Idea for 'The Thing' backstory is better left on ice

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Urich Thomsen in "The Thing." SOURCE UNIVERSAL PICTURES
October 24, 2011

In film, prequels are a tricky business. You can run the risk of smothering a story with too much exposition (thanks, George Lucas for all those thrilling intergalactic Senate debates in "The Phantom Menace"!), or can just seem entirely unnecessary (while watching "Silence of the Lambs," I kept thinking it needed more Nazis, and thankfully "Young Hannibal" delivered for me!).

Either way, a prequel can do more damage than a sequel, for it can toy with or tarnish the film in which it's connected.

But as "X-Men: First Class" demonstrated this summer, it is an opportunity that, when handled correctly, can successfully explore further the world that has previously been established.

"The Thing," which is supposed to serve as a prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 thriller of the very same name, aimed to tell the tale of the Norweigian research team that first encountered the alien lifeform in the establishing scenes of Carpenter's film.

It did not seem all that necessary a tale, but it was an opportunity to broaden the canvas from Carpenter's vision and paint on the fringes of the world he created. Instead, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. decided to merely trace.

For those who recall the original fondly (as does this reviewer), not only will this film feel like a cheap redo, but it also toys with the very nature of its titular subject, changing it from a cautious, calculating shape-shifter to a brutal, relentless killing machine.

It takes place in 1982, which is signaled only by the fact that someone is listening to Men at Work on a Walkman. Kate (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a brilliant paleontologist, is approached to join a Norwegian team in Antarctica that has just discovered an alien ship below tons of ice and snow.

She agrees and is quickly joined by a group of burly manly men, a shaggy-haired hunk, and one other female in a quest for answers. There are far too many characters to keep track of, and it seems that screenwriter Eric Heisserer (who also hacked apart "A Nightmare on Elm Street" with his keyboard a few years back in the remake) doesn't care too much.

In fact, when first trying to keep tabs on everyone, I gave them nicknames to help me distinguish them. And, quite honestly, I'm sticking with them for the review, as they were mostly meaningless to the plot, only to be either inhabited or killed by the alien monster (for the record, their names --to me-- were: Young Jim Carrey Lookalike, James Cameron Lookalike, Paul Bunyan, Cagey Scientist Dude, Token Black Guy, Hot Norwegian Chick, and Yukon Cornelius).

Just as in the 1982 film, it's discovered that the alien can replicate human blood cells; just like the 1982 film, there's an alien autopsy that goes haywire; just like the 1982 film, there's a climactic litmus test to reveal which of the characters may actually be an alien (but instead of a hot needle in blood, it's based on bad dental hygiene... seriously) ; just like the 1982 film, there's a scene in a darkened kitchen in which a character is slowly stalked by the creature. Oh, wait. That was cribbed straight out of "Jurassic Park."

Actually, the only thing that's missing is the slow-building dread, the claustrophobic fear, the creepy special effects from master  Rob Bottin, and the commanding lead performance from Kurt Russell. There are several nods to the earlier film for the eagle-eyed viewer, but they are tenuous ties at best. Nothing is revealed that would help give viewers a greater understanding of anything we've previously witnessed. Like the aliens itself, this idea for giving us a backstory to "The Thing" would have been better left on ice.

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