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.