The thing about “The Thing” is that the world really didn't need another remake of John W. Campbell's 1938 short story “Who Goes There,” which finds an Arctic research station infiltrated by a relentless creature from space. And by infiltrated, I mean the creature becomes the predator and the scientists the prey.
Producer Howard Hawks tapped James Arness for the 1951 film version of the story, and John Carpenter steered Kurt Russell through the atmospheric 1982 update. Now comes a new version with a curious caveat: Star power takes a back seat to special effects.
When graduate student Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is enlisted for a top secret polar project, she and we know something's afoot. Why her? Why now? Why is the scientist who recruits her (Ulrich Thomsen) taking risks that no prudent person would consider?
Kate is choppered into the research station and soon learns that an alien space craft has been discovered buried under the ice. A few hundred yards away its pilot is entombed in ice. The excavation of the creature (and an effort to take a DNA sample) leads to all hell breaking loose. Forget Ice Station Zebra; the base becomes Ice Station Slaughter.
Not only does the creature come to life (think Predator and Alien mixed with Bengal tiger), it displays the horrific ability to mimic human form. That's right, the man or woman standing next to you in the bunkhouse might be the very terror you're trying to avoid.
It starts with the base's dog mascot, and proceeds to mutilate the sundry scientists and grunts who run the base. Even one of the few other Americans chopper pilot Braxton Carter (Joel Edgerton) comes under suspicion. One by one people fall victim to the thing, which CGI has rendered one of the slimiest, most convulsive monsters in recent movie history.
Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. knows how to frame a story; the tension begins with the opening frame. And he wisely opts not to showcase star talent (could you imagine Angelina Jolie in this ick fest?) in favor of lesser known actors who, by virtue of their low profile, lend a surprising degree of credibility. Winstead is best known for playing Bruce Willis' feisty daughter in “Live Free or Die Hard.” Here she becomes “Alien's” tormented Ripley with parka instead of tank top.
Nor can one fault the special effects here. In Carpenter's film, a head sprouted legs and made us squirm in our seats. Here, human torsos turn into kinetic sculptures; eyes, teeth and spines realign in ways that would give a slinky the shivers. Unlike 1950s horror films, this monster isn't relegated to the shadows. It's front, center and in your face for much of the story.
So why doesn't “The Thing” 2011 work? For starters, it's not scary, suspenseful or remotely believable. Why are these polar scientists armed with flamethrowers and grenades? Are they barbecuing polar bear? Why would a graduate student fly to the pole on the mere promise of something interesting? Why do so many of van Heijningen's Nordic actors emote as if they're in a Swedish soap opera? It's like watching an Ibsen play in a meat locker with the lights cut off.
There are fleeting moments of claustrophobic terror and the cast struggles to remain relevant in amid the special effects. What we want is a film that comes at us like an icicle dagger. What we get is a lukewarm slushy.