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'The Thing': Prequel Is No Equal
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies

Who is Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.? Probably you've never heard of this Dutch helmer, and judging by "The Thing," his debut film, that's not likely to change anytime soon. Saddled with "prequeling" John Carpenter's 1982 classic, and supremely short on originality, van Heijningen Jr. and company simply rework the bare-bones template -- shape-shifting alien stalking a scientific team in Antarctica -- while relying on a CG-improved monster to up the terror ante. The malformed result is a subpar slasher movie tricked out with tired "Ten Little Indians" tropes and rip-offs from both Carpenter and the Christian Nyby-Howard Hawks' 1951 version of the chilling tale that started it all, John W. Campbell Jr.'s "Who Goes There?"

Watch "Go See This Movie": "The Big Year," "Footloose," "The Thing"

At the beginning of this "Thing," the camera flies over arctic wastes -- generically scenic snow- and mountainscapes -- to home in on a black dot moving across a distant snowfield. No, it isn't Carpenter's fleeing husky but a yellow tractor-truck seeking the source of mysterious radio signals coming from the middle of nowhere. The vehicle's bearded Scandinavians have hardly stopped guffawing over a very funny dirty joke when the ground gives way beneath them. The truck fetches up front-downwards, jammed tightly between the narrow walls of an abyss. Below them, spanning a huge ice cavern, a monstrous spaceship goes on forever.

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Kinda grabby, yes? You can see how the director wants to juxtapose idiosyncratic humanity, companionably kidding around in close quarters, to the vast, cold Otherness of the buried alien vehicle. But it's a sledgehammer effect, built out of big F/X. We're not so much terrified as stunned. In the 1951 film, the short hairs rise as a crew of endearingly individualized scientists and soldiers slowly spread out in a circle to assess the size and shape of a strange shadow under the ice. The alien reality of what lies beneath is revealed and measured by human flesh and blood. No slam-bang, oversized action needed to generate genuine frisson; just directorial faith in the power of colorful character and telling imagery.

So similar are the members of the Scandinavian team who discover the alien ship, we're never really sure whether those bearded fellows in the ice crevasse came back alive. No one stands out among Lars and Peder and Olav, et al.; the cast are just sitting ducks awaiting slaughter. How can you dial up the bone-deep terror that comes from failure of faith in the humanity of your friends and colleagues if you never distinguish real from cardboard people? Howard Hawks and John Carpenter made their characters such valuable, idiosyncratic souls, their loss or possession mattered more than anything ... even the titular Thing.

There's barely time to get to know anybody -- besides nasty lead scientist (Ulrich Thomsen), Mary Elizabeth Winstead's spunky vertebrate paleontologist(!), and hunky helicopter pilot (Kurt Russell-wannabe Joel Edgerton) -- before the Thing has broken out and the killing game's afoot.

By lethal contrast, in Hawks' version the slow, inexorable melting (drip, drip, drip) of that ice block imprisoning the alien becomes the source of lifelong nightmares. In Carpenter's take, menace comes off man's best friend in waves when a husky, its eyes full of strange intelligence, lies down sphinx-style in a kennel full of slumbering dogs. The husky's odd stillness breeds deep unease; then Carpenter cuts away -- leaving us in the dark, the nature of the shape-changing E.T. still a mystery. There's nothing like that unhurried, subtle, well-nigh intolerable tickling of one's nerve-endings in this latest iteration of "The Thing." It's all about immediate gratification, blood and guts and gross-out monster effects.

In the first movie, what made the alien so utterly Other was its perfect coldness, the lack of anything like feeling, as opposed to the heat that fuels flawed human emotions. Then, too, plant one of its body parts -- and something sprouted. (To this day, that image creeps me out.) The Thing was not us. Like death itself, its power could be countered only by humor and the comfort of camaraderie.

Carpenter hewed closer to the original Campbell story, mining dread out of the alien's ability to look like us. As trust decays, every man becomes a potential monster. Who can forget the stomach-turning shock, as each man's blood is tested, when Thing-tainted blood literally leaps away from the heated wire? In the latest "Thing," when the plucky paleontologist checks each man's mouth for fillings -- the alien can't reproduce metal -- it's not so much scary as silly.

Mr. Heijningen Jr.'s third "Thing" tries to scare us to death with a skittering, wailing, oversized bug, frozen in coitus interruptus, halfway between human and alien. Just another computer-generated grotesque, this monster never outrages your fundamental sense of inviolate humanity, nor will it haunt your worst nightmares. Truth be told, the best part of this "Thing" comes during final credits, so stay in your seat!

Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.

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