"The Thing," a prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 monster movie of the same name, lives up to its generic title.
It delivers a repetitive assault of gross creature effects and action done far better in Carpenter's version, the first two "Alien" films and a lot of other flicks about entities that feed on pitiful earthlings.
The filmmakers deserve credit for trying something different. Rather than doing the typical Hollywood remake, they tell the story about a doomed Norwegian expedition that leads right into the opening moments of Carpenter's tale, which starred Kurt Russell as part of a U.S. research team battling an alien that consumes and mimics other lifeforms.
That approach proves awfully limiting for director Matthijs van Heijningen, making his big-screen debut after a career in commercials, and screenwriter Eric Heisserer, both big fans of Carpenter's "The Thing."
The filmmakers are meticulous, even anal, about remaining true to the few glimpses Carpenter's movie gave of what happened to the Norwegians.
The result is that the new "Thing" kind of does what the alien does — digest the original and spit out a creepy copy whose sole purpose is to survive at any cost. There's not much suspense, and the few scares are cheap jolts that could have come from any old monster movie.
"The Thing" does introduce some American characters we never suspected were involved in the Norwegian mayhem that leads to Carpenter's version.
Columbia University paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is asked by a Norwegian researcher (Ulrich Thomsen) and his assistant (Eric Christian Olsen) to journey with them to Antarctica to examine an alien frozen in the ice from a spaceship that crashed there 100,000 years ago.
American helicopter pilots Carter (Joel Edgerton) and Jameson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) ferry them to the Norwegian outpost, where everyone bonds over one of the great discoveries in history.
Turns out the alien's not dead, though, and the creature starts snacking on the humans and turning out replicas that leave the researchers frantic to figure out who's real and who's not.
That time-honored sci-fi paranoia goes back to the first incarnation of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and even earlier, to the 1938 John W. Campbell Jr. short story "Who Goes There?", the basis for Carpenter's "The Thing" and the 1951 version "The Thing from Another World," featuring James Arness.
In the new movie, the researchers' distrust amounts to little more than superficial finger-pointing (an exchange such as "You're one of those things!" "No, I'm not, you are!" would not seem out of place amid the forgettable dialogue).
The filmmakers do concoct a cool low-tech way to help cull the things from the human herd, though it lacks the suspense of Russell shoving a hot wire into blood samples to see which will leap out of their Petri dishes in the 1982 version.
The prequel takes most of the other trappings of Carpenter's movie and beats them to death. Flame-throwers and fire extinguishers are going off constantly, while the filmmakers turn the freak show of Carpenter's creature effects into a nauseating hybrid of computer-generated visuals and prosthetic props.
Things with vaguely human faces and appendages creep about in much more open and predatory fashion than in the 1982 movie, undermining the really scary core of the story — that the friends and colleagues around you might not be who they seem.
The filmmakers try to create a bond between Winstead and Edgerton, but they succeed only in crowning them as the characters most likely to survive, courtesy of top billing and the most screen time.
As a mild-mannered woman rising to kick-ass status, Winstead eagerly aims to channel Sigourney Weaver in "Aliens," though she proves a pup in comparison.
Fans who know Carpenter's "The Thing" well probably will appreciate the jigsaw-puzzle precision applied to making a faithful prequel, right down to using Ennio Morricone's sparse, throbbing musical theme from the 1982 version as a segue. Once the new one's out on home video, the two movies could make a nice creature double-feature, at least, for people with strong stomachs.
Fans who don't know the 1982 movie well — or at all — probably will view this new take on "The Thing" as a jigsaw puzzle with some key pieces missing. Some of the images and action are there just to match up with the Carpenter movie.
As for the rest, it just feels like the same old thing.
"The Thing," a Universal release, is rated R for strong creature violence and gore, disturbing images, and language. Running time: 103 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.