Aliens aren’t born; they’re made out of fear. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Well, don’t worry. I don’t intend to write a serious review of The Thing. Movie aliens aren’t projected out of existential dread. Their origins are rarely so subtle, or enlightening. Movie aliens are mostly crude manifestations of latent phobias…and blatant prejudice. Think of the penis-shaped monsters in Alien, or the dreadlocks worn by the Predator. Hate-filled extra-terrestrials are usually dreamed-up by hate-filled little men. I’m half-way sure the new version of The Thing is surreptitiously homophobic (but more on that later). It’s strange the way creatures from other worlds are always made out of the icky parts of things we find on Earth.
In the new version of the old story, a team of Norwegian scientists find an alien under the ice in Antarctica. It’s 1982. The alien appears to be made out of fangs, claws, suckers and sharp teeth. Naturally, the scientists bring it home to defrost, and waste precious alien-killing time drinking and making toasts. In a matter of hours, the alien wakes up, fires a tentacle through one guy’s chest, eats the guy, turns into another guy… And so on. The scientists should’ve seen it coming. John Carpenter made the exact same movie in the same location thirty years ago. As you know, his version starred the great Kurt Russell. And it was better in every possible way. The only difference, this time, is that one of the tough guys is a girl.
I love how, if you call it “fantasy violence”, you can do anything to people in films. In the new version of The Thing, some beard-o gets his head ripped off roughly every ten minutes. People are decapitated, eviscerated, immolated…and whatever they call it when a cadaver sprouts extra limbs. The film is a splatter-fest. It plays with viscera like a boy who doesn’t want to eat his spaghetti. If you replaced every act of violence with a sex act, the movie would be banned. That’s because film classification is nuts. It’s ok to show a woman’s body tear itself apart, and for the bloody mess to start attacking people. But it wouldn’t be ok to show the woman having sex; or for us to see a man’s penis… Unless it’s a psychotic, acid-spitting alien, with a head that looks like a man’s penis.
There are no scenes in the new version of The Thing to match the spooky paranoia of the original. We don’t open with a huskie being chased across the Arctic tundra by a helicopter. Instead, some Norwegian dude tells an incest joke. Then a snowmobile falls into a crevasse. We don’t get the laconic wit of the original script, where a man says – of a decapitated head on spider legs: “You gotta be fucking kidding.” This new version comes with an abrupt, sort-of happy ending, followed by an awkward end-credits sequence which seeks to tie events up. There’s none of the terse cynicism of Kurt Russell’s last line: “Why don’t we just wait here for a little while… see what happens…” In the era of CGI, no-one bothers with the script. It might risk distracting from the unspectacular.
Despite having a name like a suffragette, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is one of the better things about the new movie. In keeping with the 1980s setting, she looks a bit like Phoebe Cates, the girl who broke hearts in Gremlins. Knitwear doesn’t seem to dim her sex appeal, and she seems competent handling a flame-thrower. She doesn’t get put off when her colleagues start gushing blood. And she has a woman’s keen eye for men’s jewellery, which comes in handy when sorting out who’s human at the end. It would have been nice if the script could have developed her character a bit more beyond “Sigourney Weaver clone”. But at least she doesn’t have to strip for the finale. You need a warm coat to fight evil in the South Pole.
Mary is important to the movie’s homophobic subtext, because she has to kill all the men who have become “infected” by the “virus” that means they “look like men” but are “secretly hiding something”. Now, some people might say my theory is ridiculous. But what was up with the original tagline for The Thing? The one that said: “Man is the warmest place to hide.” Didn’t that line have a kind of implied homophobia; the same way “Disco sucks” wasn’t only a criticism of the music? The last man/alien to die in The Thing has a beard an ear-ring. If he was wearing a Judy Garland t-shirt the symbolism would only be slightly more obvious. I’m joking, of course. But still. Why does the Predator have dreadlocks?