The Thing - Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) knows it's kill or be killed © 2011 Universal Studios

In a clever twist on the remake concept, the 2011 version of The Thing replicates many plot elements from the 1982 film but features new characters in a different Antarctica research facility. The gimmick is that everything here explains the set-up for the three-decade-old John Carpenter film, showing the horrific events that could only be imagined after the fact by Carpenter’s cast.

Jumping straight to what many fright-fans will care about most, the updated special effects are absolutely disgusting. And I mean that in the best possible sense. A lot of Rob Bottin’s effects and creature designs in Carpenter’s film looked great for their day, especially the creepy blood-and-guts autopsies, but the alien-transformation bits were nowhere close to current state of the art. At least one of those scenes — in which a pair of defibrillator paddles went straight through a chest filled with huge triangular teeth — looked so bad it was actually funny. In the new movie, all of the CGI and prosthetic effects (designed by Tom Woodruff Jr and Alec Gillis) are frighteningly, jaw-droppingly, stomach-turningly convincing.

In the opening of the 1982 movie, Americans stationed in Antarctica can’t figure out why a sniper in a Norwegian helicopter is shooting at a fleeing husky. The rifleman and pilot are killed, and the Americans investigate the devastated Norwegian facility to try figuring out what the heck happened there.

The Thing - Ulrich Thomsen
Sinister expedition leader Dr Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) with some-Thing frightening him! © 2011 Universal Studios

The new movie begins with the Norwegians discovering a massive spaceship under the ice and bringing a frozen alien back to their facility. Bad idea. Thawed and revived, the creature starts killing humans one by one and transforming into almost perfect reproductions of them, causing fearful suspicion and Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style paranoia to run rampant.

A huge amount of suspension of disbelief is required to buy the idea that a creature who can become a physical copy of a human also could impersonate the victim’s personality, voice and colloquial speech patterns so flawlessly that even close coworkers are fooled. Also, the movie doesn’t do a good job of making us believe all of this is taking place in a frigid way-below-zero environment; characters go outside as casually as if they were chillin’ at a ski lodge. And the screenplay by Eric Heisserer (based on John W Campbell Jr’s 1938 story “Who Goes There?”) doesn’t let us get to know the cast members well enough to differentiate between many of them.

If you can get past those flaws, the plot is genuinely suspenseful. First-time feature director Matthijs van Heijningen gives the film an anxious under-siege ambience in the horror-SF style of Ridley Scott’s Alien. Exactly why a spaceship in Alien and two different Antarctica research stations in both The Thing movies have flamethrowers on hand may be a mystery, but watching things burn is almost as fun as seeing stuff blow up.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Ramona Flowers in last year’s Scott Pilgrim vs The World) plays Columbia University paleontologist Dr Kate Lloyd with beautiful-but-bossy determination. Joel Edgerton is studly pilot Braxton Carter, and Ulrich Thomsen is the single-minded and possibly sinister expedition leader Dr Sander Halvorson.

Besides the much-improved gross-out moments, another upgrade here is the look of the gigantic spaceship from the 1982 movie — and we get to see its other-worldly interior the first time.

Although part of the conclusion is ambiguous enough to leave the door open for a sequel (one that also could precede events in the 1982 movie the way this one does), another element dovetails perfectly with the opening of Carpenter’s film. Here’s hoping the makers of this respectful and respectable re-do will decide to go back to the ice and pull off a horror-trilogy hat trick.

[Rating: 3.5 stars]

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.