Whether accidental or not, when Bill Lancaster was writing John Carpenter’s The Thing a full two decades ago, he also designed an ideal set-up for a prequel/remake. Considering how many classic horror films have been remade in recent years, it’s frankly surprising that it has taken so long for someone to take advantage of the prequel possibilities left behind by Lancaster. See, in 1982’s The Thing, the characters find the charred ruins of a Norwegian research base, so 2011’s The Thing explores what happened at that Norwegian camp. Thus, while this flick (annoyingly) shares the same title as the 1982 original, this is a chronological precursor to Carpenter’s film rather than just a lazy remake. The resulting picture is a solid, enjoyable monster yarn which welcomely displays great respect and reverence for the film that spawned it. It even kicks off with a retro Universal Studios logo from the 1980s to establish the tone.

Set in 1982, young palaeontologist Kate Lloyd (Winstead) is hired to augment a team of scientists at an Antarctica research facility. A group of Norwegians led by Dr. Sander Halverson (Thomsen) have discovered something peculiar: the remains of a spacecraft, and a biological specimen frozen in the ice. Against Kate’s advice, the frozen alien is brought back to base, with the team looking to examine and sample the history-making creature before transporting it home. It isn’t long, though, before the alien breaks out of its icy coffin and begins running amok around the camp. Kate also discovers that the creature is capable of imitating any life-form, including humans. Any one of the researchers could in fact be the otherworldly interloper, and thus Kate sets out to discern where the alien is hiding. If the thing escapes Antarctica and reaches civilisation, it could bring about a cataclysmic world event.

The deck was absolutely stacked against this remake. Writer Eric Heisserer and director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. faced an uphill battle, tasked with reverently redoing the original film’s basic routine while adding enough fresh ideas to the franchise’s mythology. Follow the exact same path as the original with psychological terror and identical events, and it runs the risk of being labelled as too derivative and disposable. On the other hand, too much new stuff could lead to it being too over-the-top or offensive to fans. To their credit, the makers did an adequate job of staying between the two extremes. Viewers have complained that this prequel too closely replicates the original, but Heisserer and Heijningen introduce enough unique situations, ideas and events to make the flick worthwhile. Plus, what else could the filmmakers have done? It’s implied that the events of Carpenter’s original film just happened in the Norwegian camp. Stop being so cynical.

The Thing had to work towards a pre-established conclusion, but the fun lies in how it gets to that point. Heisserer and Heijningen were clearly in tune with this rule, so they worked to provide a worthwhile, engaging horror ride. And, thank goodness, they did a good job. Rather than being filled with dumb wall-to-wall creature violence, this prequel is surprisingly retrained, exhibiting patience and an interest in maintaining enthralling tension. Indeed, like its predecessor, the constant and lingering question of which character is the creature becomes a constant source of intensity which is played upon quite a bit. And when things begin to fall apart, it’s edge-of-your-seat stuff. However, the creature does seem too aggressive and vicious from time to time here, and the overzealous climax doesn’t sit well with the rest of the flick.

As we’re in the 21st Century and placid monster behaviour would be boring for today’s viewers, this The Thing is more reliant on CGI than makeup or practical effects. At times it works, but at other times the digital creations exhibit embarrassing phoniness, with shoddy effects work causing certain scenes to almost fall apart. CGI lacks the immediacy and grotesque nature of prosthetics and animatronics, automatically bringing this prequel down a few notches. The adage of “less is more” definitely applies here – the more we see of the weak computer effects, the less convincing the creature looks. On a more positive note, though, The Thing is not toned-down like most modern horror films. On the contrary, this is a viciously violent, unapologetically R-rated piece of horror cinema. And it’s all the better for it, as the gory details are essential in a motion picture such as this. The Thing is also effectively shadowy and atmospheric, with Michel Abramowicz’s opulent cinematography and Marco Beltrami’s eerie score (which incorporates strains of Ennio Morricone’s masterful music from Carpenter’s film) keeping the proceedings interesting.

While the 1982 film featured nothing but male performers (save for a female computer voice), the main character here is played by the always-reliable Mary Elizabeth Winstead. More or less a mix of Kurt Russell’s R.J. MacReady and Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, Winstead’s Kate Lloyd is a strong, smart protagonist and an engaging entry point into the narrative. Winstead is not an air-headed stick figure; she comes across as a real, three-dimensional human with a functioning brain. Meanwhile, Australian actor Joel Edgerton also excels here as a helicopter pilot – his performance is both intense and appealing. Another strong point is that the producers were smart enough to hire actual Norwegian actors to play the Norwegian characters, and they speak in their native language when the occasion calls for it. The likes of Ulrich Thomsen, Trond Espen Seim and other Norwegian performers are top-notch here, affording The Thing a flavour that would’ve been absent if the picture was filled with Americans espousing faux accents.

Keen fans of the 1982 film will spot several references throughout this prequel. Most substantially, this The Thing works to address the origins of several after-the-fact discoveries from the original flick (the charred corpse, the base’s destruction, etc), and it closes with an end credits sequence that neatly (and shrewdly) ties into the original film’s opening sequence. Indeed, it would be best if you saw Carpenter’s original film before watching this prequel. 2011’s The Thing is not nearly as good as the film that spawned it – that’s a given, as it is literally impossible to top. Nevertheless, this is an above-average effort, resulting in a sterling companion piece to Carpenter’s masterwork. It’s definitely better than it had any right to be, and it’s easily better than the dumb monster movie drivel that we’re so often subjected to in this day and age.

6.9/10