Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #12
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: October 14, 2011
Sub-Genre: Sci-Fi/Monster Movie
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $27,428,670
Running Time: 102 minutes
Director: Matthijs van Heijningen
Producers: Marc Abraham, Eric Newman
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer
Special Effects: Alec Gillis
Cinematography: Michel Abramowicz
Score: Marco Beltrami
Editing: Julian Clarke, Peter Boyle
Studio: Strike Entertainment, Morgan Creek Productions
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Stars: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen, Eric Christian Olsen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Paul Braunstein, Trond Espen Seim, Stig Henrik Hoff, Kristofer Hivju, Jorgen Langhelle, Kim Bubbs, Carsten Bjornlund, Jonathan Walker, Jo Adrian Haavind
Suggested Audio Candy:
Marco Beltrami The Thing
It is inevitable, particularly with looming thirty-year anniversaries, that modern-day hopefuls will attempt to reinvent past classics for a fresh cohort of film aficionados but certain consecrated works really ought to be left well alone. These films generally age very gracefully and remain timeless. However, it can work out and one such example of successful regurgitation is Dawn of the Dead. When Zack Snyder announced he was planning to bring George A. Romero’s renowned zombie classic bang up-to-date, more than a few eyebrows were raised, and the news was met with skepticism and universal concern. His affectionate interpretation then dumbfounded critics and cinema-goers alike by coming up trumps and the reason for this was simple.
He didn’t endeavour to trump Romero’s work but instead paid reverence to it, not by imitation or producing a carbon copy, but by using the template to fashion his own exclusive vision. Granted, George was less than enthused by his decision to afford the shuffling undead more mobility, and gone was the stinging social commentary, but in truth it would have been an act of lunacy attempting to tackle this as it would lack the impact twenty-five years on. Instead, Snyder admirably told his own yarn and as a result largely avoided any unfavorable comparisons.
Interestingly, Matthijs van Heijningen was originally intended to direct a sequel to Snyder’s reboot but it was cancelled on the 11th hour. With his best-laid plans sadly thwarted, he decided to tackle another undisputable classic instead. When news filtered through of his intention to craft a prequel to John Carpenter’s sci-fi masterpiece The Thing, it would be fair to say that I harbored some pretty grave doubts. However, if the Norwegian approached the source material with due respect and with awareness of what made the original work, there was still a chance that this unproven rookie could actually pull this off. Clearly, matching the sheer brilliance of Carpenter’s vision would be a step too far for such an inexperienced director but it remains a fascinating set-up for further exploration. His prequel concept seemed like the only logical way to go.
So does van Heijningen achieve the unthinkable? The answer to that million dollar question is both yes and no. He certainly gets a number of elements bang on the money but regretfully comes a cropper with some rather elementary errors. Firstly, and I apologize in advance to any feminists reading, he opts for a female lead with Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) firing up her flamethrower to show the boys how it is done. Remembering that this is a prequel to events, and therefore entirely plausible, but it also strays from the forebear’s winning formula. Carpenter’s film honed in on a small assemblage of males in an increasingly hopeless situation and this kept it intensely focused. No romantic sub-plots, it purely concentrated on one fundamental dynamic whereas here, in my opinion, the entire equilibrium is compromised.
Secondly, his film works with a far larger budget than the modest kitty afforded to Carpenter back in 1982. Whilst commendable that that the crash-site proximity is explored to greater depth and the sprawling outdoor locations offer more of a visual spectacle, it ends up a little counter-productive. Previously the playground was much tighter and more oppressive as a result. Again, it is a ultimately question of personal taste, but it is hard not to form comparisons when so much is at stake. The Thing is precious to so many people and fans just want to see justice done. Flashy bells and whistles are therefore superfluous to requirements.
Thirdly, there simply isn’t enough characterization with the protagonists. Carpenter got this spot-on and was aided by a gifted ensemble cast featuring all manner of distinguishable characters. Here there are too many faceless Europeans vying for our attention and not enough reasons provided to care about their fate. In this respect, 102 minutes isn’t long enough as an extra twenty minutes would have allowed van Heijningen to flesh these fringe members out some. Instead, they literally drop like flies once the pace quickens and before we can form any real attachment. Considering the original provided such a fascinating character study, this can only be looked at as a misstep in my book.
Perhaps the most heinous folly incurred is the choice of CGI over practical effects at various junctures. This isn’t always problematic and indeed the film’s most effectively grotesque scene uses this to superb face-melting effect but there are two instances which appear borderline amateurish and take us out of the experience somewhat. Even more alarmingly both could quite easily have been achieved via more old-school technology. I recall reading an article whereby van Heijningen claimed that his intention was to leave the framework unfettered and use CGI only where entirely necessary so personally I felt a tad embittered that he opted for this tack.
Gripes aside though, he gets a lot right with a couple of respectful nods to its ancestor. I have mentioned previously one particularly ghastly set-piece but there are a number of effective shocks among the more humdrum non-revelations. The whole trust aspect is explored well, culminating in a gallant stab at it providing us our very own equivalent to the famous blood-test scene. The two leads both impress, Winstead and Edgerton give feisty and believable performances and can walk away with heads held high. It also ties beautifully to Carpenter’s original, never more so than its utterly transcendent closing scene. Finally, the director’s decision to shoot in anamorphic instead of digitally and to resist the temptation to fast cut should be commended.
Not a failure then, although I can’t shake the feeling that the prequel is something of a missed opportunity. As a feature in its own right it fares well enough and provides a solid companion piece to Carpenter’s classic, while viewed back-to-back it suffers considerably. Nevertheless van Heijningen displays more than enough panache and respect for the source material to warrant its existence and still manages to elevate his credibility somewhat, making him one to watch very closely in the future. Maybe he just shouldn’t tackle something so iconic and cherished next time.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: Suitably gross and with a larger body count than the original. However the over-use of CGI is questionable and certain scenes lose credibility for adopting such a lazy approach. Still, when it’s good it’s very good and there is more than enough slime and gore to make a mockery of its R certification.
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Copyright: Crimson Quill: Savage Vault Enterprises 2013 (Revised Edition 2015)