[14 October 2011]
Deep within the barren wasteland’s of Antarctica, a film-making expedition led by Dutch director Matthijs van Heinjningen Jr. found the frozen, impossibly preserved remains of something long thought forever lost and forgotten: the ‘80s.
Well, mostly preserved, anyway. After thirty years there’s bound to be a little spoilage.
A prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing, van Heinjningen’s reverence towards his source (itself a remake of Howard Hawks’ and Christian Nyby’s 1951 The Thing From Another World) is highly comforting in a world of throwaway, half-baked, name-only remakes, prequels, and “re-imaginings” (re-destroying plenty of already-destroyed reputations), even if that reverence results in a somewhat limited potential for new thematic explorations and ideas. But limited scope is par-for-the-course in big-name films these days, so the task of careful replication, rather than true exploration, still sees The Thing displaying an ideal or two more than many of its recent blockbuster peers, even if, like the monster of the title, such replication always ends up missing some of the soul of its source.
But perhaps that outlook’s a little severe, given that neither Carpenter’s or Hawks’ The Thing are really the best examples of philosophical or insightful horror/science-fiction anyway, no matter how loved and nifty they generally are. In fact, van Heinjningen gets a lot right when drawing on his sources, more than just the superficial story details and places that were carefully matched to the details suggested in Carpenter’s film. The chilly ordinariness of pre-“Thing” life, as in Carpenter, remains and, even better, the characters even display a hint of a Howard Hawks-style focus on actually being motivated by doing their jobs rather than engaging in all kinds of pointless “character-building” prattle that screenwriters always seem to think is a good idea. Van Heinjningen’s characters may not reach the lofty status of Hawksian “professionals” (whose strict – but witty – adherence to the code and responsibilities of their task defines them as “men”), but we’re at least not forced to hear the usual contrived stories about marriage breakdowns, secret reasons for becoming scientists, or how a childhood experience of falling in a cold puddle led them on their long journey to become an ice-station janitor or something. The scientists go to investigate because they’re scientists, not because they’re looking to exorcise some lurking relationship trauma or find a childhood dog who wandered off into the snow fifteen years ago.
Canny film-makers, van Heinjningen and writers Eric Heisserer and Ronald D. Moore, understand that “character” is not delivered, but emerges organically and unavoidably as roles, perspectives and approaches interact and fall into natural and understated conflict. When the characters aren’t engaged in the kind of serious business that leads to differences, they exist with that kind of neutral ordinariness that we all adopt, van Heinjningen letting his actors wait for their moments rather than expecting them to behave like reality-TV-style “personalities” the moment the cameras start rolling. These characters don’t seem to hate each other or love each other at first sight – fittingly, they just exist together, displaying more warmth than Carpenter’s characters, without reaching the casual wit and banter of Hawks’ professional men (and woman).
If there’s a key element of pre-‘90s genre film-making that The Thing could bring back into fashion, hopefully it’d be this, driving out the exposition-riddled kitten-saving or kitten-hating characters that thrive in an “all things to all people” market.
It’s a fine line and they don’t always stick to it: when it falls apart, it’s invariably, and unsurprisingly, related to the film’s only female character. It’s not enough that the lead scientist Dr Sander Halversen (Ulrich Thomsen) overrides young Dr. Kate Lloyd’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) sensible suggestions of caution when examining a frozen beastie (a simple but effective conflict), he has to take her to task for it and reveal himself a bit of a frothing villain rather than a man whose arrogance and male-chauvinism may be a little more natural and a little more unremarkable.
Kate’s character progression is all but assured after this scene, of course, After being berated by a mean, nasty, power-hungry man, all the pieces fall into place for a “powerful woman” to emerge from this timid shell.
It’s a shame, because polite, friendly, moderately-cautious and occasionally passive, Kate is one of the more enjoyable female leads in recent horror/sci-fi. Her relative simplicity makes her stand out in the sea of alpha-females and villainous vixens that pop culture (incorrectly) accepts as a sign of modern feminist liberation. The “necessity” of this transition is further emphasised by the film’s 1982 setting, presumably to be understood by the audience as a time where more primitive attitudes reigned unchecked. Such an evocation of the past (as in Mad Men,Game of Thrones, or any of those “profound” films where civil rights and modern attitudes burst out from stifling historical societies) is usually little more than a modern cultural placebo: we admire the growth of “our” values from within a primitive past, while safely ignoring our own modern reformulations of the same problems.
The Thing probably adds nothing substantial to this: by now, the confident “superwoman” is a cliché as dull and dead as a knock-off John Wayne he-man.
This isn’t to say that Winstead isn’t excellent as Kate: she is (as she was in Death Proof). It’s just that the “modern woman” traits thrust upon her add little to the film. Instead, they detract from it: Winstead is engaging enough as a reluctant and uncertain hero that she simply doesn’t need this dubious “boost”. Luckily, her hints of vulnerability creep through even in the scenes where the assertiveness and confidence of her character seem needlessly pronounced and shoehorned into the proceedings. Still, we never quite feel her desperation or uncertainty as deeply as we might once she starts to take charge over the boys, and by the final scenes the action and her general generalship all seem a bit perfunctory. Kate’s final trek into the ice should carry all the unknown fear and intrigue of Frankenstein heading into the Arctic to find and kill his Monster at the end of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; instead Kate just jumps into a snowmobile and the music announces the usual hero’s journey to the final showdown.
Still, for all that, van Heinjningen’s use of a female lead isn’t all generic 2010s female-macho film-making, and it’s an odd thrill to see all those gender-based readings of films like the Alien series carried over with The Thing along with the other ‘80s vibes. Psychoanalytic sexual approaches to film, emphasising vaginal openings and vagina dentata monsters, seem nicely retro (which isn’t to say they’re invalid), perhaps reaching their sci-fi peak in the Alien series: Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is, of course, the main template for Winstead’s Kate and her woman-to-superwoman progression.
Van Heinjningen seems to happily encourage this kind of cinema-sexual psychoanalysis right away, starting The Thing with a good ol’ fashioned joke about mother-fucking that ends with the happily chatty men in the freezing (frigid) environment suddenly gazing head-first into the deep vaginal abyss that opens up beneath them, an image that is repeated in the purple gash of stars that Kate later stares up into, commenting about just how different the world is about to become. What comes out of that abyss (both the stellar and the local) is, of course, the “Thing” itself, whose sole rasion-d’etre seems to be to manifest vagina dentata as vividly as possible (as well as taking its name from a core tenet of Lacanian psychoanalysis, “the Thing” or “das Ding”: the impossible excess of reality that throws ordinary life into disarray – usually seen as a “feminine” eruption, natch).
All of this adds up to a pretty fun – albeit generic – reading of the “Thing” as a manifestation of male terror that comes with the presence of pretty young Kate and her increasing assertions of dominance. Naturally, as Kate assumes the role of hero, her male counterparts reveal only their general uselessness and impotence: the better she gets, the more the “Thing” tears them apart. Carpenter’s lack of female characters doesn’t make this an especially useful reading for his version, but it actually fits Hawks’ original nicely, with the initial escape of the original “Thing” carefully timed to coincide with some sultry bondage-based foreplay between the male hero and his not-quite-passive love interest (also the only female presence) who has him tied to a chair. The “Thing” escapes just as he does…
That kind of classic film-school psychoanalysis is as much about having fun and playing with ideas of interpretation as it is about actual rigid analysis, so it’s a nice sign that The Thing gives these kinds of perspectives something to play with again. The scene of a drill penetrating the thick ice that initially encapsulates our frigid “Thing” may not be the expected penis symbol – but it also doesn’t need to be. These readings can safely emerge because van Heinjningen lets his images carry their own power, refusing to saturate his scenes with overt camera action, over-explanation and (most importantly) saturating (and numbing) music. The drill cutting through the ice brings with it its own visual and aural presence, and van Heinjningen doesn’t drown it out with directorial excesses, knowing that carefully built images can have a power that doesn’t need to be augmented and that, left alone, will say more than anyone could possibly script.
It’s an approach frequently forgotten by a “bag of tricks” film industry, and another example of The Thing deserving praise for what it doesn’t do as much as for what it does. The same applies for the treatment of the lead actress: Winstead is, obviously, extremely attractive, and van Heinjningen deserves credit for not needlessly sexualising her and finding cheap opportunities to pander to a sex-obsessed consumer base (it’s cold in the Antarctic, you know). She’s even allowed to look relatively unglamourous in a scene or two, a tightly-worn fur-lined hood and an unflattering camera angle undermining her superficial appeal as an image, but not as an actor.
Sure, needless excess of course creeps in, the CGI is as annoying as ever (van Heinjningen claims to have avoided it where possible, but the film still gets all “Looney Tunes” when the monster starts moving), and there’s nothing demonstrably “new” about the film to make it especially inspiring. The one black character (played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is still a staple of all eras, and pretty much exists only to be friends with the faux-Kurt Russell white guy (Joel Edgerton) to show what a decent fellow he is, and then yell “shee-it!” when some bad shit goes down.
But in letting the film bathe in its own images, general coldness and quietness, and lack of forced character-building, it at least lets us re-experience the intriguing presence of a big-name action(ish) film that’s not desperately begging for our attention at every turn. The Thing may be an augmented copy of the great genre films of the ‘80s, with hints and vibes of Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), The Fly (1986), The Thing (of course), and Predator (1987), but at least it’s pretty good copy. If “Thing”-like replication is all that today’s mainstream film industry has left to offer, then at least The Thing is a sign that it can still be a worthwhile process, if the right people are in charge, until something better comes along.