Far less chilling than versions from 1951 and 1982, Universal’s latest take on “The Thing” at least has a strong lead thesp in Mary Elizabeth Winstead, recruited for the studio’s bid to turn a tale of ice-cold macho paranoia into a beauty-vs.-beast shocker a la “Alien.” Apart from Winstead’s flamethrower-toting paleontologist, bravely battling an extraterrestrial menace that hides inside its human prey, this unfrighteningly icky “Thing” is memorable mainly for illustrating CGI’s gross deficiencies relative to old-fashioned makeup f/x. Chilly word of mouth won’t help U to infect the B.O. for much longer than a weekend.
Curiously crediting the 1938 story “Who Goes There?” rather than the 30-year-old pic it superficially resembles, the new “Thing,” helmed by first-timer Matthijs van Heijningen, nods deferentially to John Carpenter’s still-scary cult film while displaying little comprehension of what made it work (and bearing no relation whatsoever to producer Howard Hawks’ early ’50s classic). As in the Carpenter version, humans here play host to alien cells that turn the body inside out, leaving the appearance but not the identity of the original. Ironically, the 2011 film follows a similar pattern, parasitically mimicking an authentic form in all respects save soulfulness.
Set in frigid Antarctica circa 1982, van Heijningen’s movie opens with three Norwegian researchers meeting their demise when their transport vehicle falls through the ice. Arriving with a larger Norwegian team to investigate, independent-minded Dr. Kate Lloyd (Winstead) finds herself subordinate to Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), whose hasty urge to take a tissue sample of a mysterious organism — a gigantic beast buried in ice — results in the creature coming to life, wreaking bloody havoc and sneakily infecting those in the team’s remote outpost.
Van Heijningen diminishes the earlier films’ claustrophobic tension in various ways, not least by allowing his characters a potential escape hatch via several fueled vehicles. Still, members of the team, particularly Kate, feel they can’t leave the outpost before isolating the viral threat, which could be churning inside any one of them. Carpenter’s unnerving means of outing an infected human — with hot copper wire dipped into a suspicious person’s blood sample — is here replaced by the clever but frightless conceit of checking a man’s teeth for fillings that the Thing can’t copy.
The biggest impediment to horror, though, is the pic’s lackluster CG work, which doesn’t hold a candle (or flamethrower) to Rob Bottin’s disgustingly innovative and thoroughly believable f/x from three decades back. As before, chests burst, entrails twist and snap like cracked whips, and bodies morph into spidery monsters, but the digital strings show, and the overall effect pales beside that of Bottin’s makeup-based concoctions.
Humanity stands as a highlight of the first two “Thing” films, but not here. Winstead (“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) radiates intelligence in the Kurt Russell/Kenneth Tobey role, yet her take-charge paleontologist-turned-torch-wielder seems severely underwritten from the get-go. Joel Edgerton (“Warrior”) eventually emerges as a co-star by virtue of his character’s survival past the pic’s second act, although he’s given little to do besides look worried that he may not be himself anymore. Thomsen’s domineering researcher merely glowers, while other characters are nearly indistinguishable but for the order of their contagion.
Ennio Morricone’s spare synth score of ’82 is briefly heard in a film that’s all about expedient replication.