Maybe there’s some sort of lunar cycle that demands a new film version of John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? every 30 years or so. In 1951 it was adapted as The Thing From Another World, produced and allegedly ghost-directed by Howard Hawks. In 1982 it was adapted as the more economically titled The Thing, directed by horror icon John Carpenter. And now in 2011 we have The Thing again, from Dutch commercials director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., making his feature debut. While Carpenter’s film took advantage of advances in effects technology to fully depict the horrors in Campbell’s story that were impossible to show in 1951, the new version doesn’t make as significant a leap. Despite its status as a sort of pseudo-prequel to Carpenter’s version, it pretty much just tells the same story with a few adjustments.
It does a decent job of that, though, and given the generally dismal state of horror remakes (including last year’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, from Thing screenwriter Eric Heisserer), that’s a respectable accomplishment. The biggest difference here is having a female lead (Carpenter’s film didn’t feature a single female character), a steely paleontologist played effectively by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Winstead’s Kate Lloyd is recruited by a team of Norwegian scientists in Antarctica to help excavate a mysterious find that turns out to be an evil shape-shifting alien.
As in Carpenter’s film, the main suspense comes from the characters’ paranoia about who is human and who is an alien impostor, and van Heijningen and Heisserer come up with some tense sequences, including a nice analogue for Carpenter’s masterful blood-testing scene. Winstead makes for an appealing protagonist, and Kate is portrayed as competent without being thrust into some unlikely action-hero role. The upgraded effects are used sparingly enough to be striking, although the drawn-out climax in the alien’s spacecraft is a bit of sci-fi overkill. With an ending that connects closely to the beginning of Carpenter’s film, the new Thing feels a little redundant and predetermined, but its respectful tone and efficient professionalism place it at a higher level than most horror remakes. We can look forward to the next version of the story in 2041.