By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated October 13, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT
PLAYING WITH FIRE Mary Elizabeth Winstead in The Thing
Credit: Universal Studios

For those who have been patiently waiting for The Thing — and also for those who didn’t realize a prequel was necessary — the new film solves the mystery of what happened to the Norwegian research team that was all but wiped out at the beginning of The Thing (1982). Back then, when horrormeister John Carpenter was in charge, an American research team led by Kurt Russell battled an insidious alien life form that could replicate the appearance of the humans it kills before bursting forth in all its hideously extravagant, fanged, tentacled, gory glory. Back then, of course, things bursting from other things and otherworldly creatures were a huge novelty: Alien opened in 1980 and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial also opened in 1982.

This new Thing doesn’t have much to add in the way of grotesquerie, since just about all sci-fi monsters these days suffer from CGI-tis, the condition of looking simultaneously overdesigned and antiseptically machine-operated. Neither does it have any of the paranoid, Communist-scare political subtext embedded in the 1951 incarnation, The Thing From Another World. What it does have is a chick hero who, as if blessed by the ghost of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien, takes charge when the men around her start freaking out. Likable, tender-eyed scream queen Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Final Destination 3, Death Proof) plays Kate, an American paleontologist recruited for a Norwegian-based mission to study a…thing recently discovered entombed in deep ice. But Kate is awfully mild-mannered for someone clutching a flamethrower. Her fellow Americans in the mix include fast-rising Australian-born Joel Edgerton fromWarrior (now wearing an earring to convey attitude) and London-born Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (forever remembered as scary-ass Adebisi from Oz) as tough-nut helicopter pilots.

The other thing The Thing has got going for it is a welcome hint of dour Scandinavian sensibility sneaked in by director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. whenever there’s a pause in the unexceptional antics of aliens consuming humans. (The director is Dutch-born; go figure.) Ulrich Thomsen (the Danish star of the 2011 foreign-language Oscar winner In a Better World) brings a welcome arctic creepiness to the role of the team’s self-important expedition leader. But for my monster-season money, the best moments of The Thing come when the camera lingers on the fantastic, unreadable faces of the Norwegian actors who play real Norwegians destined to be — well, I won’t give it away, but you’ve seen the beginning of Carpenter’s The Thing, right?

In fact, seeing those guys, looking fierce, dirty, determined, and inscrutable, reminds me of a better choice for truly weird-cool Halloween viewing: Jalmari Helander’s 2010 Finnish fantasy gem Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. Come to think of it, Rare Exports is also about what happens when something buried is dug up. It’s really something. C+

The Thing

  • Movie
  • John Carpenter