The creepiest part of "The Thing" is how it takes over the characters' bodies, one by one, and doesn't reveal itself until it's ready to kill. Once the characters discover this, everyone is suspect, no one can be trusted. It's not unlike Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None," except the grande dame of crime fiction didn't have any entrails and two-headed, backward-spider-walking aliens in her books. At least not the ones I've read.
Since it has the same title as John Carpenter's 1982 movie, itself a remake of a 1951 film, it's easy to assume "The Thing" is a remake too. It's not, though. It's a prequel, showing how the Norwegian Antarctic research station ended up in the destroyed state seen in Carpenter's movie. And those who remember that film will be rewarded: There are plenty of smart homages to the 1982 movie in this one. Some are subtle — an axe left in a door — and the final scene brings everything full circle to the '80s movie's beginnings.
Elements of the film are solid. The Norwegian actors aren't known to us and come across as if they could be real researchers, drinking and shouting "Skol!" one minute and arming to fight an unknown menace the next. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is all right in the lead role, as an American academic who takes charge once the alien is loose, but she's going to be unfairly compared to Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, and comes out wanting.
In fact, if you start comparing "The Thing" to "Alien" or "Aliens," it loses big time. Those films carried such a menacing sense of dread. Here, in part because the Norwegians aren't well-developed as individuals (no ballsy Vazquez or tough-talking Apone), we care less when they're killed.
And there's not as much suspense — there are plenty of individual scenes where the Thing pops out of yet another person, who screams and dies horribly while a comrade scrambles to get out of the way — but they don't flow together and build up the dread. Suspenseful music — alien reveal — bloody death —and, scene! OK, boys, get some more corn syrup blood and do it again!
The Arctic setting, the mistrust among characters, the mysterious creature, the sense that no one can really flee, since they might as well already be on another planet — those are all wonderfully frightening details, perfect for a horror movie. But "The Thing" isn't quite sure what "Thing" to be.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is TODAY.com's movies editor.