Friday November 28, 2014

The Thing is strangely similar to The Thing


The Thing (DVD/Blu-Ray) – Dir. Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen.

I don’t know when it became acceptable to name a sequel or prequel the same thing as the original. This is bound to result in confusion.

The Thing is a prequel to The Thing, telling the story of how an alien monster (“The Thing”) infiltrated and destroyed a Norwegian research station in Antarctica in 1982 before trying to bite Kurt Russell’s face off.

The “original” (technically a remake) 1982 film had no female characters whatsoever. This one shows how far we’ve come in the last 30 years by having two. One of them is the main character, Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

The monster of the title has a pretty long list of advantages over the humans it hunts. It can imitate any of them perfectly. It can kill them from across the room with a pointy tentacle. It can split into pieces and overwhelm them. It can only be killed by a flamethrower, of which there aren’t very many in Antarctica (I’m not really sure why there are any in Antarctica, but I won’t dwell on it).

So I don’t understand why the alien needs to be given the added advantage of facing humans who are idiots. There are about 20 people in the station and the creature is cautious about attacking them until they’re alone. The humans are aware of this, but immediately after realizing it they decide that the most essential members of the crew should head off in twos to wander in the dark unsupervised while everyone else hangs out in the break room. For the rest of the movie, the crew spends so much time splitting off into pairs you’d think they were going to the prom.

The way all of this plays out will be very familiar to those who saw the 80s version. There is violence, and paranoia, and a lot of extraordinarily gross creature effects. There’s a layer of psychological tension and sci-fi authenticity that isn’t common in horror films.

The Thing isn’t a bad movie in any sense. It has most of the strengths of its predecessor, along with a clear sense of respect—even reverence—for it. It lovingly ties itself into the world of that film at every opportunity, and makes plenty of use of practical special effects consistent with the original. Computer effects are used as the icing instead of the cake.

But there is overlap between respecting a source and blindly imitating it. The filmmakers in this case didn’t have a great story they wanted to tell in the universe of The Thing; they saw a movie they loved and wanted to make it again themselves.

And so the prequel takes place in the same setting as the original, starring a cast of characters with basically the same knowledge, tools, and skill sets as the last one. (Its only attempt at one-upping the original comes near the end, with a climactic battle on a spaceship. These days, there is always a climactic battle on a spaceship). There are no new dynamics, no new problems, and no new solutions to see.

In fairness, a version of The Thing set on another planet or in New York City probably wouldn’t have been any better; the Predator franchise certainly didn’t benefit from going in this direction. But it would have shown us something new, and perhaps justified its existence—something this movie fails to do.

Rated R for things.
3 out of 5

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (DVD/Blu-Ray) – Dir. Todd Strauss-Schulson. Starring Kal Penn, John Cho, Neil Patrick Harris.

The third in a series of stoner movies that tend to be better than they look.

Harold & Kumar is the latest in a long tradition of films that exist to test the limits of what a major motion picture studio will attach its name to. (For the record, those limits now include animated penises, Santa Claus smoking weed, and a baby on cocaine). What separates the series from most shock comedies is that, deep down, it basically means well. These are movies about friendship, about tolerance, about racial harmony. They just happen to also be about nuns showering together and the consumption of massive amounts of drugs.

The central theme this time around is growing up, or more accurately refusing to grow up. The title characters are about 30 now, and while Harold (John Cho) is moving up in the world, Kumar (Kal Penn) is still stuck in the stoner lifestyle. They are brought together by a crisis involving a Christmas tree, and go on a series of adventures that have very little to do with any of this.

Life lessons are learned—not very profound ones, but they’re there.

As usual, the movie is funniest when Neil Patrick Harris is onscreen playing a heterosexual, womanizing, crack-addicted version of himself. There are moments that fall flat too, like the lame obligatory claymation sequence, but overall the ratio of good jokes to bad is quite strong.

The Harold & Kumar formula isn’t fresh, but it survives this film.

Rated R for hot coffee.
3 out of 5



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