Film Review – The Thing (2011)

Set in the most remote place possible without leaving the planet, John Carpenter’s The Thing captured the claustrophobia and distrust of a small group of people far from civilisation with some camouflaged monster living right among them. The film has some famous scenes of monstrous readaptation of human bodies, which, like the best effects of the time, still impress today.

But someone must have watched this and not fully understood what was going on. We need more backstory, they must have thought. What could have happened in the hours before everyone died and the dogs got infected? Obviously some kind of prequel was needed, and to ensure efficiency they chose to give it exactly the same name as the film it precedes, in a move which couldn’t possibly lead to any confusion.

Norwegian scientists working in the Antarctic accidentally drive their snowmobile thing down a crevice, and find far below them a crashed spaceship. (It is not shown how they managed to escape from this tricky situation, thus providing scope for another prequel in the future). Encased in nearby ice is one of the occupants, some kind of arthropod with claws and tentacles. Thus the film fleshes out some of those ambiguous scenes in the original, where some scientists are found dead at a research station and there’s an alien loose.

A team of investigators are assembled – including an American palaeontologist, for what must be a perfectly good reason – to see what they can make of it. The Norwegians are pretty much interchangeable, possibly all grouped together due to the similarity of their beards. One of them seems to be a professional beard actor, also to be seen keeping his chin warm in Game of Thrones. The team also includes two women, as if trying to retroactively correct the gender imbalance prevalent in sci-fi before the twenty-first century.

The creature in its block of ice is brought back inside and then as good as forgotten about. While the beards are drinking beer and singing about Norwegian stuff one of the Americans goes to have a bit of a look at the alien, only to see it burst from the ice and run off into hiding. It attacks and kills one of the team, beginning to assimilate his body before it is killed with fire. Again, the viewer now clicks his or her fingers – So that’s why! That bit in the original film where there’s a shape-changing monster – it’s because there’s a shape-changing monster in the past as well!

What follows is pretty much a re-enactment (pre-enactment) of the original film, with just about every scene mimicked and foreshadowed. The aliens take over several of the cast and assimilate their bodies and adapt them in gruesome ways. Tendrils ensnare and flesh is split apart as the lesser cast members queue up to be killed. Distrust sets in when it becomes apparent that any of them could be an alien in disguise and people point flamethrowers at each other in fear. The prequel seems to want to be a remake.

But as any Star Wars fan can tell you, the reliance on CGI serves only to show how good the original effects were. The twenty-first century Things look cleaner, more sharply defined, more homogenous. This has an effect comparable to a xenomorph without the drool and wearing a cardigan: it lessens the horror. The muddiness of the creatures should contrast with the pure simplicity of the snow or the flames. Instead we have lithe, shiny monsters with claws and a predictable mouth structure. A predictable mouth is never scary (as Benedict XVI once said).

There is one other important difference between the films. Once the crew have been whittled down to Kate the palaeontologist and Carter the bland man-character they end up going back to the site of the spaceship crash. Kate gets trapped inside the ship, which has come noisily into life. The fact of the advanced technology makes clear that these aliens, unlike the ones Kurt Russell faced, are intelligent. Somehow the creatures seem less menacing when you realise that, far from being some primitive, grotesque form of parasite, they are looking down on the humans as their inferiors. It is as if the writers have got confused and think they’re dealing with Predators instead.

They also lose track of the fact that, for the Carpenter film to work, everyone in the prequel has to die. This almost happens. Kate and the man character kill the aliens in the spaceship and aim to head for a Soviet base fifty miles away. But the man’s inability to answer a question about his ear-ring proves to Kate he is no longer human and she burns him alive in the snowtruck. The aliens can mimic human form, but not inorganic structures such as metal piercings, hence an earlier scene where Kate divides the others according to whether they have fillings or not. Possibly no other horror film has such a subtext concerning mouths. (Actually, Teeth, try that).

So Kate drives off to search for Russians, an unexpected survivor of the events which lead into The Thing (1982). And in the meanwhile Norwegian stragglers, including the mysterious Lars who has been presumed dead pretty much the entirety of the film, chase after an infected dog, thus providing a seamless transition to the sequel to the prequel (there should be a name for such a thing).

Film Review – The Eternal

Trawling through Netflix or Amazon looking for something to watch can be time well spent. Occasionally your patience will be rewarded with an unknown title well worth the time invested, a Tale of Two Sisters or a Coherence, which teaches you that fame is not the chief measure of art. But other times you will discover something justly obscure, a film which lacks the courage to show its face in daylight. And these have their own interest.

 

Nora and Jim love each other very much. We know this from the montage of them drinking booze and laughing which begins the film. If it were not obvious enough we have it reinforced by the narrator, Alice. They were devoted to each other, Alice says, but they could never be close because Nora had a great secret. There is no danger of spoilers here because, amid all the chaos to be seen later on, this secret of Nora’s is never explained. Maybe if the writer had found the time for a second draft – but no.

Nora, New York to her fingertips, turns out to be Irish. Not the New York definition of Irish, whereby one’s grandfather was distantly related to the O’Murphy clan who once ran a chain of theme pubs in New Jersey, but the real thing. She mysteriously left the emerald isle as a child, and now just as mysteriously chooses to go back. Her grandmother is old, she says on more than one occasion, and on this device does the plot precariously hinge.

The hard-drinking couple are well suited to the new environment. As soon as they reach Irish soil they stop off in a pub and drink Guinness, in the face of doctor’s orders. Nora has had something of a problem with alcohol, in that it promotes flashbacks, headaches and blackouts. This fact is heavily signposted for its significance, although it is never explained. They get chatting to an Irish man in the pub, an old acquaintance of Nora’s, and against all stereotypes a fight ensues and they have to leave.

Having indulged in the booze Nora experiences one of these flashbacks and blackouts which, it is stressed again, are never explained. Fortunately she crashes the car within walking distance of the ancestral home, and on their arrival they meet the mysterious Alice, a local child adopted by her uncle Bill. Bill, inexplicably played by Christopher Walken, has become blind since Nora last saw him, a disability which also seems to have affected his accent, which veers in and out of credibility almost as if the actor never really bothered to grasp the Irish tones. He leads Nora down to the cellar to show her the preserved corpse of a witch who was entombed in a bog centuries ago and is for reasons unknown now his property. It is fortunate that Christopher Walken is blind at this point, as this means he can’t see what has become of his career. Nora makes her excuses and leaves. This is the last point at which the plot makes sense.

While Nora and Jim search the enormous house for their not entirely convenient child Jim Jr (American parents), the ancient witch, with the most Irish of all names, Niamh, opens her eyes and gradually comes back to life. Coincidentally she looks exactly like Nora, even to the point of being played by the same actress, although obviously this will never be a peg on which to hang the later plot development. When Bill tries to kiss her she slits his throat, to the great advantage of Christopher Walken’s artistic credibility.

By this point Nora’s mental confusion has been increasing, along with her husband’s desire for alcohol. While going to get another drink Jim, against all odds, bumps into the witch Niamh and mistakes her for his wife. On going outside for a snog he winds up knocked out by a punch from the same Irish alcoholic friend of Nora’s they left a pub to avoid earlier. This friend succeeds in seducing the real Nora, to the confusion of the newly awakened Jim. (Time by this point has become an unreliable marker for anything). Nora violently rejects her husband, an act which Alice, in a convenient piece of exposition later on, explains is because Niamh’s soul is somehow intertwined with Nora’s. When the two identical women meet violence ensues, and a mysterious gardener appears, to shoot the witch in the head.

A glance at the clock will show you there are still ten or so minutes left. Sure enough, Niamh is restored to life, and uses telekinesis or something to hurl shattered pieces of an old record at Nora’s Irish friend, of course killing him instantly as the flimsy bits of vinyl embed themselves in his chest. As an ancient and well-preserved witch Niamh obviously possesses endless powers of regeneration. Nevertheless, they temporarily thwart her with electricity, giving Alice enough time to explain that Niamh wants to steal Nora’s soul and Jim Jr enough time to fall down a hole and get captured.

While chasing after her abducted son Nora finally has a chance to speak to her eccentric grandmother, telling her that she is willing to sacrifice herself to save her son. Having by this point tracked down Niamh and Jr, Jim tries to calm things down and/or make things right by feeding the witch booze, which makes as much sense as anything at this point. On realising this is no more than a ploy Niamh escapes with the speccy brat and makes for the beach, where Nora is waiting for her, with her grandmother lying under a sheet. Watch this again and it still won’t be clear why this is. But for Nora it is clear what needs to be done. She slits her own throat with a Druidy knife and walks into the sea.

This act of ultimate sacrifice is what is needed to put an end to the disturbances. With no further competitor to her place on earth Niamh ends her campaign of aggression – which never actually made any sense – and is replaced by the soul of Nora. Everything is back to normal for reasons which presumably the second draft would have clarified, and all concerned are happy. Again, we never actually find out what Nora’s secret is, if this sort of thing bothers you.

 

Lost Dog

In the park I saw a man stapling laminated posters to trees, telling of his lost dog.

‘That’s an unusual name,’ I said.

‘It is,’ he agreed. ‘I have no imagination when it comes to naming pets. I would have been happy to call him Dog, but my wife was against it. As a compromise we spelled it backwards, and called him GOD.

‘We welcomed GOD into our lives and we were happy. He made himself at home straight away, and it soon felt as if GOD had always been there. He brought joy and purpose into our world, cheered us on our dark days and enhanced our celebrations with his unconditional love. For three years our home was blessed with the presence of GOD.

‘But then two days ago GOD disappeared. He wasn’t in any of the usual places I looked for him. He wasn’t on the hearth where he was usually to be found. He wasn’t in our daughter’s room, keeping watch over her cradle. I went into the garden and called for him. ‘GOD! GOD! Are you there?’ I went to the woods nearby and cried out “GOD! Oh, GOD! Where are you, GOD?”

‘I told every dog walker in this park that I was searching for GOD and asked if they knew where I could find him. I knocked on door after door to ask if our neighbours had witnessed GOD recently. No one could give me a clear answer. Everywhere I look GOD is not to be found. The world abounds with places GOD should be but is not. I look for GOD but his face is hidden from me. I call out to GOD but he doesn’t hear me.

‘And maybe it sounds ridiculous, but the first thing I notice when I get home is the unmistakable absence of GOD. And the three of us alone, all alone in the universe without a GOD to throw sticks for.’

I saw him again a few days later, tying posters to lamp posts. He looked tired and defeated. I wished him luck, and he thanked me with good grace.

Some Issues Raised By Quantum Leap

In its attempts at predicting the future, sci-fi has generally tended to focus on the big things, rather than the smaller stuff. Writers imagined space travel but not mobile phones, far more influential at the individual level. It was all well and good envisioning life on other planets, but no one ever foresaw ordering a pizza online and following each step in the process. Many have pictured an authoritarian regime which suppresses dissent by means of all-pervasive entertainment, but no one ever guessed that visitors to the Pets at Home website would be leaving reviews of insects.

Much safer then, for those who don’t want to see their predictions embarrassed by the passing of time to go in the other direction. The past is all pretty much known, and barring late revelations (such as the feathered nature of dinosaurs not being discovered before a big-budget film about a dinosaur park), there is less scope for error. Rather than use potential technology to explore the world to come you can send today’s science back in time

Though technically set in the future – the impossibly futuristic-sounding 1999, with blinking lights and handheld computing devices – the series Quantum Leap took this safe approach to time travel. ‘Theorising that one could time travel within his own life time, Doctor Sam Becket stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator – and vanished’. Sam finds himself in various past times, leaping into the body of someone at a critical point in their life. With his hologram friend Al – and Al’s temperamental Lego device which acts like a very specific Google – Sam realises that the purpose of each leap is to correct a mistake made in the past, to allow his hosts to live the lives they should have led.

The seriousness of the situation was bound to be lost on the target viewer at times, specifically those times when Sam leaps into the body of an attractive young woman. As an adolescent boy watching this I knew I would have had a laxer work ethic than Sam. I would not have been in any hurry to sort out the problem, instead being much more likely to just spend the whole time sitting naked in front of a mirror. To be blunt, I would have been too busy wanking to even think about ‘putting right what once went wrong.’

“Sam, this thing’s about to happen.”

“Yeah, give me a minute, Al.”

This phenomenon of leaping into women’s bodies (as it were) raises an obvious question: how does Sam wee? When he looks in a mirror he sees the person whose life he is inhabiting, but does this apply also when he looks down at himself? If he were to use a urinal there are two possibilities which could play out. Would anyone standing nearby see an upright woman miraculously directing an arc of urine into the porcelain, or would Sam just be standing there confused as to why he’s dribbling onto his shoes?

This issue was clarified in the fifth episode of season one, known to fans as The Piss Episode. In a long and needlessly graphic scene Sam demonstrates this whole enigma to Al, who then puffs on his cigar, says “well that explains a lot”, and hits his Lego thing until it makes that noise. This episode was only screened once in Britain, and a power cut on that night meant that viewers in South East England missed the entire thing.

When not urinating, Sam has the task of applying social attitudes of the late 90s to various times from the preceding decades. Thus when confronted by racism, misogyny or homophobia he wisely points out everyone else’s errors, in the interests of promoting understanding. So as well as showing off his knowledge of the future – things he knows about by virtue of having been born decades later than all the people around him – he also smugly shows off his right-on attitudes, as if his liberal outlook didn’t come to him fully formed, inherited from the struggles of previous generations.

This pattern continued for a surprising five seasons, by which time they had long since exhausted all the possible years the programme could visit. In the final episode Sam finds himself in a mysterious mining town, populated by people he recognises from previous leaps. When he looks in the mirror, for the first time in years it is his own face he sees. The metaphysical allusions of the series are fortunately touched on lightly. Whatever force is propelling him through time to correct the little mistakes of history is never defined in any sense which could end up a cop-out. He is given the choice of going back to his old life, or to continue as he has been doing. Excessively good guy that he is, he chooses the latter.

This of course leads to a logical problem. Sam has been travelling for years now, and though for him time is a complicated subject, for the him who stays behind it continues to pass as before. Assuming he is still at the do-gooding business there is almost two decades’ worth of time which he knows nothing of. As a time traveller, he is surely aware that everything he knows is bound to be trumped by generations still to come, who might look back at the futuristic days of 1999 with a similarly forthright and paternalistic attitude. There is nothing to stop the quantum leap accelerator sending another traveller from the future back to meet Sam, to flesh out his incomplete knowledge and tell him where he’s gone wrong.

In one episode, for example, Sam travels back to the time of the Cuban missile crisis, and is accused of being a Communist sympathiser due to telling children that the Russians are just like them. ‘They’re not bad people,’ he says, ‘they don’t want war.’

At which point the traveller from 2017 could appear and say ‘Actually, Sam…’

In that same episode Sam reveals himself to a teenage girl (not in a bad way). ‘Wow! What’s the future like?’ she asks. ‘Are The Beatles still around?’

When Sam goes silent she gets upset. ‘Oh no – it’s John, isn’t it?’

‘Actually, it’s George as well now. Plus Ringo’s a bit of a cunt. That’s technically opinion rather than fact, but …’

And in another fifty years what’s to say that Sam’s dearly held liberal values won’t come to be viewed with squirming embarrassment by our degenerate grandchildren?

‘Sam, I know you’ve been spending days trying to save this black man from prejudice, but I’m from further in the future and I have to tell you that racism is actually good and correct. Sorry, but I’m going to have to take over from here.’

The programme clearly views time as a robust thing. No harm ever comes from Sam’s interference, no knock-on effects which change the future dramatically. But although he is presented as a force for hope, making the world (or America) a happier place one ordinary life at a time, there is still something gloomy about it. However much time Sam spends leaping through lives the task is never ending. And what is in the interests of one person might harm those of another. Years and years down the line, when he has sacrificed a substantial part of his own life, will he realise some mistakes should not go corrected? And wish he’d spent more of the time just sitting naked in front of a mirror?

 

Expenses Scandal Claims New Scalp

Optimus Prime is standing down as leader of the Autobots following a scandal over expenses. Leaked documents show he had been receiving up to three hundred energon cubes per year by claiming the articulated lorry he transforms into as his second home.

‘I was led to believe this was within the rules and that everyone else was doing it. I now realise I made a severe error of judgement. I have let you all down, and by the spires of Cybertron I beg for your forgiveness,’ he read from a prepared statement, as dramatic music played in the background.

Evil Decepticon leader Megatron said: ‘This is just the kind of moral bankruptcy we’ve come to expect from the puny Autobots. These cowardly hunks of scrap metal will be destroyed utterly by our demands for greater transparency and accountability.’

Prime’s replacement is expected to be Grimlock, whose youth, charisma and ability to transform into a dinosaur make him popular with robot voters.