Some horror movies spawn one sequel after another, while others prove stubbornly hard to replicate.
Capturing what was unique and exciting about any movie is hard enough to do in a follow-up, but expectations are even higher for horror sequels. Audiences seek a very specific experience from such follow-ups, one that captures and expands upon the original’s storytelling and aura.
The 2011 version of The Thing, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., doesn’t quite live up to John Carpenter’s 1982 classic. But it’s a far better movie than its decidedly negative reviews would suggest; besides, its biggest flaws are not the fault of the filmmaker so much as the result of studio meddling.
Back in 2004, studios started hankering for a remake of The Thing, Carpenter’s paranoid classic about scientists trapped in Antarctica with a killer alien that can imitate them near-perfectly. Zack Snyder had recently resurrected zombies with his kinetic remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, written by James Gunn. Producers Marc Abraham and Eric Newman started combing through Universal’s back catalog looking for movies that were ripe for retelling.
On one hand, Carpenter’s Thing was a very self-contained story. But the opening of the movie, in which a Norwegian helicopter is seen tracking a sled dog, offers one of the film’s most mysterious sections. Van Heijningen and original screenwriter Ronald D. Moore envisioned this scene as the starting point for their movie, rather than attempting a pure remake.
Moore’s script was eventually rewritten by Eric Heisserer, who had previously worked on horror sequels like Final Destination 5 and would later win an Oscar for his adaptation of Arrival. Moore had wanted to keep the action close to the original’s most iconic character, Kurt Russell’s MacReady, by giving him a brother. Heisserer had a different approach, aiming to keep the focus on the Norwegians flying the helicopter and allowing a new protagonist to emerge.
And so The Thing (2011) came to revolve around Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate Lloyd, a paleontologist based out of Columbia. Lloyd centers the film; she’s calm under pressure but not a natural-born leader. As the remake opens, a Danish scientist named Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) comes to New York to convince Lloyd to fly south with him and assistant Adam (Eric Christian Olsen), giving her only vague explanations as to why she’s needed.
Intrigued, Lloyd joins the team. In Antarctica, she finds a team of Norwegians and Danes eager to thaw a major discovery out of the ice. Whatever they found, it is not of this world. They bring the organism back for study, encased in a large block of ice. It’s a cause for celebration.
Speaking to io9 before the movie’s release, Winstead said that this moment after the discovery of the “thing” was one of her favorite scenes. Allowed to improvise by Van Heijningen, the Norwegian and Danish actors “all break out into this completely improvised Norwegian folk song,” she recalled. “They're dancing and they are singing different parts and harmonizing, and jumping, and sloshing their beers, and it's all pouring out. It was so much fun to shoot.”
It’s a moment that speaks to the humanity behind The Thing: who were these Norwegians and Danes? They were people: some cruel like Halvorson, interested in scientific research above all else, and others kind, like Jonas (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju). “It's kind of haunting and really wonderful,” Winstead said at the time, describing the film’s attention to character.
But the movie is not about Norwegian folk songs. It’s about the Thing. Soon enough, the Thing bursts out of the ice and starts infiltrating the scientists, killing them in gory ways. Some of the paranoid elements of the first film emerge, and the movie begins to focus on a grudge match: Lloyd vs. Thing.
If the 2011 Thing is known for one behind-the-scenes shake-up, it’s that its practical effects got screwed. While the movie’s monsters are well-designed, they don’t look all that great even by 2011 CGI standards. Amalgamated Dynamics (ADI), which had designed the practical effects for Alien 3, had created a host of incredible robotic puppets for the new Thing. They’re shown off in a wonderful video that Amalgamated has posted on YouTube:
What happened to these robots? Universal panicked about practical effects, thinking audiences wouldn’t respond to them, and instead overlaid CGI on the designs, rendering them worthless. It’s a shame that these effects can only be seen in digital form because ADI had something special planned.
Another problem with The Thing is its title. Producer Abraham told Bloody Disgusting that, no matter what they named it, “somebody is going to come after you. You say `The Thing Begins’ and they go, `John Carpenter’s is the beginning, asshole. Yours is like `The Thing Bullshit’.” Which is perhaps true, but just calling the prequel The Thing again is undoubtedly worse.
This 2011 film is not as smart or as tense as Carpenter’s original, but The Thing was made with care and consideration. Watching the ending, which seamlessly segues into Carpenter’s film, it’s clear that this Thing didn’t want to spawn a franchise or dumb anything down. There’s an honorable, thoughtful prequel buried underneath all that ice.
The Thing (2011) is streaming on Amazon Prime.