Strange visitor with assimilation challenge shakes up local status quo. We could be talking about “Footloose,” but instead it’s “The Thing,” another recently refreshed early ’80s movie memory. It’s a timelessly simple story: Researchers in Antarctica discover a hostile shapeshifting extraterrestrial in their midst — and hoo boy, does it ever know how to dance! No? Ok. For now, just seeming human can be creepy enough.
“The Thing” first came to us in 1938, as John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?” In 1951 it morphed into a Howard Hawks movie, “The Thing from Another World.” Then John Carpenter had a gory go at it in 1982. Nostalgia for the ’50s was big in the ’80s, more or less as nostalgia for the ’80s is now. So here is Dutch filmmaker Matthijs van Heijningen’s feature debut, which was known as “Untitled The Thing Prequel” for a while, until finally settling on “The Thing.”
It’s a prequel and a remake: a prequel because it ends — rather satisfyingly, if you’re into this kind of Thing — right where the Carpenter film began. A remake because it reiterates that film’s dramatic spur, the general if essential question: What happened with the Norwegians? This breaks down into a series of more specific questions:
How’d that bloody axe get stuck in wall?
This frozen dead man in the chair with his wrists and neck sliced open: why?
Is the big block of ice with the Thing-shaped hole what we think it is?
Oh, and about that freakish half-incinerated two-faced corpse outside: WHAT THE FUCK?!
We know the answers and watch anyway. Just as we did the first time. Perhaps “What brought The Thing to Antarctica in the first place?” would be a more interesting question, but only with the disclaimer, if voiced aloud in the presence of Hollywood studio executives, that it’s not actually interesting enough to need an answer.
The Norwegians, by the way, are another Antarctic research team, the alien’s unfortunate first contact. They’re not all actually Norwegian — Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen, for instance, plays the guy whose scientific dispassion borders on sociopathy — but do collectively exude a chic Nordic aura that enlivens the otherwise boring horror-shocker proceedings. Inevitably there are also some Americans, in particular Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a young paleontologist with enough presence of mind to navigate the ensuing paranoia, and Joel Edgerton, who is Australian but pretends to be American, as a brawny helicopter pilot. Auspiciously, they’re out of their element.
Van Heijningen honors Carpenter’s flair for wonderfully disgusting non-digital special effects and weirdly appealing peripheral character actors. If he seems less keen on narrative discretion, maybe that’s more the fault of screenwriter Eric Heisserer, a horror handyman whose toolbox also contains lots of shopworn borrowings from “Alien” and “Terminator” movies, but scarcely few new parts.
Of course, that’s the whole idea: the familiar rendered freaky yet again. Seize, digest, replicate, repeat.