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).