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Judged on its own merits, "The Thing," the sci-fi horror flick with the same title as its 1982 inspiration, isn't much more than a decent monster movie set in an Antarctic research station. It may do more for fanboys (and girls) of John Carpenter's "The Thing," which starred a hirsute Kurt Russell slinging heat from a flamethrower. Mostly panned upon its release, that Carpenter version is now firmly a cult classic (IMDB.com users have voted it among their favorite 200 films ever) and a terrific study in isolation, fear and paranoia. Be warned, the 2011 version reaches for all three of those but lands mostly among the better-trod ground of gore, spectacle and indulgent CGI.
It isn't, however, a remake. Instead it's a bona fide prequel to the 1982 movie, depicting the woes that befell the Norwegian research station that Russell's R.J. MacReady finds burned, blackened and barren when he visits. Why all the fire? Why the bloodied axe in the wall? Who's the dead man at the desk? Whence the blown-out ice block? Who left that mangled, two-faced corpse-blob left outside to air?
Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., who's Dutch, imagines what brought a crew of American researchers and muscle to this frozen outpost full of bramble-bearded Norsemen. Turns out, it's a wildly implausible rush job in which an stern scientist named Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) swings by a Columbia University lab where a grad student named Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is jamming a laparoscope into what looks like a semi-thawed cave camel. Halvorson and his assistant Adam (Eric Christian Olsen) have just been notified of a find in the Antarctic — there is a structure, and there is a specimen, and that's all Halverson can say of it, but this grad student he just met has to decide Right Now whether she's on board. Kate agrees to help exhume this thing, whatever it is, from the wasteland. The Antarctic helicopter crew is also American: Jameson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Carter (played by the Russell-reminiscent Joel Edgerton). They note that a big storm is on the way.
Upon arrival it's clear that they've stumbled onto the greatest discovery in history: a massive alien vehicle in a vast frozen cave and, near the surface, some sort of life form encased in ice. They lug it back to the station, toast their find and then learn the hard way that the thing, as you might expect for your R rating, is hostile. Its preferred method of attack — bit of a spoiler here — is to eat people and then replicate them perfectly. Hence the suspense, when no one can discern who's really who they are and who's actually an alien capable of sprouting tentacles that plunge through people's chests like fingers into flan.
The whole scene unfolds rather badly for the humans in this equation. It also unfolds too fast to build true suspense. The body-snatching trope has always been fertile for scares, and to its credit "The Thing" does devise some clever ways for the humans to smoke out the aliens in their midst. Mostly it leans on the action chops of Winstead, who doesn't carry the Ellen Ripley gravitas to convince us that she can flame-throw her way out of this unwinnable nightmare at the planet's frigid coccyx. But don't worry about it, so long as you can watch this film immediately before or after checking out Carpenter's. This "Thing" isn't destined for the same greatness as its predecessor. Still, as an homage, it'll do.