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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.

The Monster
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.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

East Asian and Western Horror and Religion

The Autobiographical Portion
To situate this discussion, I should relate that I typically have less patience for supernatural horror than for the realistic. As a young child, I found the classic Universal monsters terrifying, but the advancing maturity that would dispel werewolves, vampires, and Santa Claus was no match for the sheer panic that Norman Bates caused me. To me, a realistic horror film will always be scarier than a supernatural one; that is, shocks and jump scenes aside, a realistic premise will always be scarier than a supernatural one because the bar for suspension of disbelief is much higher for a supernatural premise.

My taste for the supernatural does ebb and flow with the calendar, though. In the summer, for example, I find that I am more willing to soak up the unmemorable and formulaic slasher films of the 1980s and to catch up on the trends of mainstream genre offerings. Inversely, that reflective mood of the colder months raises my interest in the supernatural. I find myself drawn to the seasonally appropriate antiquarian ghost stories of M.R. James, or chipping away at my list of critically acclaimed but still unwatched supernatural horror films. That reflective state makes it easier to become absorbed in a work's atmosphere. Yielding to that atmosphere requires a suspension of disbelief in order to timetravel back to where and when hauntings and folktale monsters seemed more plausible.

My first experiences of the East Asian horror style were mediated ones: The Ring and The Grudge, both of which are American remakes of Japanese films. Despite the Americanization, the aesthetic and premise of each film is distinctly East Asian, belonging to a unique canon of horror films that has achieved international appreciation as a distinct subgenre . Dutifully, I sought out the original films, but in general, the supernatural premises had little impact on me. More recently, however, I've been interested in the relationship between Western and East Asian horror, and my own relationship to both. Through this ongoing project, I've discovered a few very enjoyable titles, and a new entry into my all-time top 10 horror films (Fruit Chan's Dumplings (2004)).


East Asian and Western horror cinema reflect different bars for the suspension of disbelief, based on the relationship to religion and the supernatural in their respective cultures.

In terms of demographics, "The West" is difficult to characterize. The United States has an estimated rate of atheism or non-religion as low as 4%, while statistics in Europe are much higher, around 20-30% in the UK, and 20-60% around the continent. Sweden and Japan are both reported at a 60-70% rate of non-religion, while Vietnam alone claims a rate in excess of 70%. East Asia tends to be less religious than the US, but the statistics are skewed by the operating definition of "non-religious", which can encompass atheism, agnosticism, major non-theistic religions, and the non-identifying-but-still-spiritual. For example, the reportedly minimally-religious Vietnam is 85% Buddhist, a non-theistic tradition.

The key difference between East and West is not the number of adherents to any religious tradition, but the nature of the various traditions themselves. The West is primarily dominated by Christianity, the most prevalent of the Abrahamic religions. East Asian traditions are grouped under the heading of Taoist religion, though Buddhism embodies an intersection of the Dharmic (the heading for Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism).

The Christian tradition revolves around central characters which represent external loci of the human experience. The exemplary lessons of Biblical figures and the drive to please God or follow the example of Christ draw attention away from the present and focus it on an external validation, with an eye to the goal of an afterlife.
In contrast, the East Asian traditions focus on something more immediate: the nature of the world and the proper way of being in the world. They can be described as a recognition of the order of Being and Nothingness, or as philosophies of living in harmony with the order.

So we have juxtaposed two predominating perspectives on the supernatural. In the West, there seems to be a natural world that may be influenced by external supernatural agents, where supernatural events can be attributed to the actions of agents that are circumscribed within intelligible definitions, e.g., acts of God, Satanic temptation, earthly visitation by Christ.
In contrast, the East Asian traditions exemplify the perspective of a supernatural world, where supernatural forces exist rather than intervene. In Western mythology, there appears to be a much brighter line between the natural and the supernatural. The Christian supernatural is defined by its strangeness, its difference from the natural. Christian history is sketched out in miracles and great paradigm-shifting events. The East Asian traditions are much subtler. They represent a perspective that sees the supernatural and the magical in the everyday. Concepts like ancestor veneration, animism, karma, meditation, and reincarnation are passive concepts that orient one towards a supernaturalist perspective on the world, an acceptance of the interconnectedness of all things. Note the difference between meditation and [the predominant interpretation of] prayer: the latter is a communication directed at something external, the former a reflection on the internal. Or consider the practice of ancestor veneration: the supernatural idea of continued influence in the world by the dead is fairly ancillary to the ritualized exercise of reinforcing, demonstrating, and feeling respect and appreciation for the importance of family. These practices speak to a perspective/lifestyle that observes the importance of human experiences through a lens of wonder and reverence, without bogging down in the consideration and validation of an externalized narrative of divine will and intervention.

From the outside, it seems that the nature of East Asian traditions as "perspective," rather that "belief structure," allows them to retain their relevance despite varying degrees of true literal belief among practitioners. That is to say, the literal truth of the supernatural seems to be less essential in the East than the West.

Comparative Horror Cinema

The West has dealt with its Christian mythology in horror films differently over the span of a century. The first 50+ years were dominated by adaptations European folk legends (vampires, werewolves, ghosts), These inevitably came into conflict with the forces of good wielding Christian faith in defense (the vampire's weakness to the form of the cross, etc.). The subsequent era of The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), and Rosemary's Baby (1968) among others represents a radical shift. The religious horror themes draw on Satanic possession and the arrival of the Antichrist are much, much darker than their predecessors. Note that these are situated within a larger trend in cinema around the 1970s towards darker films that were more realistic, that depicted the world as ugly as it really is. Perhaps something about the darkness of these three films makes them more believable. In any case, these films lack any kind of levity, as though they are true stories, from an alternate reality.

By "alternate reality," I mean no disrespect to those whose religious beliefs encompass the possibility of events like those described in the above films. Still,I think one would be hard-pressed to find a Christian in the vast American mainstream who considers these films to be more than fantasies. And from this point forward, the religious horror output has been having to deal with the fantasy/reality conundrum as a matter of course. The average narrative presumes a secular world, then has to convince its audience and its characters otherwise. This fact suggests that the United States, with it's 96% rate of alleged religious conviction, still presumes a secular world on screen. I don't mean to moronically insinuate that any Christian faith that doesn't literally accept its historical baggage is somehow disingenuous. I only indicate that Christian mythology, on film, is no longer anything but a trope, a stock storytelling device.

The East Asian supernatural horror film reveals a different approach to the horror cinema experience. The ghosts, hauntings, and curses of traditional folklore are abundantly represented, but they are rarely independently antagonistic, as opposed to Western demons and monsters. Ghosts, hauntings, and curses are more commonly used as elements of a greater morality tale. They are supernatural vestiges of some wrongdoing, like a stain left on the world, and the characters of the film are drawn into conflict with the supernatural elements because they have some preexisting relationship to / culpability for this turmoil of the spirit world.

With no intercultural experience to speak from, I cautiously posit that in these compared storytelling traditions, the bar for the suspension of disbelief is lower in East Asian cinema than in Western. I think, given the nature of Eastern spiritual thought and its pervasiveness as culture and way of life rather than just religion, that films which draw upon those traditions are naturally more sincere in their use of supernatural themes. Because of this sincerity, I find it easier to be drawn into a film's world. Western supernatural films play too heavily on the audience's skepticism of its own cultural heritage, and such feats of dramatic irony or cheap twist endings are typically disappointing.

If someone could again handle Western mythology with the earnestness of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring (Sweden, 1960), I would be very impressed.

In closing, I recommend films like Kwaidan (Kobayashi, 1964), and Takashi Miike's "Box" from the Three... Extremes anthology (2004)and his "Masters of Horror" installment Imprint (2006). Each is presented in surreal, dreamlike style suggestive of ancient folk tales. The effect, particularly in Kwaidan, is in my opinion a great cinematic accomplishment and an alleviation of the burden of disbelief.

By way of a valediction, I ask: is it spirituality merely to keep an eye out for omens, to celebrate the rituals of holidays, to observe tradition, to hope, to embrace nostalgia, and to make note of coincidences? I think I could do with a bit more of all of that.