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Writing a Good The Thing Sequel
Over the last few years Hollywood has discovered yet another way to leech money from their properties: legacy sequels. We get sequels to big franchises pretty regularly, but it used to be that once a series was old enough Hollywood would reboot rather than just try to pick up with the franchise years later. Too large a gap, one would assume, and the fans would no longer care. Of course that isn't really the case and people absolutely do enjoy picking up with their favorite characters to see where they are ten or twenty years later (or more)... so long as there's a compelling story to go with.
Legacy sequels aren't really anything "new", they just have become more prevalent over the years. The first really big legacy sequel, of course, was The Color of Money which came out 25 years after its predecessor, The Hustler. Since then we've had some other pretty great legacy sequels (Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, Top Gun: Maverick) that proved the concept can be done well so long as the producers understand what they're doing.
On the other hand, sometimes you get some pretty bad legacy sequels that absolutely miss the point of the original. 2011's The Thing is one of those long-overdue continuations that sadly managed to miss the mark. Technically a legacy prequel, the film still plays off the vibe (and monster material) of 1982's The Thing. The biggest sin the film commits, of course, is that it didn't bring John Carpenter back to direct (and if he wasn't interested the film should have been dropped from the beginning). His 1982 film is an absolute masterpiece of horror, unappreciated in its day but a god damn classic now. The same cannot be said about the sequel.
We've gone over both films in the past so I don't feel the need to do lengthy reviews here again. That said, we should look at just what went wrong with the prequel. To start, it's a prequel meaning, in the end, we know what will happen. It's set in a different Antarctic lab than the first film, but we had already caught glimpses of that lab in the previous movie so owe kind of knew the carnage to expect. Additionally, since none of the characters in the prequel showed up in the original film, at the very least we knew that their actions didn't really matter in the long run. Yes, we could get caught up in a game of "who will live" since we didn't really know the answer, but that was about the only thing the story still had going for it.
Beyond that, the prequel mostly just rehashed elements of the original. There was the mystery of the alien, the sudden blast of body horror, the game of cat and mouse to figure out who was the real Thing and who was human. The solutions were slightly different but not so much so that we could ignore the fact we'd seen it all before. The film certainly did remix elements (and it tried to create a few new creature ideas) but overall it just didn't really bring anything new to the table. It did The Thing all over again, which just wasn't enough.
We could also comment on the cardinal sin of using CGI over practical effects, but I think the other real issue is that, no matter ow the monsters looked, there just wasn't any tension. In the first film we cut back and forth among the various characters regularly, meaning we didn't know who was good or evil. As much as Kurt Russel's MacCready seemed like the central character, functionally he has as much screen time as many others. There was tension in not knowing who was the Thing, who could be the Thing, and if we were all being deceived. That doesn't carry to the prequel with Mary Elizabeth Winston's Kate Lloyd being the central figure, setup to be our heroine in generic fashion from scene one. We never doubt who she is and, because of that, we know she has the plot armor to survive the film. It just doesn't have the same weight.
If we were to get a proper legacy sequel to The Thing obviously there are some things we'd need to change. We'd need to hire John Carpenter and we'd need to let him make the movie his way, with all the practical effects and tense confusing moments he needs. He knew exactly the vibe to setup for The Thing '82 and we need to recapture that. Beyond that, though, we need a story that can not only live up to the concept of The Thing but also give us new material to work with so it's not just the same story all over again.
My thought is that we pick up after the events of the 1982 film, setting the action a few months later (so, yes, this would be set in the 1980s). After not hearing any reports from the U.S. Antarctic base the military sends out a crew to investigate. What they find is the blasted out base burned to the ground, with a few iced over bodies in various mangled conditions. The crew doesn't know what to make of it so they pack up all the bodies and heli-carrier them back to their ship (a mid-sized Navy vessel off the coast). The bodies are dropped deep in the hold so they can be taken back to the mainland for a final autopsy before they're shipped off to grieving families.
Of course at least one of the bodies is the Thing, but unlike in the previous films there's no suspicion of anything foul or otherworldly. No one found any clues of a downed spaceship, all the bodies could have just been mangled by animals, and maybe there was a fire and the crew of the base weren't able to get it under control. Not the job of the grunts on the ground to figure that one; some later mission can ascertain that. For now the crew gets to go home and grab some shore leave before their next run. And because of that, they aren't ready for what the Thing does.
The alien (once it defrosts) quickly sets to work going through the crew, starting below decks before working its way up. It's not just one or two aliens but a few of them that get made before the crew suddenly realizes there's something amiss. Before they can report in, though, the radio systems are taken down. All efforts to set the ship to blow up are thwarted (since this time the Thing is ready for it and has copies of itself in key locations). By the time the crew figures out how to test for the alien, to find a way to detect who might be evil and who isn't, the Thing already outnumbers the living.
This leads up to a final confrontation. A few of the Things chase the captain and a crewman to the bridge, but the two survivors lock the beasts out. Whatever traps were in the hallway are set off and the last two crew breathe a sigh of relief as, finally, the alien is dead. As the crewman sets to work trying to get the radio back up we see, in the background, the captain slowly split apart, revealing he's the last of the Things, and he's hungry. He devours the crewman (screaming, of course), as the radio comes back up. Then, as the base on shore, calls to the ship the alien, perfectly in the captain's voice, answers that everything is fine and they'll be home soon.
New setting, new struggle, and a different way to end the film (and certainly grimmer than what we saw before). If you're going to do a sequel you have to do something like that because just rehashing everything from before won't work. The Thing needs to get smarter and the crew have to go through a different pattern of attacks just to keep the kills fresh. If you can do all that then maybe, just maybe, you can make a sequel that feels like it really lives up to the Carpenter original.