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 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.