The story is timelessly simple: Researchers in Antarctica discover a hostile, shape-shifting extraterrestrial, and hoo boy, does it know how to dance! No?
OK, The Thing first came to us in 1938, as John W Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? In 1951, it morphed into a Howard Hawks movie, The Thing from Another World. Then John Carpenter had a gory go at it in 1982. Nostalgia for the ’50s was big in the ’80s, more or less as nostalgia for the ’80s is now, hence Dutch filmmaker Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s feature debut, which went by Untitled: The Thing Prequel for a while, until the titling brass settled on The Thing.
The movie is actually a prequel and a remake: a prequel because it ends right where the Carpenter film began. It's a remake because it reiterates the mystery of what happened with the Norwegians, which involves a series of more specific questions: How'd that bloody axe get stuck in the wall? Why the frozen dead man in the chair with his wrists and neck sliced open? Oh, and about that freakish half-incinerated two-faced corpse outside: WTF?!
We know the answers and watch anyway—just as we did the first time. Perhaps asking what brought the Thing to Antarctica in the first place would be a more interesting question, but only with the disclaimer, if voiced aloud in the presence of Hollywood studio executives, that it's not actually interesting enough to need an answer.
The Norwegians, by the way, are another Antarctic research team, the alien's unfortunate first contact. They're not all actually Norwegian—Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen, for instance, plays the guy whose scientific dispassion borders on sociopathy—but do collectively exude a chic Nordic aura that enlivens the otherwise boring horror-shocker proceedings.
Inevitably, the film includes some Americans, in particular Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a young paleontologist with enough presence of mind to navigate the ensuing paranoia, and Joel Edgerton, who is Australian but pretends to be American, as a brawny helicopter pilot.
Van Heijningen honors Carpenter’s flair for wonderfully disgusting nondigital special effects and weirdly appealing peripheral character actors. If he seems less keen on narrative discretion, maybe that’s the fault of screenwriter Eric Heisserer, a horror handyman whose toolbox also contains a host of shopworn borrowings from Alien and Terminator movies, but scarcely few new parts.
Of course, that's the whole idea: the familiar rendered freaky yet again. Seize, digest, replicate, repeat.