, but I still admire its effort and its fitful successes. The premise is this: Mary Elizabeth Ramona Flowers Winstead is a scientist called down to Antarctica to a remote scientific outpost where they’ve discovered a frozen alien deep in the ice. They bring it back to the base, where the exact same stuff that happens in the original happens again, only not as good.

              I mean, come on, you weren’t seriously thinking this thing would be as good as the original, right? Do you also think that drinking coffee is going to be basically as fun as smoking crack? So no, it’s not as good, and it’s occasionally embarrassingly tone deaf to what makes the original work. Still, you get that distinct whiff of effort; that at least someone in there was trying to make something good. The biggest problem it has is that it’s basically recreating—in a sheepish, self-consciously slightly altered form-- most of the pieces of a much better movie. If you can get past that, though, you’ll see that unfortunately its second biggest problem is most of the new stuff it adds.
            Most of the film is pretty similar: group of scientists with beards, shape-changing monster infiltrates them, they’re slowly picked off as their paranoia increases, weird body horror, and did I mention beards? Though not as strong as the original, the premakequel does pretty well with this, at least at the beginning. Winstead is not as strong as Russell, but there’s a pretty engaging supporting cast of mostly Norwegian actors little known in the US. Winstead’s character is unimaginatively (and intentionally, if Wikipedia is to be believed) modeled after Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, just like every single female character in every single modern genre film. Winstead, however, downplays the flintiness of ALIENS Ripley and brings an interesting kind of sharp-eyed opaqueness to her role. She’s obviously smarter than most people around her, but she tends to be quiet when she doesn’t need to speak, and direct instead of aggressive. We get no backstory on her at all, so we’re never exactly sure what she’s thinking, although those big gorgeous eyes are constantly advertising that there’s a lot going on behind them. Kurt Russell – you know he’s a badass. You have to learn exactly what Winstead’s character is capable of, and you get the sense that she may be learning too. So while obviously you’re gonna be happier watching Kurt Russell than anyone the brain could halfway imagine could conceivably date Michael Cera, its still an interesting twist and much more subtle than it probably reads on the page.
The remaining cast of Norwegian actors acquit themselves nicely, too (it probably helps that they have a Norwegian director in Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. – this thing is practically a foreign film!). They manage to differentiate themselves enough that you can tell them apart, and work hard to sell the concept with sincerity (especially non-English-speaking Lars [Jørgen Langhelle], who manages to be overwhelmingly endearing even when we don’t always know what he’s saying, like Chewbacca). The fact that there’s a language barrier between American Winstead and several of her Norwegian peers adds an extremely effective layer to the increasing paranoia, as her ability to communicate with them makes it even more difficult to form a cohesive strategy. This one also cleverly exploits the cultural divide to splinter the group into distrustful factions, with the tension between human groups that can only imperfectly communicate creating an even more difficult situation. This change feels natural, works nicely into the existing mythology, and adds an interesting layer to a familiar situation.

Likewise, the “alien test” devised in the remakequel at first feels like a half-thought-out attempt to replicate the famous blood test scene from the original without actively ripping it off… but then turns out to have an interesting wrinkle of its own. The fact that it’s able to clear some –but not not all-- of the scientists further splits the group and adds an unexpected element of moral ambiguity which pays off nicely at the end. Is it right to lock your colleagues up simply because they can’t prove they’re not trying to kill you? How far can you go in the name of pragmatic self-protection and when does that become calculating utilitarianism? It’s a nicely nebulous issue and –although I wouldn’t swear the filmmakers considered it—an apt metaphor for age of terrorism paranoia as well.
Unfortunately, that’s all in the middle section of the film. Things begin somewhat more clumsily, with a bunch of exposition stuffed up front, a silly introduction to the alien (ever wonder how it first escapes? It just jumps out of the ice all the sudden. Mystery solved!). By the middle, it finds its footing, creating an interesting tension and tweaking the good ideas of the original somewhat elegantly. But then it unwisely changes direction again, and ends up on pretty weak ground. After a great 20 minutes of paranoia, the monster comes back and then doesn’t bother hiding anymore. It flips out and pretty much eats all the remaining characters as a big jumbled blob of CG human features, crawling around and growling and pouncing on people. Which makes it unclear why it bothered to hide in the first place and changes the dynamic from an escalating tension to a more standard hide-from-the-dinosaur routine. It’s not a catastrophe, but it’s also nothing special. Despite the freedom CG affords, the filmmakers fail to create anything as imaginatively disturbing as Carpenter’s body dysmorphic nightmares from the original, and the CG effects make the monster look clean, weightless and, well, CG.

Then things get worse: our remaining heroes follow the thing back to its spaceship, and the film turns from a lesser but respectable version of THE THING into an embarrassing retread of ALIENS. The ship’s design is baldly derivative (except it seems to be powered by this cool 3D 8-bit Tetris game, that’s cool) and the monster which had fooled everyone into believing it was their colleague is demoted to a mindless, roaring beast (it can change shape, but it can’t figure out how to get at our protagonist when she hides in a narrow passage? Lame. ) The whole sequence is conceived and executed about as indifferently as possible, and would have been enough to turn me completely against the whole enterprise.

Except… it doesn’t quite end there. After the big, clumsy, expode-y Hollywood ending, there’s a little coda which finds some intriguing ambiguity. Spoilers follow!
See, Winstead and her surviving buddy (the other American, go figure) kill the crap out of the alien using the fine art of explosions, leaping away from explosions, etc. But then they get back to their vehicle and she suddenly notices that the guy’s earring is gone. When she mentions it, he casually touches the wrong ear. So what does she do? She torches the son of a bitch with a flamethrower. Pretty badass, but what makes the movie slightly badass is that the film doesn’t have him thing-out when he dies; it’s an entirely human scream as he burns to death.  Then the camera lingers on Winstead’s face as she contemplates what has just happened. She doesn’t look devastated or relieved, exactly, just deep in thought. Did she just burn her friend to death over an earring? Or is she pretty sure she was right, and is contemplating what it means about her that she has this kind of killer survival instinct? The film isn’t saying, but ending on a long, quiet, ambiguous note was pretty unexpected after all that trite monster bullshit on the spaceship. (actually in this light the monster parts feel suspiciously like the kind of concession a director might make to the aforementioned marketing department in order to keep the quiet, tense ending that you really want).

Sure, it might be a little more meaningful if her character was better developed, but it’s also kind of interesting to keep her a touch enigmatic. It very neatly but subtlety uses the ending to reinforce the film’s possible allusion to the age of terrorism, where fear of our hidden enemies keep us striking first and asking questions later. But what then, once we’ve killed the people we’re afraid of and are left with only ourselves and our thoughts. What do we think of ourselves? Have we become monsters hidden in human form too? Will we ever be able to feel safe again, ever trust our own eyes to see a world without hidden, lurking menace? Can the nightmare ever end once it’s begun? The film pauses long enough to let us ponder things a little, and that’s when you feel that genuine horror come back. The fear that goes beyond being eaten by monsters; the kind of fear that dances at the edge of consciousness, that can’t be relieved with something as concrete as an exploding spaceship.

This film only flirts with these ideas, but it’s bold enough in pursuing them that I have to give it credit for trying –on and off, anyway—when it obviously didn’t have to and no one besides me and maybe Vern was going to read into it at all or care even if they did.  So this one emerges as a win for me – generally competent, occasionally excellent, interesting enough to justify its own existence, particularly as a minor but respectable augmentation of an existing masterpiece. If they must go on making these unnecessary franchise rip-off movies, and insist on continuing to confuse us by making them decent, I guess we ought to at least appreciate it when someone puts in a little elbow grease. Maybe that makes them not so completely unnecessary after all.

1 comment:

  1. Eh. It was not unduly terrible or anything, but personally I can't think of much about the film that really stood out either. Kind of a nonevent of a film. I'm glad they managed not to shit all over Carpenter's film (not that it would really matter if they did), but they still failed to capture any of that film's magic, nor did they bring anything new to the table.

    And I think you give the ending too much credit. Basically it's a generic horror movie "happy" ending (the heroine survives, final girl style) with a very light coat of ambiguity to give it a false sheen of creepiness. Compared to the profoundly haunting, deeply unnerving way Carpenter uses ambiguity in his ending, this just feels like amateur hour.

    Also, I wonder what people who haven't seen Carpenter's film think of the little tag in the credits where we see how this movie turns into the opening of the other film. What do they imagine is going on?