Can 'The Thing' remake help stop Universal's losing streak?
Will there ever be light at the end of the tunnel? That's what everyone has to be asking at Universal Pictures, where the studio has been struggling for a year to dig itself out from the accumulated rubble of an prolonged losing streak.
Although there have been occasional hits, notably last year's "Fast & Furious" and "Couples Retreat," the studio has been buffeted by a long string of flops, from "Duplicity," "State of Play" and "Land of the Lost" in the first half of 2009 through such recent releases as "The Wolfman" and "Green Zone," which staggered to a $14.3-million opening this weekend, a disaster for the studio, seeing as the political thriller cost $100 million to make.
If there is any good news, it's that the studio's new executive team -- led by Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley -- has begun greenlighting a new batch of films that could help turn Universal around. For me, the most intriguing new film, which starts shooting this Friday, is "The Thing," a remake of the 1982 John Carpenter sci-fi cult classic about an Antarctic research team battling a wildly insidious alien creature. Even though Carpenter's film, itself a loose remake of 1951's "The Thing From Another World" from Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby, didn't do much at the box office (overshadowed by a more upbeat alien drama called "E.T."), it has a huge following among sci-fi and horror geeks (yeah, like me) who remain thrilled by its taut storytelling and gloriously creepy special effects.
I have to admit that I'm a skeptic when it comes to the dreary, largely brain-dead remakes that have dominated the Hollywood landscape in recent years. It seems as if every studio has been pillaging its vaults, eager to exploit titles that have a recognizable brand. Judging from recent efforts -- "Friday the 13th," "The Taking of Pelham 123" and Universal's own "Wolfman" -- most couldn't hold a candle to the original films. Yet more are coming every month, with Sony teeing up "Karate Kid," Fox relaunching "The A-Team," Warner Bros. re-booting "Nightmare on Elm Street" and Universal taking another expensive swing at "Robin Hood" (a holdover from the previous administration).
I can't say I have high hopes for any of them. But as long as moviegoers keep plunking down cash, the studios will keep dragging material out of their vaults. According to Hollywood.com, since the summer of 2005, 14 remakes (or reboots) have made more than $100 million in the U.S. alone, the biggest successes being "Star Trek," "War of the Worlds," "King Kong," Sherlock Holmes" and most recently "Alice in Wonderland," which have all topped the $200-million mark.
So what makes "The Thing" different? First off, the film isn't so much a remake as a prequel, or what the producers are calling a companion piece to the original. As "Thing" fans may recall, early in the film, trying to understand why a Norwegian helicopter had been chasing a runaway husky before it crashed, Kurt Russell returns to the Norwegian base camp where he finds evidence that its research team -- now all dead -- had dug something out of the ice, apparently awakening an extraterrestrial creature that had been buried for thousands of years.
"That's the story we tell in this film," says Marc Abraham, who is producing the movie with his Strike Entertainment partner Eric Newman. "We go back to that original Norwegian camp and try to figure out what happened. It's like a crime scene, with an ax in the door, and the audience gets to be the detective, trying to piece together what horrible things have occurred."
Abraham and Newman have street cred when it comes to doing remakes, since they were the team that made "Dawn of the Dead," the successful 2004 update of the George Romero horror classic. Made at Universal, where the producers have their deal, the film satisfied fans of the original, made nearly $100 million worldwide and launched the career of Zack Snyder, who went on to make the mega hit "300."
"So after 'Dawn of the Dead,' Universal basically came to us and said, 'Everyone is remaking everything, what do we have that might be good?'" Newman told me recently. "The great thing is that Universal has all sorts of good titles. After all, they're the studio that essentially created the monster movie genre."
The producers were intent on achieving what you might call low-budget veracity. (The film is budgeted at roughly $38 million, with much of that going for its special effects.) From a studio standpoint, the great thing about genre films is that they don't need star talent, so the new "Thing" has a cast of relative unknowns, the most familiar names being Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton. In their quest for authenticity -- and with an eye toward helping the film play overseas -- the cast is populated with actors from Australia, England, Canada and Norway. In fact, a majority of the Norwegian scientists in the film are played by Norwegian actors, who will play their scenes in Norwegian, with English subtitles.
The producer's search for a young filmmaker who could make the same kind of splash as Snyder also led them overseas. In fact, it was Snyder who steered them to Matthijs Van Heijningen Jr., a Dutch commercial filmmaker who'd been working with Snyder on a project that Snyder was producing at Warners. I watched Van Heijningen's reel over the weekend, which made it pretty obvious why he got the job. His commercials, some of them made at a cost of $1 million a pop, play like mini movies, crammed with exciting action sequences, humor and clever special effects. They are commercials made for an international audience. There is rarely any dialogue -- all the storytelling is visual, just as it is in a good sci-fi or horror film.
"That's exactly why we hired Matthijs," Newman says. "Commercial directors make good film directors not just because they've shot millions of feet of film, but because they know how to convey emotion in 30 seconds. Whether its Ridley Scott or David Fincher or Spike Jonze, these guys are trained to tell stories without words, which is great training for a genre film. It's like they all came out of silent movies."
Commercial directors have another skill that lends itself to working for a movie studio -- they are pragmatists. "Having worked in a client-based business, they are guys who are really well equipped to communicate about what they're doing, whether they do it to Nike or to Paramount," says Newman. "They all have tremendous talent, but they also tend to be sane and practical minded because they understand that they are working in a business where they have a lot of people to please."
It could be another year before we see if Universal has a potential hit on its hands, since the film, which will shoot in British Columbia (for its Antarctic exteriors) and Toronto, probably won't make it into theaters until the first half of 2011. But at least the filmmakers are aiming high. "One of our all-time favorite films is Ridley Scott's 'Alien,' " says Abraham. "It's elegant, really scary and has characters that you care about. In a way, it's our model for this project, which gives us an opportunity to try to do something cool."
Everyone can agree that some movies just shouldn't be remade. Ever. You might say "The Wizard of Oz," though there are several studio remakes in the works. I'd probably say Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious," because no one could ever capture the master filmmaker's perfect blend of movie star elegance and erotic paranoia. But genre films are different -- they're fair game, always open for improvement, either in terms of more modern storytelling technique or sleeker special effects.
So I'm cautiously optimistic about "The Thing," especially after hearing that the filmmakers have Carpenter's blessing to try their hand at a new version of its story. "I'd be the first to say no one should ever try to do 'Jaws' again and I certainly wouldn't want to see anyone remake 'The Exorcist,' " says Newman. "And we really felt the same way about 'The Thing.' It's a great film. But once we realized there was a new story to tell, with the same characters and the same world, but from a very different point of view, we took it as a challenge. It's the story about the guys who are just ghosts in Carpenter's movie -- they're already dead. But having Universal give us a chance to tell their story was irresistible."
Here's one of the classic scenes from Carpenter's film, where paranoia among the surviving men is running high: