MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Thing’

Not much to digest in this remake-disguised-as-a-prequel

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In a just world, Hollywood’s higher-ups would follow a simple rule regarding remakes and updates: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Instead, they systematically take the opposite route: Find what works, then make it worse.

So it is with “The Thing,” director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s remake-masked-as-a-prequel of John Carpenter’s 1982 cult horror classic about an extraterrestrial marauder wreaking havoc on a chilly Antarctic compound. Like the unwanted alien visitor of its title, Mr. van Heijningen’s film has descended upon theaters with no apparent purpose in mind except to perpetuate its own existence while hoping to briefly disguise itself as a something it’s not: a good movie.

It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with remakes or adaptations. Mr. Carpenter’s film was also a remake, an update of the 1951 Howard Hawks production, “The Thing From Another World.” And Mr. Hawks’ movie was based on legendary sci-fi editor John Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?”

But Mr. Carpenter’s film was the rare remake that offered more than a mushy reheating of its predecessor. Instead, Mr. Carpenter took the basic concept, an alien that not only kills and consumes humans but hides inside copies of its prey, and turned it into a tense investigation of paranoia and identity — a terrifying, memorably gory exercise in high-concept horror that was part B-movie bloodbath, part brainy thriller.

This year’s take on “The Thing” offers an adequate share of intestinal goop and guts. But its computer-animated alien is no match for the visceral bodily horrors — all created using practical effects — that Mr. Carpenter and his crack team of gore-makers cooked up. Mr. Carpenter offered carnage as schlock art. Mr. Heijningen gives us nothing but mindless digital splatter.

To be sure, it depicts its alien with a greater range of motion and gooey biological detail; before it begins to replicate humans, it appears as an oily clump of flesh and fangs that harpoons its victims from a tentacle array, then slurps them into its massive toothy maw like a mobile, miniaturized version of “Return of the Jedi’s” ever-hungry Sarlacc pit monster.

Mr. van Heijningen serves up a crew of blue-collar, poor-luck Norwegians for the mouthy monster to feast on. But aside from a handful of Dolby-powered jump scares, he doesn’t give viewers much to digest.

Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a pretty young paleontologist, is whisked away to the pole to study some unnamed polar find. It’s an alien! And it eats people! And eventually they discover that it can take the form of anyone! Sometimes the monster gets a little too excited and inadvertently reveals its human disguise through the painful process of breaking its face in half and gulping down another cast member. But the movie does such a poor job of differentiating between the characters that it’s hard to keep track of who’s alive and who’s been consumed.

There’s a mad scientist more concerned with the discovery than with the lives of his fellow humans (Ulrich Thomsen). And there’s Adam (Eric Christian Olsen), his floppy-haired hipster of an assistant. And there’s a pair of gruff American heavies (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Joel Edgerton) who hang around long enough to provide some muscle when the going gets tough. Most are little more than empty alien fodder — and, like the movie, hardly worth remembering.

★★

TITLE: “The Thing”

CREDITS: Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. Screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on a short story by John W. Campbell Jr.

RATING: R for computer-generated alien gore

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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