Thursday, October 20, 2011

All Good Things

There are some things that don't appear to be completely thought out when it comes to Hollywood business ideas. Horror films set in space. Films based on obscure teen novels. Tom Cruise. All of these things are poor, poor concepts that continue to thrive in cinema thanks to the misguided notions of not very bright people; they continue to exist because the people in charge simply don't know any better. Possibly the worst of these offenders is the remake, long reviled by movie purists who use it as an argument that the film industry is all out of good ideas. That isn't to say that there haven't been good - or even great - remakes in the history of Hollywood. Between Oceans Eleven, 3:10 to Yuma, and Let Me In, Hollywood has had its fair share of successes in that particular department. One of the better remakes in history was one of the 1951 science fiction film The Thing from Another World. Though initially failing at the box office, John Carpenter's The Thing would eventually became a cult classic. While 2011's new entry The Thing is in fact a prequel of that title and not a true remake, not many people seem to have noticed this and the fact that it features the same shape-changing creature, Antarctic locale and "who can you trust" storyline doesn't help its cause. Still, it was for me a more compelling a theatrical visit than the new Footloose, so there was no question that I would see this over the weekend.

"We'll blind it... with science!"
In 1982, University of Colombia geologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is invited to visit a science camp in Antarctica which has made a groundbreaking discovery. Deep beneath the ice, an alien spacecraft has been discovered after 100,000 years of solitude alongside an ancient intergalactic passenger frozen completely solid. Sure that they have made the discovery of the century, Kate and the science team are making preparations to take the creature home when the unthinkable happens, as the monster escapes and begins hunting the members of the team. With an ability to shapeshift into any human form and assume the identities of those it kills, it is not long before the survivors find themselves unsure who they can trust and whether they will be able to escape this nightmare scenario.

Winstead doing her best Ellen Ripley impression
When you're making a horror film, even one with sci-fi basis, there's nothing more cliche than the ragtag science team that can't understand what is happening to them. It doesn't help when the people you cast in these roles are so similar-looking as to completely blend into one another save for singular glaring differences. Still, there are a few standouts among them, allowing most of the cannon fodder to be killed off with little to no hard feelings. Mary Elizabeth Winstead proves herself a solid scream queen after impressing me with her perpetually-amused Ramona Flowers in 2010's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Here she plays much more serious a part but doesn't hesitate to carry the film's load squarely on her shoulders when needed. Winstead may not be a household name but with more solid outings like this she may soon be. Joel Edgerton is in just about everything these days. He became known to most American audiences though his small role in last year's Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom, though he had been making random appearances for years in film, including the much-maligned Star Wars prequels. But now he's making a name for himself, and even if his films aren't getting much attention (including the overlooked gem Warrior), Edgerton has succeeded in simply making people pay attention to him. Sure, here he plays the gung-ho American pilot (the Kurt Russell role, I call it), but he manages to take that role and make it his, which is a talent you can't teach. Ulrich Thomsen does his best Kenneth Brannagh impression as the antagonistic lead scientist who puts his own glory ahead of the common good. After that if you can recognize anyone not the black guy (Lost's Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) you've earned yourself a gold star. Most of the rest are a faceless pack, and don't do much to differentiate themselves before they are killed or transformed, which apparently happens whenever they leave our line of sight.

There's a lot of gun pointing going on
One thing to be said about advancements in technology is that what was impossible two decades ago can be reborn quite easily in this day and age. Of course, this also allows for you to get into more trouble if you have little idea what you are actually doing, and both sides of the puzzle are hit upon when it comes to The Thing's special effects department. Certainly the 1982 film built the perfect atmosphere that made the entire Antarctic environs so frightening - it was a classic Carpenter film, after all - but director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr manages to create a world arguably as stimulating if not more so thanks to today's leaps and bounds in technology and set design. Though some scenes, such as one in which Kate views the stars through the clear Southern sky, are beautiful to behold as can be, there are still a few flaws that haven't quite worked their way out. This was a criticism I had with 2010's top Oscar contender The Social Network, but the digitally-rendered frozen breath is more than a little distracting, as it looks no more real than the animated critters in the latest Indiana Jones flick did. Instead of trying too hard with the imagery, the budget for which was obviously heavily invested in the design and implementation of the monsters, perhaps turning down a thermostat would have been easier, cheaper, and more realistic. I have no complaints about the monster itself, which in many forms is rendered with amazing clarity, suffering not one whit when we see it in detail up close. Overall, the fog breath is a relatively minor quibble when the rest is almost masterfully pulled off by an obviously talented team.

In war films, they always run towards the enemy. This isn't a war movie.
Of course, if you've seen the classic John Carpenter thriller, there's little reason that this would need to be on your must-see list in 2011. With remarkably fewer scares, it's essentially the same tale presented here, with some additional back story for the creature and obviously different characters doing little to change the basic themes and ideas that the classic horror film instituted. This is an especially frustrating concept when your title in question is a prequel that feels more like a simple retread than it really should. Winstead and Edgerton may be stars on the rise, but they would have to be the MAIN reasons you want to see this movie, as a simple trip to the video store will gain you the same overall experience without paying out the nose for popcorn and a soda. Still, getting out to see The Thing proved to be an overall good time, so if you really do need an immediate horror experience and since there is literally NOTHING in that genre to see in the theaters right now, this should be right up your alley.

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