The Once and Future Thing
BAKER STREET | REVIEW
by Eric J Baker
If you awoke with a different face, would you still be you? You’re operating from the same workstation inside your head, but a different mug is staring back from the mirror. Maybe you’re like Yoda (the cool one from Empire Strikes Back, not that nonsense-spewing goblin from the prequels), and you believe our true selves are defined by our relationships, memories, and moral actions rather than by our flesh. The spirit matters, not its temporary container.
But what if it’s your face with your memories and relationships, but you come to realize that you are no longer human? Your new ambition is to replace humanity with exact copies, starting with your family and friends. Then how would you feel?*
Such is the existentialist crisis facing the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), one of cinema’s most nihilistic films. In it, people are humans when they fall asleep and aliens when they awake, thanks to the intervention of a strange space plant resembling a seed pod. The only noticeable change in them is the absence of emotion.
“It’s not so bad,” the pod people assure their still-human acquaintances. “There’s no more anxiety or hate or war.” Or love and art. Or hopes and dreams. And you can bet Real Housewives of New Jersey will be cancelled.
With Samhain just two weeks away and a brandy new version of The Thing in theaters this weekend, one of the most frightening subgenres of the horror film, the Alien Replica movie, is on my mind. In these films, alien invaders arrive to take over people’s bodies or replace humans with copies altogether. If you want to get technical, Alien Replica movies are a hybrid-genre subgenre subspecies (true fact of science!), but they’re essentially about identity theft. So never leave your DNA lying around where space criminals can find it! Because I don’t know if you’ve taken a look around, but our section of the Milky Way isn’t exactly Park Avenue.
The Alien Replica subgenre was born in the 1950s in response to the Red Scare. At the beginning of the cold war, we were told that communists wanted to take our freedom, our (Christian) religion, and our lifestyle. They were infiltrating every aspect of American life. They looked just like us! This shit was a lot scarier than vampire bats flitting around dusty castles, and filmmakers adapted with new celluloid terrors. Such cautionary tales include Invaders from Mars and It Came From Outer Space, the latter starring Russell Johnson, who went on to play the Professor on Gilligan’s Island – itself a cautionary tale about what happens when embarrassingly stupid TV shows make it on the air.
You might say that films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the like are science fiction, not horror. But you’d be wrong. Science fiction speculates on where technology will take us in the future and how it might affect our experiences. Think Blade Runner and its questions about the meaning of “human” rights.
Horror movies, rather, are meant to frighten, and what is more frightening than not knowing who you can trust? Well, Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan is pretty goddamned scary (just ask Michele Bachmann), but loss of trust isn’t far behind. The final shot in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers – in which it is revealed that the hero we identified with and pinned our hopes upon has become a replica – will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Unless you shave it, like I do, in which case you’ll probably just say, “That’s a shame.”
Beyond loss of trust, Alien Replica films touch on another genuine fear, which is violation the body. If some big monster eats you in one bite, so what. You won’t even know what happened. But what if a monster you can’t even see gets inside you? What if some Thing gets all up in your stuff?
Ask any serious and knowledgeable horror fan to name his favorite fright films of all time, and there’s a good chance one of them will be John Carpenter’s 1982 splatter epic The Thing, about an organism from another world that can infiltrate and copy its human hosts so perfectly that no one can tell who is human and who is creature, seemingly even the creature itself. Oddly, it’s a remake of a‘50s film that is not about commie paranoia. Rather, that Thing from Another World features a humanoid carrot, despite celery being a much scarier vegetable.
Carpenter was way too cynical to be afraid of communist subversion in 1982, so his movie plays more like an indictment of Reagan-era conformity and a comment on the mob mentality that lead to McCarthyism, the Kent State killings, the Mai Lai massacre, and so on. Either that or it’s about a fucking cool monster that mutates as it goes, giving special effects wizard Rob Bottin (The Howling) ample opportunity to come up with every kind of weird beast his imagination and latex budget could offer.
Now, 29 years later, Hollywood gives us The Thing version 3.0. So what’s the message here, other than it’s actually possible to make Mary Elizabeth Winstead look plain?
The message is that Hollywood can’t leave a good Thing alone. As a random horror movies go, it’s watchable, and the filmmakers pay plenty of homage to Carpenter’s remake – perhaps to the point of leaving casual viewers perplexed, especially by the ending.
In Carpenter’s film, American researchers in Antarctica discover an abandoned Norwegian base housing a giant block of ice and the burnt corpse of an otherworldly creature that, despite its bizarre form, displays some human characteristics. They bring the remains back to their own station and much mayhem ensues. The Thing 2011 is a prequel that tells the tale of what happened to those Norwegians.
I’m ¼ Norwegian, and I can vouch that we hate mankind-replacing Things as much as anyone. However, it’s possible that a bunch of us with beards and subtitles don’t make for dynamic or easily distinguishable characters. So that’s why we invite Mary Elizabeth Winstead along.
Winstead plays Kate, a grad student specializing in the excavation of frozen prehistoric animals (!), who heads to Antarctica to help accidentally wake up the monster. The first act of the film is quite effective in building tension and could have resulted in an unnerving chiller if restraint were still a relevant word in cinema. But modern filmmakers are like kids who just got back from trick-or-treating. They might want to show patience, but after a half hour, they just can’t take it anymore, and it’s suddenly a frenzy of candy-wrapper shredding and chocolate binging. Only, for movie people, it’s explosions and CG effects. So many things blow up and catch fire here that I wonder why the humans even worry about the monster.
Equally problematic is the blandness of the characters. The 1982 edition features a solid cast of plausible, believable people slowly turning on each other, each responding to loss of trust in his own way. This new version has a bunch of shouting Vikings, a lead character who morphs from nerdy science chick to badass action heroine in about four seconds, and a pointlessly evil scientist (Ulrich Thomsen) who seems more like a low-end Bond villain than an Antarctic researcher.
Theme? Well, there’s some religious paranoia in America; Obama is a Muslim, yada yada. Tea Party thugs shout down the opposition at town-hall meetings. Illegal immigrants are an big part of the current discourse. If you really wanted to, you could say those ideas tie into the story of The Thing, though not too artfully.
Honestly, though, I’m afraid that when my buddy James Killough refers to The Hollywood Crap Machine, he’s talking about slick, heartless, unnecessary remakes of beloved movies from a more creative era.
Damn it, Hollywood. I trusted you.
*I mean, how would you feel about replacing people other than your mother-in-law? One assumes you’d gladly trade her in for an alien invader.**
** That’s right. I went for the mother-in-law joke. It’s about time.