Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s ‘The Thing’ Has Some Serious Gender Anxieties

van Heijningen’s The Thing rigs its gender anxiety with paleontologist Kate – the Final Girl in the Carol Cloverian sense

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 Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s The Thing, you hear the blowing wind and deeply odious soundtrack of strings. These things and the font for the credits remind viewers of John Carpenter’s still brilliant 1982 version and bode ill things to come. There’s no way the new film can live up to its predecessor.

For a few minutes, at least, van Heijningen Jr.’s The Thing at least seems to be thinking through its legacy, not only in its premise, to conjure the story of the Norwegian research station, where the former occupants left behind the videotapes pondered by MacReady (Kurt Russell) and his team of Americans in Carpenter’s film. This version has similar thematic tensions. For as Carpenter’s The Thing considered conflicts between races (intra-human and human-alien), it filters 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 The Thing refined its inquiry, specifically by looking at variations of masculinity, such that differences were delineated by class, age, national origins, and even occupation. This was borrowed 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 The Thing does less of this.

The new The Thing rigs the gender conflict by introducing a female 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 humankind worldwide – marks him as an egotistical villain.

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 of Sander and one another (like MacReady). That she does all this and is also a woman makes her like also like Ripley, the most awesome Final Girl. (Alien seems to be another influence on the Carpenter film, but then again, it seems to have 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, there is 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 partly 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” include a research assistant [Eric Christian Olsen], torn between his employer, Sander, and the admired and brilliantly credentialed colleague Kate.)

It’s also not surprising that the Americans disrespect and misunderstand the Norwegians. Maybe it helps Kate’s case 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 a useful ally. And, of course, the man who will – by shooting at one of his Alaskan Malamutes at the film’s end – lead us into the Carpenter story, which is set three days after this one begins).

When Kate arms Lars with a flamethrower and has him aiming at Things and men who act like they might be Things, The Thing 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, don’t get what’s at stake, or follow orders only from other men. Listening to Kate, Lars seems like an anomaly among men, and you like him for that.

The other men are mostly interchangeable, as they would be in a slasherish film. As such, they’re subject to grim penetrations and gooey eviscerations as The Thing 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 the same circumstances as their precursors (technically, their successors in this film’s timeline). They’ve got a slew of gross-out films inspired by the 1982 The Thing and the backing of the Dawn of the Dead remake producers.

Such context creates pressures, meaning that the visceral effects in van Heijningen Jr.’s The Thing should be impressive, and the references to sources should be smart. But they’re not.

RATING 5 / 10