Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Eric Christian Olsen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen
Rated: R, for strong creature violence and gore, disturbing images and language
Runtime: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Bottom line: Solid throwback horror flick
Is there anything new under the sun? Apparently not in the southern California sun, at least.
This week's two biggest releases are both nods to '80s movies. "Footloose" attempts to remake the Kevin Bacon star vehicle, while "The Thing" is a prequel that rehashes some of the best scenes of John Carpenter's 1982 movie of the same title (which was itself a remake of the 1951, "The Thing From Another World").
Carpenter's movie opens with two Norwegians in a helicopter flying over an Antarctic landscape trying to shoot a sled dog before it reaches the remote outpost where the rest of the movie takes place.
The Norwegians crash, the guys at the outpost adopt the dog, Kurt Russell and company discover something alien and terrible happened at the Norwegians' camp, then the same alien and terrible things begin to happen to them, too.
The 2011 "The Thing" is the story of what happened at that Norwegian camp, but at times it is remarkably similar to the goings-on in the 1982 movie.
Dr. Sander Halvorson (played by the wonderful Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen) has discovered "a structure and a specimen" buried in the ice in Antarctica. This is the only description he gives to Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a paleontology graduate student with an expertise in cold weather digs, when he offers her the chance to work on his project.
Kate agrees and promptly flies to Antarctica with Halvorson, his assistant and Kate's friend Adam (Eric Christian Olsen), and a team of Norwegian, American and British scientists.
It's fairly predictable what happens from there on out.
The "specimen" turns out to be an alien that attacks its victims by replicating their cells and hiding inside them. So a small group of people who don't know each other very well are stuck in an isolated location, being stalked by an extremely deadly monster, and meanwhile that monster could be disguised as any one of them at any given moment.
There is nothing new about that scenario, but it turns out it still works quite well when the filmmakers know how to use it. Thankfully, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. and his crew rose to the occasion.
The movie is a nice mix of old-school effects (the monster is reminiscent of the one in the 1982 version, the "Alien" franchise, and early David Cronenberg movies), CGI embellishment, gotcha scares and tense paranoia.
The best scenes in Carpenter's movie come when the characters must test each other to discover which one of them is now the alien in disguise. The 2011 movie wisely borrows those scenes directly. The "testing for humanity" scenes even take place in the recreation room of the camp, just like the earlier version.
Despite being derivative, the movie is enjoyable and genuinely scary. The performances are solid from the entire cast.
The filmmakers manage to dress down the usually stunning Winstead enough to make her believable as a graduate student scientist, and she carries the movie well while filling the same role as Kurt Russell in the 1982 movie. This seems like a significant step in her career.
The suddenly-hot Joel Edgerton, Olsen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and the rest all lend Winstead strong support.
Responses to this movie are likely to come in three varieties.
Horror fans who haven't seen the Carpenter movie will probably love it but be a tad perplexed by the ending, which attempts to connect this prequel to the beginning of the 1982 film.
Devotees of the Carpenter movie, of which I am one, will either enjoy this "The Thing" as a worthy entry in and possible revival of the franchise, or they will discard it as an unnecessary rehash.
I expected to shrug it off as more lame Hollywood recycling, but it's a better movie than that. It doesn't equal the quality of the 1982 movie, but it does complement it surprisingly well.
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.