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Movie Review: The Thing (2011)

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.

About Jesse Balzer

  • El Bicho

    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

  • Jesse Balzer

    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.

  • El Bicho

    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.

  • Jesse Balzer

    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.

  • El Bicho

    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.