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Movie Review: The Thing (2011)

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Culturally, remakes are shameful things indeed, and in order to avoid being marked as the spoilers of our mass media adolescence, filmmakers thus consigned have turned instead to the notion of the “prequel” (similar in many ways to that other modern box office phenomenon, the “reboot”). One really can remake any popular text (and remakes scarcely arouse any concern when the text in question is obscure) provided its narrative is slightly – and I do mean slightly – altered for contextual considerations, thereby avoiding all the bad vibes we have associated with remakes, those nefarious plunderers which lay ruin to our childish citadels of entertainment. I believe, though, that it all amounts to the same thing; these “prequels” are nothing more than shamefaced remakes, and the guise is significant for a culture which seems to have tired of remakes years ago. The Thing (2011) is a typical prequel, in that narrative events are set sometime before the events of the “original” Thing (1982, itself a remake of 1951’s The Thing from Another World, so you might call this latest edition a re-remake), but tonally, thematically, structurally, stylistically, it remains remarkably beholden to the’82 version, and generally to its detriment.

Our story is set, same as Thing ’82, in an isolated Antarctic research base. An alien spacecraft is discovered deep in the ice, and a foolhardy team of American and Norwegian scientists locate an unknown specimen nearby, which they hastily dig up and examine. Paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is summoned by the determined Dr. Halverson to assist them in this endeavor. As you might expect, the specimen is accidentally thawed out and from there proceeds to kill scientists willy-nilly. Divisions arise among the team when Kate learns that the creature can completely replicate human tissue and disguise itself as any member of the team. Therefore, they must fight the creature, and each other, in order to ensure that it doesn’t escape and infect the entire planet.

Now, this is all very similar to Thing ’82, except for one key difference, and that’s Kate; she has symbolically assumed the role originally played by Kurt Russell as our protagonist. This is clearly a reaction against the Boys’ Club mentality of Thing ’82, in which no female characters are in attendance. But before we get carried away and applaud this move as progressive, we need to think about the way in which her gender is played throughout the film.

Kate and her phallic flamethrower

Kate is the common (and, in my opinion, often comic) Hollywood ideal of the “strong female lead.” She is talented, independent, fearless, and, ultimately, libido-less. Though attractive, she doesn’t dress herself up for the pleasure of her male cohorts; she wears only what the job requires, and nothing besides. And she is quickly inducted into the Boys’ Club through the principle ritual of alcohol consumption (after she pounds down a shot or two she sarcastically taunts those around her by asking for something really strong). She becomes, for all intents and purposes, one of the Boys. This is problematic because from here on in her gendered difference ceases to be central, or even peripheral, to her character. Though this might not be an issue in other films, The Thing promised in its preview discourse to rework the previously hyper-masculine text by replacing Russell with Winstead; it practically begged for our attention to be directed to her gender. Hers is a diversionary gender, then, drawing us in with the hope of fresh enunciation but ultimately reinstating the same old, same old structures. She is a guilt-ridden capitulation to feminist media discourse, and in that sense very much akin to Judi Dench assuming the role of M in the similarly hyper-masculine James Bond cycle. This kind of symbolic cross-dressing seeks to placate the systemic disruption of feminism by giving female characters something more to do than waiting to be rescued or primping themselves for male agents, but it does so without allowing any room for a serious recalibration of dominant narrative systems. Women become butch at best, and “men” at worst, but either way their femaleness can be swiftly written off; and that is why I think Kate is part of process which sidesteps sexism by giving her limited and misleading narrative agency.

Though she does eventually take command of the team from the patronizing Dr. Halverson, their conflict isn’t constructed by gender (as you might think it would be, considering that the film is set in 1982 and all) but by morality; the humanism of Kate and her peers is matched by the overzealous commitment to scientific “progress” demonstrated by Halverson. Intertextually, he is reminiscent of Carrington from 1952’s The Thing from Another World, a character who wants nothing more than to “understand” and “communicate” with the alien, so much so that he almost offers himself up to the alien, and is remorselessly killed as a result. Interestingly, though Halverson shares many of Carrington’s views, he doesn’t desire to talk with this thing, but to actually become one with it; the framing of his death near the end of the film strongly suggests that he voluntarily submits himself for the creature’s consumption. During Kate’s climatic final battle with the alien, his likeness is clearly visible (and this, I wager, would’ve been more impactful had gender played a role in their conflict, especially considering grotesque alien body which now wears his face). Naturally, however, more overt ties are made to the ‘82 Thing than its filmic forbearer. Plentiful icons connecting this film with its predecessor abound, particularly in its narrative tropes, but also more obviously in its ending sequence, where images of a rescue chopper arriving to assess the situation flash between the credits. Somewhere in this sequence these shots seem to merge with the opening frames of the ’82 Thing, and seamlessly so.

The formal characteristics of The Thing are consistent with the standards of contemporary Hollywood cinema. Cinematography, editing, mise-en-scène, and sound are functional and work well together to maintain the redundant clarity of the story. Though time is clearly laid out, the space (and the isolated research base is essentially the only locale in the entire film) is made somewhat confusing by the lack of establishment; this hurts the more action-oriented segments of the film because we don’t know exactly where the characters are running to or from, for instance, or how far away they are from said location, and so we have to rely purely on the visceral presentation (how shaky the camera gets and how loud the soundtrack becomes) to feel anything approximating excitement or worry. Of course, this is becoming an all-too-common critique of mainstream American cinema, and it is unfortunate that cinematography and mise-en-scène are becoming mere support systems for films which increasingly have to rely on purely aural qualities to generate any kind of feeling from the audience, like The Thing. Deficiencies in the construction of narrative time and space can scarcely be made up for in bombast; doing so only makes the thrills more generic and forgetful (you get bored and look at your phone and you only jump because a loud noise caught you while texting).

So as much fun as it is seeing Kate stalking through the compound with that phallic flamethrower (have fun with that one, fellas), it’s a compromised, temporary fun that settles unsatisfactorily. Though the film has a strong pace and does a sound job of balancing slower moments with more action-y sets, one cannot forget that this is yet another example of a system that disempowers its female characters by pretending to empower them. Such real disempowerment is something which the prequel, seemingly only a shallow pretense to remake beloved texts, could potentially address in the future. But for now, I suppose, the cliché still applies: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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About Jesse Balzer

  • Certainly they are much more prevalent, but what’s your definition of “modern”? Wikipedia has prequels going as far back as Another Part of the Forest (1948) but then they also list The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which is the first I am hearing about that being a prequel to Fistful of Dollars, which coincidentally is a remake of Yolimbo.

    There’s no denying the increase of prequels/reboots in the marketplace but contributing factors likel the increased numbers of movies being produced as well as the change in the studio system should be considered. When the studio has talent locked under contract, it was easier to create a film series like The Thin Man without the need to reboot the series.

  • Well, I work at a video store and Carpenter’s version is still one of the most popular rentals in the Horror section. Not to mention just how many people I heard comparing the new version to the old when I was in the lobby and in the theatre waiting for the film to start. This film, I’d wager, is still quite popular.

    Of course you’re correct in stressing the business and historical aspects of remakes. That much is obvious. But for as long as remakes have been a part of film culture, I sense a different sensibility about them today. There seems to be a growing sense self-consciousness and guilt about remakes on the part of filmmakers.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but “prequels” and “reboots” and the like are modern concepts. Though there may have been remakes throughout film history, I do not believe there have been prequels and reboots throughout that same time. Hence why I connect these terms with a modern “shame” in producing what are essentially disguised remakes. I suppose my term is a very negative one; an optimist may fairly say that the prequel is an example of “product differentiation” for remakes (and this is very important if connected to what I feel is a growing popular distaste for remakes, even though many still flock to see them – but we do go to see just about anything, regardless of quality, because we need someplace to take our dates 😉 ), but I maybe I’m not exactly an optimist when it comes to Hollywood’s motives.

  • Hmm, I wonder if Carpenter’s Thing is that famous outside the sci fi film fan community.

    Remakes have been a staple of the industry almost as long as there have been studios. Plus, this idea that they are shameful seems to overlook the business side of show business. The studio and producers need to make easy money on known properties so they can afford to gamble on other, more noble projects that may fail to connect at the box office.

    No one is required to see the remakes and as long as the originals are still available (take a hint, Lucas), I don’t see the harm.

  • I see your point, but I do clarify at some point that remakes of lesser known texts seldom arouse any controversy. Most people don’t even know of the original ’31 Falcon (that’s how famous the original is), so I still maintain that remakes are “shameful things,” especially today. For instance, the ’81 Thing I refer to here is pretty famous, and I think designating this film as a prequel is an attempt by the filmmakers to get around any kind of fan backlash that would occur if it were a straightforward remake. I’d wager the same thing would occur if someone were to “remake” or “reboot” or Jurassic Park, for example. The cultural status of the original will always be directly proportional to the “shame” engendered by the remake; however famous the original, the remake will be that much more reviled.

  • well done review. I often times wonder why a woman is made a lead character in books and movies when there’s no woman-ness to the character being revealed or explored. Usually, the gender of the writer is the reason why.

    I do find too many films that dispute your generalization that “remakes are shameful things.” Some that are even consider classics like Wizard of Oz and Maltese Falcon