Conventional remake wisdom, among film geeks if few studio executives, is that you should redo movies that showed a lot of promise but didn't quite work or failed outright, not great movies that already worked out fine. The 1980s versions of The Thing and Footloose fall somewhere in between, neither missed opportunities for greatness nor unimpeachable classics; regardless, they count as brand-names despite the existence of more iconic John Carpenter movies or mildly unsuccessful Broadway adaptations and, as such, arrive remade in theaters on the same fall weekend.
A redo of Footloose seems less blasphemous than simply redundant; for years, teen-dance movies have descended (or, depending on your point of view, evolved) from Footloose, and Paramount will be damned if they're just gonna let other people knock off their movie when they can hire an overqualified director to do it in-house. Craig Brewer has never made a dance movie before, but he has made a couple of music-based pictures that similarly flirt with musical status without full-on commitment: the hip-hop-centric Hustle and Flow and the bluesy Black Snake Moan. His Footloose fits ever squarer into not-quite-musical mode—the dance movie being one of the most commercial subsets of the not-quite-genre—but as far as studio work for hire, it's not bad.
Usually the justification for this kind of redo is to make a "dated" movie slicker and more today, by which is meant: more like a music video of 2011. But Brewer actually seems interested in making Footloose work in our present, even if its central hook—the town of Bomont has outlawed dancing, and a teenage rebel arrives from a big city to shake things up—remains as cheesy as ever. He recruits actual (twentysomething) dancers Kenny Wormald and Julianne Hough to play the leads, a potentially deadly decision that pays reasonable dividends; despite their age and perhaps because of their inexperience, Wormald and Hough feel like real teenagers, not like actors on a CW audition. When the kids, including the delightful Miles Teller as a wiseass semi-redneck and Wormald's new best friend, take center stage, Brewer's version of Footloose is a lot of fun: relaxed and warm, with several energetic and well-shot dance sequences. But the movie must address the dance ban framework with impassioned speeches, fathers coming to terms with daughters, and a lot of other stuff more tedious than dancing, even if Brewer does work to make it kinda-sorta make real-world sense. I liked the characters enough to wish that Brewer had forgotten he was doing a remake, and let them come to a less predetermined destination.
Strictly speaking, meanwhile, The Thing is not a remake of John Carpenter's 1982 horror movie (or 1951's The Thing from Another World, on which Carpenter riffed). No, it's actually a prequel with the same title and a very similar story (by this definition, Footloose, by taking place in 2011 Georgia rather than 1984 Utah, could almost be bent into a sequel where the characters happen to share names). Back in 1982, researchers in Antarctica, including paleontologist Mary Elizabeth Winstead, happen upon a frozen life form that, once thawed, turns out to be a slippery alien being that can reproduce and hide within other organic matter.
Though the new version ticks off many of the same story beats as the original, it also protests too much, building its story around details glimpsed in '82 when Kurt Russell visited the decimated "Norwegian camp" that the Thing struck before hitting the American outpost. Here, finally, after almost two decades of waiting, is the story of how what happened at the Norwegian camp was basically what happened at the American camp, except more confusing! If you were wondering how that axe in the Carpenter movie got into the wall, rest assured: The Thing 2011 will show you!
With all of those obsessive hat-tips to the evocatively missing pieces of the earlier film, this prequel/update manages to muddle Carpenter's sense of unease into plain old confusion. In the Carpenter version, enough characters shuffled on and offscreen to create actual paranoia about who may or may not have been attacked and replicated, sort of a cross between a pod-people invasion and a zombie virus. Here, attempts at ambiguity turn into logistical dead ends; hardly anyone seems to be out of sight long enough (or far enough away) to absorb a noisy, messy alien attack without notice, yet everyone gets treated with grave suspicion. When the poor humans do start to turn—sometimes inexplicably—the computer-Things lack the visceral gnarliness of the earlier film's practical make-up and creature effects.
It may seem reductive to check off contrasts favoring the older movie; doubtless many teenagers lining up for the 2011 Thing will be absorbing it as a disposable stand-alone horror movie, and it has a few creepy moments to startle the kids out of their seats. But this version is at once so reverent and so empty that it unwisely invites the comparison. Maybe it would've worked as a real companion piece if Winstead had been allowed to provide something Carpenter's movie sorely lacks: an ass-kicking woman (in fact, Carpenter's movie lacks any women at all). There are gestures toward that story arc when she's chewed out by her arrogant, unsmiling boss before eventually taking charge of Thing preparedness at the camp. But she never makes the full leap into Sigourney Weaver territory; in a cast of ciphers, she's merely the best failed candidate for distracting the filmmakers from their tribute mission.
For that matter, maybe a girl-led Footloose redo would've nudged Brewer away from obligatory melodrama—or maybe it would just make the movie more like Step Up 2 the Streets than ever (note: fine by me). Both Footloose and The Thing want to do right by their corporate siblings; a nice gesture, I suppose, given the number of remakes that amount to grave-robbing. I wonder, though, if in pursuing so many remakes, Hollywood has forgotten the value of a good, bold rip-off. Maybe Brian De Palma should teach a seminar or something.
Both Opening October 14