Joel Edgerton and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in "The Thing." (Universal Pictures, Universal…)
The slippery, effective new version of "The Thing" serves as a prequel to the 1982 John Carpenter film, explaining what went down, down in Antarctica, after the intergalactic thing thawed and began eviscerating humans plus a Husky or two. Those disinclined toward Carpenter's version, as I am, may be surprised at how the new release nearly matches the gore levels and the fright reached in an earlier, nondigital era of practical special effects. Yet this latest "Thing" doesn't feel like one long autopsy the way Carpenter's film (which may as well have been called "Blech") did in its day.
Several things in "The Thing" announce themselves as assets straight off. For one, it builds cleverly in its first half-hour, as a Columbia University paleontologist played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead is recruited to join a research team in Antarctica. The group has made a significant discovery in the annals of UFOs. Which is to say, they've found one. Nearby, in its own hunk of ice, lies a frozen creature.
The Dutch-born, first-time feature director Matthijs van Heijningen tightens the screws carefully, as the expedition leader (Trond Espen Seim, vaguely despicable in that Dr. Smith "Lost in Space" way) drills into the ice block to extract a tissue sample. We don't know if something awful is going to happen immediately, or pretty soon, or what. Or to whom.
Another asset: Winstead. She's good. The cool-headed skeptic in a mass of bearded Norwegians, plus an American or two and an Aussie, she bristles at the implied patriarchy of the remote, windswept operation. She also wields a flamethrower (there's a lot of flamethrowing in this picture — a lot) like a champ when The Thing gets busy replicating, impaling and gnashing its terrible, terrible teeth. The actress is just right for this sort of role; her dark eyes bring a seriousness of intent to the tasks at hand. While her character's deadpan underreactions to various ghastly sights sometimes recall her work in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," she brings a light, cool touch to heavy matters.
This "Thing," shot largely in northern British Columbia, engaged me more than Carpenter's. That's not to say it can hold a candle to the superb 1951 "Thing From Another World," directed by Christian Nyby with contributions from producer Howard Hawks, featuring James Arness as the clawed, hulking, carrot-headed enemy from out there. That film is a marvel of indirection, of ensemble camaraderie in the face of the Cold War-era unknown.
Compared with that picture, this new one's just an entertaining, well-acted oozefest.
All three "Things," along with everything from the original "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" to "Alien," owe their central ideas to the Depression-era story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell Jr. There's a rock-solid notion in that tale of an alien being able to take over a human body and cause pure paranoia in the populace. Who's real and who isn't? Why does so-and-so seem a little off today? And why is my dog looking at me funny?
While I wish Van Heijningen's "Thing" weren't quite so in lust with the '82 model, it works because it respects that basic premise. And it exhibits a little patience, doling out its ickiest, nastiest moments in ways that make them stick.