Friday, February 10, 2012
The Mischaracterization of the Thing in The Thing (2011)
For a detailed discussion of van Heijningen Jr.'s 2011 remake/prequel of The Thing, I refer you to noted genre critic, John Kenneth Muir.
Here, I'd like to focus on the characterization of the Thing (the eponymous alien creature)as it differs from John Carpenter's original.
For a refresher, The Thing is an alien life form that crash-landed in the Antarctic aboard a spacecraft several millennia before the present. Freed from the ice by its discoverers, the Thing shape-shifts and infiltrates the ranks of the humans in order to survive. Once the Thing consumes another living being, it assimilates its DNA, gaining the ability to replicate the original perfectly, including speech. In the films, it is shown taking the forms of humans and sled dogs. It is revealed in the remake that the Thing cannot reproduce inorganic matter, like tooth fillings or body jewelry. The monster's modus operandi is to impersonate an assimilated human character, then attack when the opportunity arises, typically when it is alone with a single non-Thing. When making its move, or when threatened, the Thing blows its cover, and its assumed body morphs into a nightmarish kaleidoscope of flesh. Lacking true vital areas, the Thing is impervious to anything but fire.
How the 2011 Creature Was Mischaracterized
Many complaints have been made about the 2011 film's use of CGI over practical SFX. That debate aside, I see a shortcoming in the storytelling. The monster in the remake lacks desperation. In the original, the Thing is relatively weak. That is why it hides in the guise of something familiar. Against a group, the monster tends to lose fights. It only transforms to attack a lone victim, or to defend itself when cornered. The Thing is very careful, which is what makes it so frightening in the original. It knows what to say and how to act to gain your trust. And because its stealth is its greatest asset, it only transforms as a last resort. The transformations are defined by their irrationality: on screen, we see a perfectly ordered human body devolve in an instant into a writhing, gory chaos.
Most importantly, if the Thing can become anything, it would become the perfect killing machine. But it doesn't, because in its transformation scenes, the Thing is panicked, and as a last resort, it attempts to become everything at once. Like a frightened animal, its chief defense is to make itself larger and wait for a chance to escape. In the original, the transformed Thing is not coordinated enough to be effectively mobile; its form becomes too disordered. Each confrontation typically results in the Thing transforming and taking the nearest person by surprise. Then the other humans regroup and torch the Thing.
The 2011 film fails to appropriately characterize the Thing with enough desperation. These transformations have a much more ordered form and function. Basically, the 2011 Thing hides by shaping its body into a familiar shape, and when confronted, it distorts that shape into a more lethal configuration, using the original body as source material. In one extended encounter, the Thing takes the shape of two bodies fused together, their limbs inverted into a powerful quadrupedal beast. In this shape, the monster stalks two characters through the Antarctic station.
This sequence makes little sense because it does not follow the rules of the original. (A) The transformed Thing does not take a rational shape, and is by extension not ambulatory in any conventional sense. (B) The Thing only attacks with an assured upper hand or out of total desperation. (C) The primary concerns of the Thing are stealth and safety.
By disregarding these rules, the filmmakers put the visual style of the monster ahead of its storytelling purpose. It simply makes no sense that the Thing would take on these particular grotesque forms in their respective contexts. The quadrupedal only exists to allow a chase scene to take place. Similarly, the bipedal monstrosity at the end only serves to be something bigger and badder than we've seen before, as a visual crescendo for the film.
The monster's desperation should be key, I think. The original bleeds desperation: the humans and the Thing cannot coexist, and the remote location makes escape impossible. Meanwhile, the characters are confronted at every turn by a monster that circumvents their expectations of it and of each other.
The original film's triumph is that it gives us a monster that actually feels completely alien to us. It is probably no more sentient than a virus, and yet it must be confronted with intellect and diplomacy. It hides like a chameleon and freaks out like a decapitated chicken when cornered.
The 2011 film, on the other hand, makes the Thing entirely too relatable. In its different forms, it's essentially several conventional and recognizable monsters rolled into one. The film is further disserved by the incorporation of the spacecraft into the main plot, when the Thing escapes from the Antarctic base, returns to the craft, and engages the engines before it is killed. From this, I gather that we are to conclude that the craft belongs to the Thing. If this is the case, what form does the Thing assume to man the controls of the craft? What configuration of limbs were the controls designed to accommodate? Where does the Thing intend to travel after escaping from Earth? All of these questions paint a far too rational image of the monster, which does not gel with the creature depicted in the original. True, the Thing arrives aboard a spacecraft, but I find it much more plausible that the Thing was a stowaway, like the Xenomorph in Alien. It follows that the Thing caused the spacecraft, constructed and piloted by another race of extraterrestrials, to crash in the Antarctic before it assimilated the bodies, leaving no trace behind.
I will say the following in praise of the remake:
1. The clarification about the inability to replicate inorganic matter is a good contribution to the mythos.
2. The character of Dr. Halvorson, an adaptation of Dr. Carrington from the "true" original, Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World (1951), is a great use of source material not incorporated by Carpenter.
3. Kate's irrational need to justify herself to the Carter-Thing before burning it, even after she has determined it is non-human, is an inspired take on the classic "She's not a zombie, she's my mum!" conundrum.
4. The mischaracterization of the monster in the 2011 film has given me a new and much greater appreciation for elements of the 1982 version that I had overlooked before.