Antarctica in 1982 and a Norwegian research team have noticed a curious, inexplicable signal emanating from the snowbound wastes some way from their base. They send out a three-man team to investigate, and as they make their way across the ice they tell jokes to alleviate the boredom - or the tension. Once they get to the source of the signal they realise it is coming from beneath their vehicle, and suddenly the weight of it causes the surface to give way, sending it down into a crevasse. It becomes wedged there, but the headlights reveal something unexpected: an alien craft.
There was something quite fitting about a remake of the John Carpenter cult classic The Thing, not only because that was a remake as well, but because the title creature's modus operandi, to take over a human original and make its own version, only without the qualities that made it authentic, was pretty much the story of the remake frenzy that mainstream horror cinema had transformed into during the turn of the millennium. Not that this version was supposed to be a remake, oh no, the filmmakers were at great pains to point out that this was not some slavish reimagining of their inspiration and this was actually a prequel.
So if you'd watched the Carpenter and wondered what exactly happened at the Norwegian research station, then wonder no more, as this would tell you, although whether we really needed to know given what we could guess at when watching the '82 story was a moot point. That said, if that really needed to be related then you could do worse than what the team came up with here, and that was mainly down to the obvious respect they had for the material. So for the fans, there were many nods to explaining what was behind some of the imagery they were all too familiar with, while remaining a decent enough paranoia suspense piece in its own right.
Of course, it would never be a work in its own right anyway, because it was impossible to watch without comparing it to what had gone before. Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr and his screenwriter Eric Heisserer attempted to make that into a virtue, and to some extent succeeded; nobody was going to prefer this to what Carpenter devised for his adaptation of the John W. Campbell text, or few who had seen that at any rate, but the emulation went beyond copying the most memorable scenes. Thus a cultish actor, Kurt Russell before and Mary Elizabeth Winstead playing scientist Kate Lloyd in this case, was cast as the outsider character, which made more sense in this context because Kate was a woman in a man's world and subject to the sexism, conscious or otherwise, that accompanied that.
Interestingly, Heisserer looked back to the 1951 original in some ways as well, most notably in the character of the head scientist (Ulrich Thomsen) who back then was placing everyone in danger thanks to his endeavours to preserve the deadly alien beast, and here after dismissing Kate's fears doing pretty much the same. But what everyone remembered about the Carpenter were those superb special effects, and while the CGI was present with wearisome conventionality in this case, Heijningen made sure to implement it to enhance more traditional effects work; not all of it convinced, but the effort was appreciated. As it played out, if it proved anything it was that Carpenter's tone of deep mistrust of your fellow man was ahead of its time, and if that didn't mean The Thing 2011 would supplant his work in the affections of horror fans - indeed, it was a very divisive film, especially among the purists - it did feel like an concept whose time had come. Think of it as big budget fanfic and it was fine. Music by Marco Beltrami, with a few echoes of the Ennio Morricone score.
[The Universal DVD has a couple of featurettes and an audio commentary with the director as extras, all of which are very keen to pay tribute to Carpenter, understandably.]