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Movie Review

The Thing

With a few changes, this prequel’s ‘The Thing’

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By Tom Russo
Globe Correspondent / October 14, 2011

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The producers of the sci-fi fright flick “The Thing’’ have said that respect compelled them to forgo a straight remake of the 1982 John Carpenter movie of the same name, and instead frame their story as a prequel. Or, as Internet wags note, a prequel to a remake of an adaptation of a novella. (Carpenter’s film, starring Kurt Russell, actually traces back to the 1951 James Arness creature feature, “The Thing From Another World,’’ and a 1938 pulp yarn.) You half wonder if the filmmakers also went this route to avoid the tag “slavish remake.’’ After all, you never hear the term “slavish prequel’’ tossed around - although now you might.

That’s not to say that the new movie has nothing going for it, particularly for those too young to know John Carpenter from Richard Carpenter. Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen and company deliver lean suspense, and they update the Carpenter crew’s gnarly alien-shapeshifter effects skillfully enough to remind us why the concept captures geek imaginations.

A generic action opener establishes that it’s still winter ’82, and we’re going to be hunkering down in the Antarctic wastes. Back in the citified world, American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’’) is recruited by a big-deal Norwegian scientist (Ulrich Thomsen, “Brothers’’) to make the 10,000-mile trip south to examine “a structure - and a specimen.’’ Those, of course, would be the enormous spaceship and frozen extraterrestrial that the Norwegians chisel out of the ice.

When the seemingly lifeless creature escapes and starts spearing crew members, Kate quickly deduces that it’s replicating them one by one, using metamorphic effects apparently inspired by giant roaches, Venus flytraps, slaughterhouse carcasses, and the facehugger from “Alien.’’ It’s an exponentially more photo-real update of Carpenter’s trick: schizophrenic doodles brought to life, then presto-chango’d to look like us. Cue the rampant paranoia and creeping sense of dread.

But to what new end, finally? You can see where the filmmakers clearly felt they were changing things up. They go with surprisingly credible Winstead to tweak the manly substation setting, giving her more alpha moments than tough-guy chopper pilot Joel Edgerton (“Warrior’’). (She’s even armed with a flamethrower to make the Sigourney Weaver nod unmistakable.) They run with Carpenter’s throwaway detail of Norwegian casualties to build language-barrier conflict. They include a clever scene that has the characters inspecting each other’s dental work to root out infiltrators. But the basic story is identical, and when there are fraught, climactic opportunities for the movie to make a gutsy departure, it passes up the chance. The choice isn’t as hard to grasp as the image of a conjoined-faced humanoid space lobster, maybe, but it’s a headscratcher.

Tom Russo can be reached at trusso2222@gmail.com.

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THE THING

Directed by: Matthijs van Heijningen

Written by: Eric Heisserer

Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen, and Eric Christian Olsen

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 103 minutes

Rated: R (strong creature violence and gore, disturbing images, and language)

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