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A Whole New Thing: When a Remake Isn’t a Remake

28930d_76e03ccfe332800325a4d7e63a02db7fIt’s Not A Remake

The Thing, 2011, is NOT a remake. It is a prequel. I just did more than the entire Universal Studios marketing department with that clarification.

John Carpenter got royally screwed on his 1982 masterpiece. Some call The Thing his greatest film. Others, like me, call it one of the greatest films ever made for any genre. Carpenter’s film was buried in 1982 by a candy pilfering alien and Spielberg. Between a lackluster marketing campaign by Universal Studios and America’s pop sugar desire for heart glowing aliens, The Thing, 1982, never really had a chance. Carpenter himself saw the handwriting on the wall after exiting a plane to giant advertisements for ET: The Extraterrestrial. “We’re done,” he lamented.

However home video and cable gave his film a new life, and eventually the tortoise caught up and passed the alien. Today, Carpenter’s film is regarded as timeless and as mentioned, by many, his best. The film is deserving of all its accolades. The practical makeup effects still hold up and amaze. The casting was sublime and Carpenter was at the top of his directing game. It was the last film to feature the core of Carpenter’s original team in front and behind the camera.

It’s cynical enough for studios to remake their own previous hits. What’s worse is when it doesn’t remake one if its hits, but lets the public THINK it did and then give it the same title as the previous film to confuse fans even further. The 2011 “The Thing” is an interesting case of a studio hedging its bets.

I repeat, The Thing, 2011,  is not a remake. Both Carpenter’s film and this prequel are based on the John W. Campbell short story “Who Goes There?” and are far more loyal to that material than the Howard Hawks classic, The Thing From Another World. I would go as far as to say that Carpenter’s film is NOT a remake as well. While all three share the same Antarctic setting, the 1950s film is more like “Frankenstein from Space” as the alien is humanoid and does not replicate its victims as a form of sophisticated camouflage. The alien, played by future “Gunsmoke ” star, James Arness, is a lumbering, pissed off humanoid thing that bears more than a passing resemblance to the 1933 Karloff Frankenstein’s Monster. Carpenter’s film is more of an original adaptation of Campbell’s story than a remake of the Hawks film that bore little resemblance to the written material.

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James Arness as “The Thing From Another World”

Bad Marketing

Universal dropped the marketing ball in 1982 with the original The Thing. They were more focused on ET and the cash rolling in. Carpenter’s film got kicked to the curb and left to fend on its own. I saw the film in an almost empty theater. Looking back, it only made it more special because I was one of the first champions of the movie before the Johnny Come Lately’s years later who saw it on video.

Oddly, the studio did it again in 2011. Universal didn’t come out and say the new film was a prequel but it didn’t deny it either. Little was done to promote it as a prequel to the Carpenter classic. A proper advertising campaign might have skirted failure. The marketing department handling this film should be flogged for negligence.

 

Aside from a clear marketing strategy, some genius thought it’d be a good idea to call it The Thing without any type of differentiation from Carpenter’s film. Any other time we have the usual subtitle: “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” or at least a number, “Back to the Future Part II” unless of course you’re the dumbass who came up with the run-on title: “Jaws The Revenge”.

Why call it “The Thing?” It’s not clever and it certainly fueled the belief that it was a remake and added resentment to the scores of fans of the 1982 film. 

The 1982 film faded quickly from theater screens. Cable showings and eventual digital releases cemented it in the realm of movie classics. It truly is a perfect horror film: a beautiful portrait of human paranoia slathered with Hitchcockian suspense. It is brilliant and deserved a better theatrical release and its cynical studio knew it.

Universal  deliberately leaned toward connecting the Carpenter’s movie with the 1951 film. The original was a creature feature fan favorite and remakes were not taken as kindly as they are today. So for many it was blasphemy that the James Arness classic would be remade. Instead of hyping up the difference of this new film and the positive spin of truly being based on the original short story, the film could have been marketed better as a whole new film instead of a remake.

But that would take actual work and imagination. Sadly the Imagination Capital of the World is lacking in this natural resource.  They threw the film out there at the end of summer after E.T. The Extraterrestrial became the biggest movie of all time. The little alien clobbered Carpenter’s shapeshifting monstrosity and Kurt Russell.

It Deserved Better

I am not saying the 2011 film is a classic. However it is a worthy prequel and deserved better. From the opening shots, the 2011 The Thing is clearly made with sincere reverence for Carpenter’s film. The issue with the film on its own merit is that it doesn’t really offer anything new. Aside from filling in the gaps for the backstory of the 1982 film, there are few surprises here and feels like a “retread.” Prequel may not have been the right direction to take this “Thing” as the Norwegian story just isn’t as riveting nor does it have the cast of interesting character actors of its predecessor.

So is the The Thing  prequel good? Yes. It is made with a firm attention to detail. The production designer made sure that the sets, the alien ship and even the landscapes are in the right places to match up with Carpenter’s film. There is a slight hint of Ennio Morricone’s original theme in the opening music with a downright orgasmic revival by the closing credits that seamlessly fuses this film with Carpenter’s.

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Elizabeth Winstead is the precursor to Kurt Russell in 2011’s “The Thing.”

What Works

Director of Photography Michael Abramowicz lovingly recreates the look and feel of the 1982 film. There is almost no difference in the style of the film’s look, unlike the latest Indiana Jones film to its previous entries. The script goes to great lengths to connect with all of the items discovered in the 1982 film. There are a lot of “Ah ha” moments when these connections happen. Again, however, few new surprises.

The effects rely on CGI, which does give new flexibility to the way the creature replicates. However it’s all become a little too accepted and where Rob Bottin’s effects startled audiences in 1982, these provide polite interest. It’s the stuff of an expensive SyFy Channel movie and we know it.

In 1982 audiences truly asked: “how the hell did they do that?” about the the effects. Now we know: it’s computers and green screens.

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Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. works hard with a screenplay by Eric Heisserer to stay loyal to the Carpenter film, and this may be the problem.

While trading up to a strong female star and Aliens like corporate scientist bad guy, the film is pretty much a “who is it?” story that does tread close to remake territory. Like the plodding and over reverent Superman Returns the director got all caught up in idolizing the previous film instead of heading into some uncharted territory to provide fresh surprises for the audience.

There are also strong signs of studio tampering as I suspect the film did not end for Winstead’s character as it plays out in the movie. The original film made it clear the alien must rip through clothing when copying its victim. Throughout this new film, great attention was given to stay consistent with the Carpenter film. Then suddenly, in the last ten minutes, certain important conventions are ignored for the sake of an unsatisfying “twist” ending.

Trust me, if the film hasn’t delivered a surprise by this point, no ending like this is going to save it, plus you could see it coming through the fake blizzard that also feels like a reshoot. Morgan Creek had a history of tampering with director visions: Alien 3, The Exorcist III, all to make it appeal to as wide an audience possible.

This is Cynema without a doubt.

If you approach the 2011 film as the prequel as it was rightfully made, it is a serviceable film that cares very much for its source. So this movie is NOT Cynema, as the production values, the care for the original material were all above average. Simply, there are few surprises and really nothing all that new. As said before, a sequel to events after the Kurt Russell ending would have been far more interesting.

However the marketing of this film is an entirely different story.

Someone lost faith and dropped the ball. The film was dumped out in October to cash in on the Halloween viewers but at that time of year, aliens aren’t what people are looking for. Halloween lends itself to more traditional horror: ghosts and psychos, not aliens. Aliens are the stuff of summer films and someone at the studio didn’t want a repeat of the summer of 1982.

Only this time it was transforming mechanized aliens and a boy wizard to go several rounds in the ring.

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