Antarctica, 1982. Scientist Kate Lloyd (Winstead) is summoned to a Norwegian base to investigate a discovery they've made: an alien ship, buried beneath the ice for thousands of years, and its sole survivor. When it awakes, though, Kate realises it's a shapeshifting monster that won't stop until it's assimilated the entire crew...
For many horror fans, there is only one response to the idea of a prequel to John Carpenter’s peerless 1982 sci-fi chiller, The Thing: “You’ve got to be fucking kidding.” But with a sequel ruled out by the sheer passage of time, and the idea of a remake almost heretical, perhaps a prequel is the best option all round. Especially as there are plenty of questions raised by Carpenter’s original — particularly what happened to the doomed Norwegian outpost or, as Kurt Russell’s MacReady had it, “those crazy Swedes”.
The Thing — as it’s rather clumsily titled, with the idea being that Carpenter’s film is officially called John Carpenter’s The Thing, which surely means this should have been called Not John Carpenter’s Not The Thing — answers those questions and more besides in a mostly satisfying, and even occasionally inspired, fashion.
Not The Thing starts much like Carpenter’s, with a slow burn as we meet our cast, including Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s American paleontologist, Joel Edgerton’s grizzled MacReady-lite pilot, and Ulrich Thomsen’s shady scientist (whose shifting morality echoes Robert Cornthwaite’s scientist from Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World, itself the inspiration for Carpenter’s film).
Of course, familiarity with the events of Carpenter’s movie leads us to believe that all these characters but two are destined to die horrible, squidgy deaths, and Matthijs van Heijningen and his screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, have fun playing with those expectations. However, with around a dozen Norwegians, a Frenchwoman, a Brit and four Americans to keep an eye on, we still don’t have enough time to know these characters before the shit is absorbed by the fan. And the air of mystery Carpenter engendered is gone — here, it’s usually all too obvious who The Thing is. In fact, van Heijningen’s shapeshifters are so shifty once they’ve changed shape that they might as well be wearing ‘I Am The Thing’ T-shirts.
This iteration of the alien arsehole is a nasty bugger, impaling and munching and absorbing with such aplomb you wonder why it feels the need to hide in humans at all. But it’s also a less imaginative treatment, with FX maestro Rob Bottin’s nightmarish Lovecraftian contortions, mutations and distortions simply repeated here, albeit on a larger scale (here it’s a body, rather than a head, sprouting spider-arms and walking).
Frustratingly, the film misses a chance to provide us with some real answers. Where does it come from? What does it really want? Does a Thing know it’s a Thing until it’s threatened? Answers to those questions aren’t even attempted, sadly. Maybe we’ll learn more in the next prequel, presumably entitled And Just One More Thing.
The whole shebang is efficiently mounted and, at times, eerie, but it’s hard to escape the fact that almost everything, from the box-ticking (oh, that’s how the axe gets embedded in the wall! Ah, that’s where the beast with the two heads comes from!) to the occasional dabs of Ennio Morricone’s sombre theme, is a constant reminder that this is the prelude to a much better film.
Even the prequel’s best scene is a very clever spin on the best scene in the original, the extraordinarily tense blood test sequence in which paranoia tips over into mass bloodshed. After that, the film crumbles, with more manufactured cod-scares in the last 20 minutes than Carpenter delivers in 109. But what comes before that is so solid that Not The Thing would just about pass muster as the first part of a double bill. And no, we have not got to be fucking kidding.
By no means the finessed work of a Carpenter; more an enthusiastic DIY expert who read the instructions once and reckons he can manage. Which means that the shelves are a bit wonky, but at least they'll stay in place.