Maybe we at war with Norway.
— Nauls (T.K. Carter), John Carpenter’s The Thing
Once again, it’s the winter of 1982 in Antarctica. And once again, the snow is at once endless and oppressively white. As the camera arcs over the icy tundra at the start of the new The Thing, you also hear wind and deeply odious soundtrack strings, and might even note the credits font, all reminders of John Carpenter’s still brilliant version, and all boding ill. There’s no way the new movie can live up to its predecessor.
That’s true enough. But for a few minutes, Mathijs van Heijningen Jr. ‘s movie does at least seem to be thinking through its legacy, not only in its premise — to conjure the story of the Norwegian research station, the one that left behind the video tapes pondered by MacReady (Kurt Russell) and his team of Americans — but also in its thematic tensions. For as Carpenter’s film considered conflicts between races (intra-human as well as human-alien), it filtered these through gender dynamics, in a way that wasn’t always obvious in the early ’80s.
Rather than assume that gender anxieties are only always a matter of men and women, the 1982 Thing refined its inquiry, specifically by looking at variations of masculinity, such that differences were delineated by class, age, national origins, and even occupation. In this, it was borrowing from previous films, of course, films where single-sex environments produced nightmares (say, prison films, war films, gangster films), but it also made the dynamic more complex and detailed.
The new Thing does less of this.
The new Thing rigs the gender conflict from the start by introducing a girl protagonist, paleontologist Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She’s plainly a Final Girl in the Carol Cloverian sense, clever, curious, and resourceful. Directly after the film introduces the alien via a discovery by Norwegian station workers, it cuts to Kate at work in a lab elsewhere, solicited to help remove the Thing from its ice by the station’s medical officer, Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen). His interest in preserving the Thing — no matter the risk to the people at the station or on earth — marks him as an egotistical villain from the start.
Kate, by contrast, intuits the danger right away, and then does a little microscopic research to prove her fears correct (in discovering the Thing’s capacity for cellular imitation, she’s like Wilford Brimley’s Blair, the knowledgeable part). She also attempts to rally the station workers to beware Sander and also one another (like MacReady). That she does all this and is also a girl makes her like also like Ripley, the most awesome Final Girl. (Alien seems another influence on the Carpenter film, but then again, it seems an influence on every film made after it.) Kate’s prescience and insight regarding the Thing differentiate her from her fellows at the Norwegian station. But of course there are other distinctions among these men, and briefly, one woman (Juliette, played by Kim Bubbs). As in Carpenter’s film, these distinctions have at first to do with who’s a science nerd and who’s a soldier (and in this, Carpenter reorganized the group that appeared in Howard Hawks’ 1951 film). Later, they have to do with moral choices, who stands up for whom and how anyone perceives this tiny group’s relationship to the world beyond.
These moral choices are only patly determined by nationality. The most valiant (not the wiliest) Americans — apart from Kate — are Carter (Joel Edgerton), chopper pilot and Vietnam war veteran (who recalls Mac from the Carpenter film in appearance and affect), along with his vet buddy Derek (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). It’s not a surprise that these particular men early on see the value of destroying the scientific find of the century, or that they do their best to do just that. And so you have the usual brash brutality of the yankees pitted against the more muddled and variable masculinity of the “others.” (The “Americans” do include a research assistant [Eric Christian Olsen], torn between his employer Sander and the admired and brilliantly credentialed colleague Kate.)
It’s also not a surprise that the Americans tend to disrespect and misunderstand the Norwegians. It helps Kate’s case, maybe, that she’s open to the possibility that Lars (Jørgen Langhelle), bearded and broad-shouldered like a stereotypical Norwegian, disinclined to speak English and the keeper of the station’s dogs, is actually a useful ally (and, of course, the man who will — by shooting at one of his Alaskan Malamutes at film’s end — lead us into the Carpenter story, which is set three days after this one begins).
When Kate arms Lars with the flamethrower and has him taking aim not only at Things but also at men who act like they might be Things, the film takes up an almost boisterous rhythm. Kate and Lars repeatedly exchange looks as they assess the others — rendered here as men who are willfully or abjectly blind, who don’t get what’s at stake, or who follow orders only from other men. Lars, listening to Kate, seems like an anomaly, and you like him for that alone.
The other men are mostly interchangeable, as they would be in a slasherish film. As such, they’re subject to a series of grim penetrations and gooey eviscerations, as the film lifts from (or pays homage to) the 1982 version’s memorable effects: doubled heads, dissolving skin, body pieces on legs. As the humans at the station react to these atrocities, they don’t have quite the same circumstances as their precursors (who are, in this film’s timeline, technically their successors). They’ve got a slew of gross-out movies inspired by the 1982 Thing, they’ve got the backing of the Dawn of the Dead remake producers.
Such context makes for pressures of a sort, meaning that the visceral effects should be impressive and the references to sources should be smart. But they’re not.