Dissecting THE THING: Missing Minutiae, Merrily Making Modern Mistakes…

While last year’s prequel to John Carpenter’s classic 1982 film was well-made and an effectively creepy good time, as a big fan of the original 1951 flick and of course, JC’s fine retelling… I was a tiny bit disappointed. For me, part of great suspense is all in the build up and despite some nice scares, the prequel loses a bit of suspense because it doesn’t build much empathy for its doomed cast (and loses some chances to once the monsters start appearing). Still, I found most the film fine until the entire alien saucer sequence complete with that all-too common “formerly flexible monster who can’t quite reach the heroine!” and “run like hell to escape the big explosion” set pieces we’ve all seen in too many other films. I’ll get to the “leave ’em hanging!” part of the pre-credit ending later, as there’s a great (and I think intentional) workaround there that could actually set up an actual sequel (should someone be crazy enough to make one)…

As good as it is, I felt the newer film kneecapped itself right from the beginning by ignoring some things laid down in the Carpenter flick and instead, replacing them with elements that become problematic under closer inspection. The first example comes right off the bat before a single creature appears. By opening with a fantastic-looking but overkill visual effect sequence to show the discovery of the alien craft (which is inside an ice cave in this film, NOT the huge frozen crater from the 1982 film), things get off to a weird start. As it forges onward, the new flick also omits a few other crucial points made in the Carpenter film, one of which renders part of the climax absolutely ridiculous. There’s also a tiny trade-off of characterization for elimination, but that’s a forgivable par for the course in nearly any genre film.

In the making of feature included on the Blu-Ray, it’s noted that the writer and director did an “autopsy” of Carpenter’s film in order to piece together what occurred at the Norwegian camp before the Outpost 31 boys arrived. While I agree with much of what they “uncovered”… the facts remain that in a few areas, the “investigation” was indeed botched and new elements were put in place that changed what was laid down by Carpenter to fit what the new team considered to be his “mistakes.” It’s too bad they felt this way, as sticking to the canon set in place and thinking certain things through a bit more would have made for a more solid film experience and a perfect flow into what Carpenter’s flick presents. Now, I’m no director (nor do I have aspirations to be one), but I’d like to think I know something about storytelling and continuity after all this time reading books, watching movies and playing games. That said (and yes, this article has major and minor spoilers galore) below are some of my issues with the film along with changes I’d have made had I magic editing powers. And a studio contract.

1) Beginnings Are As Important As Endings. Instead of wasting that overkill effects shot of the truck falling through the ice (and a bad old joke told in Norwegian), there were at least two or three ways to open the film that would have been MUCH more effective, particularly to fans of the Carpenter film.

a. My first idea would be a bookend, where you see that great “Open your mouth!” ending sequence up to the point the chopper takes off and goes after the transformed dog. Then, the screen cuts to black as the title burns in. A cut to that stunning snow field then another to an exterior shot of the camp with the December 1982 date and “— Days Earlier” on screen. We see two or three vehicles pulling up to the camp, one of them towing a lorry with the covered block of ice that has the creature inside. Everyone’s excited and in good spirits as they yammer on in Norwegian about their astounding find. A team member is filming all of this with the video equipment that’s discovered in Carpenter’s film (and save for one shot, completely ignored in the prequel). Cut to the radio operator sending a message out (possibly to be relayed to Dr. Sander Halverson) before noting to the camp leader and anyone else in the vicinity that communication has been/is dropping out and may not be back to normal any time soon as the weather is getting worse.

In the midst of all the commotion, there would be a cut to a brief sequence of a sedated dog being taken care of, perhaps by the Juliette character. Showing characters doing the jobs they have at the base is lifted from Howard Hawks’ version and the actors in John Carpenter’s remake (and for the most part, in the prequel) managed to streamline this through their performances and dialog. By the way, that sick dog isn’t infected, mind you (at least not yet). He’s just recuperating from an injury or illness and the kennel he’s placed in just so happens to be near where that block of ice is. What this new opening does is eliminate the need to shoot scenes of the Norwegians heading out to blast the ice because fans of the Carpenter version would remember the importance of that from his film (the brief tape viewing sequence) or see it as more important in re-viewing the film after this one.

Additionally, introducing the dog here would automatically get a smile from folks who know Carpenter’s film back and forth. Even more compelling would have been a line about the dog having to be put down if its condition didn’t improve after a certain time. This would have added an interesting emotional dynamic as well as a cruel (but well-timed) joke when the dog does indeed become “better” when it’s infected and escapes for the US camp at the ending.

Now, yes… this opening I thought up is actually problematic because it allows the Norwegians to dig out the creature with the potential of no scientific supervision whatsoever. But I think this is justified because in the Carpenter film, they also very stupidly blast a hole in the saucer with thermite explosives. If you’ve seen the film, you know the US team also found shards of the spaceship in the Norwegian camp and brought them back to Outpost 31. I say chalk it up to excitement about the find and perhaps hearing rumors that the Russian and US outposts were potentially looking for something in the ice. That and Norway wanting to make a name for itself outside of having a really naturally beautiful population (thanks to diet and some excellent face and hand cremes). The only way to cheat out of this would be to say the full Norwegian science team wasn’t there at that time (either due to swine flu or just being busy working on more Norwegian beauty cremes?) and to have Dr. Halverson arrive with Kate Lloyd, Adam and possibly a few other Norwegian scientists victims in tow on the US chopper.

b. In my second idea, the film opens with a shot of the Norwegian helicopter, but here, it’s arriving at their base camp flown by the same pilot transporting some supplies including some new video equipment. He lands and is met by a few of the team members who unload the chopper. During the unloading, the pilot mentions to the base leader that thanks to taking a different route to avoid some bad weather, he spotted a strange shape from the air that’s only a few miles drive from the camp. Cut to a shot of him inside the base pointing to and circling a spot on a map, whereupon it’s decided to send out a team of men to check it out. Included in this team is a guy wanting to test out the video equipment that just arrived. As the team is preparing to leave, the base leader has the radioman put in a call to wherever the supplies were coming from so it can be relayed to the science team, which is inbound from wherever.

Outside, one of the men rushes up to the chopper pilot and says something about how he forgot to load some extra cans of kerosene that were requested. The pilot says that there wasn’t enough room because of the video rig and some booze while stating that in terms of kerosene, “flying that stuff is too dangerous!” or something similar. Promising to bring at least a dozen cans or so when he returns, he takes off, flying over the trucks about to head to the saucer. Cut to a scene of two snow vehicles side by side heading in the direction of the crash site. One truck pulls ahead of the other one as the men aboard check the map the pilot circled, discussing what it could possibly be (that bad old joke can fit in here somewhere) when the driver suddenly hits the brakes. As they come to a stop, the other truck also brakes, but hits the back of the first truck hard enough to push it forward and almost over the drop they nearly missed.

On board the first truck, we get a scare shot that makes it look as if that they’ll fall into the crash site, but for obvious reasons (no non-alien wreckage at the crash site in the Carpenter film), they manage to back the truck out of danger (or get winched and pulled back by the second truck). As the men climb out of their vehicles and walk to the edge of the crash site, we see what they see – a wide shot of the crater from the Carpenter flick and something that looks like a flying saucer jutting out from under the ice. Cut to black, followed by the familiar title burn-in.

Again, this opening scene isn’t perfect, but it gets in a nod to something important the prequel missed (or simply omitted) that I caught as soon as I saw the end credit sequence. In Carpenter’s film, after the chopper explodes, the Outpost 31 team finds it had “15 cans of kerosene” on board, something not even noted in the new film. Granted, I can see the reason for taking it out: A near full box of thermite grenades PLUS 15 cans of kerosene would no doubt make a much bigger explosion and really leave not much to pore over afterwards. Still, by deviating away from what Carpenter laid down, it makes for another “error” that sticks out for fans of the 1982 film. I had a third opening sequence written down, but it was more or less a combination of the first two and yes, would have added a lot of detail to the plot that would be a wee bit too obsessive. So it’s not here, but you can probably piece something together using what I’ve already laid down.

 

(thanks, TheThingPrequel!)

 

2) Whatever Happened To The GREAT Scene From The NYCC Teaser Trailer? In the film, the Kate Lloyd character is introduced in an abrupt manner (she’s poking around a fossil with a video probe using a display that doesn’t quite look as if were from 1982) that slightly shortchanges thinking viewers (or people like me who over-think these things) because it assumes a penny’s worth of information about her makes for movie ticket’s worth of character development.  I’d have had the basic introduction of the character, but I’d also extend this portion of the film by adding in the part of the New York Comic-Con 2010 teaser trailer (edited by the film’s director, Matthijs van Heijningen) posted above that showed the diner conversation between Kate and Adam. By adding in some more characterization and background (the lab she’s from was supposed to be in New York City), this would have helped viewers identify a bit more with both her character and the time period (perhaps through some vintage news/sports/whatever footage on a TV in the background).

Even better, had there been a TV playing a Cavaliers game (that would be ignored by Kate, as her character isn’t a sports fan), it would have set up that Carter pick-up line gag on the helicopter that falls flat because it starts off and goes nowhere. Additionally, separating the American visitors from the Norwegian team with these few extra minutes of exposition would have made the film a bit deeper as well as give viewers more of an emotional link to more of the characters. As it stands, we never find out too much about them (the first one to get it has kids back home in Norway, according to another character) and for me, it’s only the radio operator who echoes the Carpenter film in terms of someone whose fate is the most unsettling.

3) Meanwhile, Back at the Camp (or, What Does One Do With A Room Full of Norwegians?)… Yes, this is supposed to be a horror film, so getting to know every character in the space of two hours (or less) is not going to be something a director wants to concentrate so much on these days. That said, go watch Howard Hawks’ original film (I’ll wait…) and see exactly how you manage a cast with a load of people in a confined space. Granted, the original’s overt sexism (the two women in the film are smart, but primarily serve the men coffee or look frightened when needed) and one out of place joke about a lynching (which is hilarious if you don’t look at it from any sort of historical perspective) are sore spots. But the ensemble cast works so well because of Hawks’ dedication to dialog and detail. In the new film, other than a great sequence where we get to see everyone together before they start celebrating and the film bounces briefly with personality, most of the cast is disposable and we really don’t feel much for most of them when they make their exits.

Alright, It’s not quite the old “wait to see who transforms into what and when, then watch whatever appears kill someone and get killed afterward”… bit, it’s close. This is particularly pesky in the case of poor Juliette, who seems to be in the film just so Kate isn’t the sole female in the camp. Her betrayal/transformation scene is spectacular however, as is the resulting chase and eventual fiery demise of the creature she’s become. Still, having her as the veterinarian as noted above and caring for the dog (who eventually ends up at Outpost 31) would at least given the character a job viewers would remember instead of “that gal with the mouth in her chest” as a friend of mine called her after seeing the film.

Additionally, as the Americans in the film are already covered (but it would have been nice to hear more about their backgrounds), I gave away the job of video camera operator and camp vet and as we already know the radioman from the Carpenter film, that leaves about ten or so Norwegians with (once their brief moment in the sun is over) nothing to do but run around looking terrified, then screaming and dying on cue. The earlier scenes I proposed in the trucks and unloading the chopper could have been written so that you get more bits of info about most of the characters. Granted, they’d all be dead by the time the film concluded, but at least you’d be saying “Holy Crap! There goes the botanist!” or something instead of “Er, who was that? Oli or Sven?”.

As for the characters in general, there are few ciphers here that work out, while some don’t.  The non-English speaking dog handler, Lars (who ends up as the hero of the film… sort of), the burly, fun red-bearded Viking type who’s got potential as a greater part of the film for a short bit until he gets taken out of the picture, the token black guy (who lasts longer than usual, but still dies before he does anything too interesting). The film clips along so quickly that almost as soon as they get their deep-frozen alien treat back from the crash site and get a sample (in a stupidly non-scientific manner, mind you), they’re having a beer bash sing-along in the camp mess hall (which will be a messier hall soon enough).

4) The Thing With Two Heads? Been There, Done That. Things I liked about the double headed creature: It’s a mostly fantastic blend of practical and CG effects and it’s pretty freaky to see something like that coming at you. Especially when they’re on fire. Things I didn’t quite like: I found the lighting on the monsters a tad too bright in some scenes. Carpenter’s film used a great deal of darkness as well as skillful editing (mainly to hide the flaws in the practical effects). But here, we see too much of the aliens, particularly during the end saucer/chase sequence. Call me crazy, but I think Rob Bottin planned this as a single headed monster who was killed mid-transformation, not some dual-headed monster that forgot it didn’t need to chase after prey because it could shoot out tentacles and yank stuff towards it. Also, in Carpenter’s film, its corpse was found with empty kerosene cans around it, signifying it was burned by one or a few people either after being carted outside (or bursting through the wall already in flames as it did in the new film). This is of course, debatable to some.  But I prefer the idea that a handful of survivors of the Norwegian team may have thought they killed the monster once and for all in a big bonfire… only to be less than pleasantly surprised.

Speaking of less than pleasantly surprised…

5) Where’s the Beast? OK, the American helicopter crash sequence? That was near brilliant and a nice surprise, but… exactly how DID the two pilots survive and hell, what happened to the monster on board? Sure, I can see maybe ONE person making it out alive, but the only way both could would be if the creature on board got airsick from the chopper’s spinning and started gagging on his victim, someone managed to open the side door and push the thing outside before the crash or the monster was crushed and burned alive in the wreckage and possible resulting explosion. Since we never see what happened nor find out how the two guys survived (U-S-A! U-S-A!), it’s up to speculation, I guess. That said, if there’s ever a sequel made, well… that’s where your creature will be coming from, kids.

 

(thanks, studioADI!)

 

6) On The Good Ship, Lollipop. And then there’s the flying saucer scene… I hated most, if not all of it. For one thing, the ship wasn’t exactly the same as the one in Carpenter’s film and changing it just because it didn’t look “right” (as noted in the audio commentary from the new film) was a bizarre thing to do from a continuity standpoint. Then again, given that the ship was in a cave here (argh) and the film never tries to set up something that would logically explain its location changing to a crater, it seems like one of those “OK, we changed THIS part already, so we may as well roll with it!” deals that could have been avoided by thinking more inside the box Carpenter had constructed rather than trying too hard to erase what they considered his mistakes. That said, here are some other ending possibilities I came up with to rectify that saucer situation:

Solution One: ‘I’m Melllllting!”  Hey, it’s an ICE cave, right? I’d have shown that ice melting when the engines were shut on (or started warming up) and had Kate and Carter try to disable the engines with thermite grenades to crash the ship (and hopefully, taking out the creature in the process). Having the ship lift off, bust through the ice ceiling and then come crashing back down would do a good job of forming a crater as well as melting the snow and ice around the hot wreckage (which would now look like it did in the 1982 film). Now, “How would all that freeze over so quickly?” you ask? Well, according to Carpenter’s film, night temperatures in that part of the globe are supposed to be pretty high (minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit if you pay attention) and hell, that alien metal SHOULD in “reality”, cool quickly so the ship can safely travel into different atmospheres. Add in the time from when the ship crashes after the blast to its alien metal super-cooling the terrain around it (perhaps the explosion also damaged its freon/liquid nitrogen approximate core cycling unit) and *ding!* One frozen (again!) alien craft.

As for Kate and Carter, well… let’s say they survived the crash with the usual Hollywood cuts, bumps, and bruises and walk away. Then, the film could end as originally directed. But even then, there’s ONE more major issue that sticks out, but I’ll get to that in a second in…

 

  (more unused brilliance from StudioADI, although this would have been an Alien movie in a way if they went this direction…)

 

Solution Two: Where’s the Beast (Part Two)?:  As in the film, Sander takes off in the truck and Kate and Carter are about to go after him, but they need to get another truck rolling, giving the good (er, not so good) Doctor a bit of a head start. When they finally get underway and close to the crash site, they eventually come across the burning wreckage of the Doc’s truck, but unfortunately… no one is inside. They rush to the saucer thinking he’s (er, it’s) already on board and split up to kill him and blow up the ship, both planning not to get out alive. They make it into the ship and realize that there’s nothing living on board… because the monster hasn’t arrived yet. Just as they’re about to go to Plan B (blow the ship up, get the hell off and go search for the creature before it freezes itself again), the badly injured creature crashes down into the ship and splits into two halves. Eeek! It turns out that Doc Halverson couldn’t drive at all, but the creature was trying to because when injured, it mixes up memory patterns of similar species it absorbs.

Kate goes through her chase sequence here, but we lose the dopey “suddenly, the monster is too dumb to reach around a friggin’ corner!” nonsense and “Kate goes for that out of reach grenade!” stuff in favor of half a flaming Thing trying to get one last kill before it burns up into smelly chunks. Kate’s Unfortunate Too Hot Thing burns up just as it’s about to reach her and she uses one of her grenades to finish it off (insert witty catchphrase here). As for Carter, we don’t see what happens to him, but as Kate is calling for him, the ship is rocked by an second explosion, which knocks Kate out… then silence as the screen cuts to black.

Kate wakes up still on board the ship, which is now wrecked and smoking inside (and not exactly space-worthy). She makes her way to the top, finding Carter’s flamethrower (and perhaps some blood} along the way, heads out of the main hatch (leaving it open for the next film) and back to the surface via the conveniently left in place ropes and climbing gear left by the team when they went into the crater, should we go the crater over cave route. Just toss in a line at the Norwegian camp beer bash about the team members wanting to return later to dismantle the saucer or something. As she’s stumbling through the bitter cold to the truck, she recalls something Carter said about a Russian camp about 50 miles away. Now, going back to the Norwegian camp isn’t EXACTLY a good idea, but she plans to take her chances just to snap up some supplies and snacks plus some non-lethal evidence she can use to get into the Soviet camp to explain what happened and ask for a ride home (with a side order of diplomatic immunity, of course).

However… Just as she reaches the truck, she hears “Kate… Help me…” It’s Carter, but he’s a bit bloodied up (OK, a lot bloodied up) and with ripped/burned clothing. Kate initially starts towards him with a “What, you survived AGAIN?!” look on her face, but realizes what’s up (hey, he’s got no earring!) and burns him OUTSIDE the truck for the “good” ending or INSIDE the truck for the bleaker finale some fans would have wanted to see (as she’d now be stranded in the cold with two burning vehicles and no way to travel unless she went on foot).

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this finale is a bit of moderately amusing “revenge” on my part for the new film messing with the Carpenter film a final time. Since the writer and director tried (and almost succeeded in) cheating the more unaware audience members by taking the convenient road in not explaining why the hell Carter’s clothes aren’t ripped when he reunites with Kate after he’s infected on the ship (remember MacCready’s line as well as all the visual evidence in the Carpenter film and this one that a victim’s clothes are ripped when they’re taken over?), I figured this newer finale is more fitting.

As for Kate’s fate, it did surprise me a tiny bit that the film ended so abruptly with no clear resolution as to where she ends up. However, that line about the Russian camp had another bell in my head go off, this time with a “sequel!” sound. Yeah, yeah – the thought of another Thing film that potentially drifts even further away from the John Carpenter version (or Campbell’s original story, “Who Goes There?”) is going to make some heads pop, but hear me out for a minute.

Here’s a thought: As I noted above, either Kate goes back to the Norwegian camp to load up on what supplies and notes she finds and sets off for that Russian camp, OR she makes a beeline for that camp (taking anything she can salvage from the other vehicle) and eventually finds it, only to see that those Russians are a lot more prepared for this sort of Thing than even she expected. If she goes back to the Norwegian camp, she’ll see that the Thing she burned is long gone as are any notes she may have seen, as the boys of Outpost 31 now have them in their possession. This would force her to either head that way (highly unlikely with no working radio) or go in the opposite direction and hope she didn’t run into anything that may have escaped (remember, that chopper wreck and two bodies are all unaccounted for)…

 

(thanks, morgancreate!)

 

I already have the opening shot and crazy ending sequence written down (it made me laugh because it was SO obvious, yet shocking from a few angles) as once a kooky idea like this hits my brain, it sticks around for a while. That said, er… anyone got about $120 million to spare? Or maybe a quarter of that for a made for cable mini-series? I can think of a nice three to four hour extravaganza that closes the book for good on this franchise, yet has things really going out in a bang (so to speak)…

-GW

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6 thoughts on “Dissecting THE THING: Missing Minutiae, Merrily Making Modern Mistakes…

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  4. I like your alternate versions…much better than what I saw at the theater, and they make a lot more sense, too. I spent most of the film trying to figure out if it was a prequel or a remake, and right up to the end credits, I still didn’t know which it was. In fact, I still don’t quite know…everything seems to parallel the Carpenter version, but yet, almost everyone in the camp is Norwegian. I think I’ll just stick with the sequel, ‘The Thing with Two Heads’.

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    • Yeah, that Comicon trailer clearly showed it was a prequel to the Carpenter version, but it seems the film got a but manhandled by the studio at some point and some things became less clear. Even as a prequel, it messed too much with what Carpenter laid down. I actually saw the film twice and the second time I took notes that ended up as part of the article. It’s hard to scribble stuff in a dark theater, by the way.

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