Both films are set in 1982, Antarctica. A Norwegian research base has discovered an ancient spacecraft buried deep under the ice for as long as 100,000 years, along with the corpse of a creature that froze to death trying to escape the wreckage. They make the mistake of digging it up...
In the original film, the events at the Norwegian camp serve as off-screen back story. They enhance the mystery because the main characters see the results of what happened, without yet knowing why. The prequel tells the tale from the Norwegian camp, leading up to the original film.
So what about the film in general? The acting is actually good. Unfortunately the script and direction gives the cast little to work with. The original film takes a team of several men, and over the course of the film each has a distinct and individual personality, partly through script, partly through direction, partly through picking a range of wonderful character actors. The prequel fails by not defining any of them in detail.
All-in-all it feels like a film on fast forward. It lacks the atmosphere or tension of the original film precisely because it does not spend time setting up the horror moments. Instead they just 'happen', and we are expected to be scared because of 'gory creature'. The original film worked so well, because it was really about the fear of isolation and the paranoia of not knowing who you could trust. The horror, superb as it was, merely emphasised this. The prequel is robbed of any such moments. You never feel isolated and lonely, and you never have time to join the characters in worrying who is a creature and who isn't, before the next one is revealed.
As for the creature effects themselves, we have another problem. The original is seen as a landmark in practical horror effects, that stand the test of time. They are beautiful and repulsive, created practically and filmed on-set. For the most part they feel utterly real, and even when they aren't perfect (though pretty damn close), they still work because the things were actual physical props dripping in fluids and tearing apart in front of our eyes.
The new film instead uses CGI effects, which while excellently done, stand out as CGI effects. This isn't a fault of the budget or the people who created them, it's simply a problem with modern CGI. It can do a great many things, but it still cannot recreate blood and gore and flesh as effectively as traditional effects. As a result, the creatures are never actually creepy or unnerving because the feeling in our gut tells us they aren't really there. It seems strange to think that in another twenty or thirty years, people will watch the original film and still feel that sick revulsion in their stomach at the realistic horror of the beast's transformations, while the modern big-budget film will look terribly fake.
The musical soundtrack is also a disappointment. It's not bad, having been composed by Marco Beltrami, veteran of many a good film soundtrack (including a lot of horror films). Unfortunately the original film once again had an iconic and incredibly atmospheric score by veteran composer Ennio Morricone (Heavily influenced by the film's director, John Carpenter, who often creates his own scores), that Beltrami never matches. I don't like to criticise Beltrami, because I like a great deal of his other soundtracks, but I suspect he was told to create something different for the film, rather than emulate the original. It's just a shame that by doing so, it lacks the sombre and moody atmosphere it could have had.
Then we come to the continuity. This really is a head-scratcher. On the one hand we have a film that appears to go out of its way to carefully link itself to the original. For example, when the characters visit the burnt-out Norwegian camp in the original film, they find bodies and items in the camp that the prequel goes to great bother setting up. Then we have an absurd and glaring plot-hole. (Please stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers). The creature at the end of the prequel, escapes to the buried spaceship and by starting the engines, melts the ice above it. This creates two problems. One, the first film establishes with video footage that the Norwegian crew used Thermite charges to melt the ice above the buried craft, and reveal its surface. Two, if the crashed ship was still capable of flight, why did the creature not race to it earlier and why did it even leave the craft 100,000 years ago to freeze in the ice, instead of just taking off again? It makes no sense, especially in light of the efforts made to match continuity in other areas.
I've spent a lot of time outlining the problems with the film, so it may come as a surprise when I say I didn't hate it. In comparison to many recent horror movies it is surprisingly not bad, and even quite effective during its middle portion, between a rushed beginning and a muddled finale. Its problems occur when compared to the original, which still towers far above it. The new film has many, many problems, but when taken on its own, it is an enjoyable enough experience. Over all, I think it is not unlike 'Predators'. A film that takes so many of its best moments from its progenitor but adds so little, that it becomes ultimately pointless. It serves simply as a reminder of how great the original was and makes you want to go back and watch that. It's a shame, as it could have been so much more.
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