Is Mary Elizabeth Winstead the New Kurt Russell? Or -- Dare We Ask -- Ellen Ripley?

I thought it would be nice to see "The Thing" get some spotlight, particularly with a girl in the lead.

Oct 26, 2011 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

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Halloween approacheth, so I thought it would be fun to see the reboot/prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 cult classic, "The Thing" this weekend.

The updated, big budget version has lots of Norwegians and  Ramona from "Scott Pilgrim," (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Mr. Eko from "Lost" (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), that hot Aussie from "Warrior" doing another American accent, and the dude from "Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd."

I run hot and cold on remakes and prequels, but I thought it would be nice to see an underappreciated old classic get some spotlight, particularly with a girl in the lead. I just wasn't sure it would work. Kurt Russell was Carpenter's muse, and he traded on being Kurt Russelly. Which is to say, '80s hyper-masculine. The original "Thing" was noticeably lady-free, and it's been a long time since we've had an Ellen Ripley.

So, is Winstead's Kate Lloyd the new Kurt Russell? Or -- dare we ask -- a new Ellen Ripley?
 
Well, the problem is that those were classic roles in classic movies, and the new "Thing" is not. It hits the typical gore/"DON'T GO IN THERE!" moments, but the titular "thing" is less scary than gross -- it vaguely resembles a vagina with teeth, when not in its cloning form. (PS: rent "Teeth" if the idea of a scary vagina appeals to you.)

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As I sat in a packed, rowdy movie theater Friday night, I realized that there are two kinds of really good alien movies. Usually, you either hate the alien, or you sympathize with it. But in order to really get into the film, you have to feel strongly about seeing the aliens get hugged or exploded. You must bond with them, one way or another.
 
The human cast has more leeway (because the non-leads are often killed off in very short order), but the aliens must be nuanced. Whether they're menacing ("Independence Day," "Mars Attacks," "Predator") or friendly, ("ET," "The Last Starfighter"), they have to be remarkable. If they're not going to be scary, at least make them sympathetic (the later "Aliens" and "Predators" end up doing this very nicely).

As a horror lead, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is noticeably sexier, but also more petrified than Ellen Ripley.

As an actor, she really nails mute terror, which few people can do, male or female. It's a progressive performance in that most performers do "fear" like they're high on mescaline or very constipated. It took chops to be believably scared when that giant sphincter with teeth was coming at her. Keeps me in the moment. She also isn't the shrinking violet type and isn't solely there to make stupid mistakes that advance the story. Refreshing!

But really, end of the day, it's about the alien. It's hard to get to know the very pretty woman fighting the sphincter that terrorizes Norwegians. She seemed credibly scared. But I wasn't.