A Marlowe DVD Review: THE THING (2011; Universal)
THE THING (2011) DVD REVIEW
WRITTEN FOR & UPLOADED TO HIGH DEF FORUM BY PETER MARLOWE 02.13.12
Disc/Transfer Specifications: Anamorphic Widescreen; Region 1 (U.S.) Release Tested
Tested Audio Track: English Dolby Digital 5.1
IT’S NOT HUMAN. YET.
Depending on the rumor channel you listened to or read online, the 2011 horror shocker sharing the same name with John Carpenter’s special effects-loaded legendary 1980’s remake was either a remake of that remake, or a prequel story which was designed to answer many of the questions Carpenter’s gore fest presented about characters, the alien organism and where it originated and more. I am delighted to report that this version of The Thing is indeed not a remake of Carpenter’s excellent film, but rather a genuine attempt at a prequel story – specifically, concentrating on the events that plagued the Norwegian science team who finds the alien before Kurt Russell and his U.S. science team are taken over by it in Carpenter’s version. This was the right avenue to take, I think, as we were always left wondering in the very beginning of Carpenter’s film where the Alaskan Husky came from (later discovering he was at the Norwegian camp), why the Norwegians were shooting at him and ultimately how they stumbled upon the alien in the first place. In Carpenter’s film – which of course was a remake of The Thing From Another World, itself based on a novella called Who Goes There? – we see the alien craft entering our atmosphere and crashing through the ozone layer and other protective planetary layers, supposedly landing in Antarctica, where it remains frozen for some hundreds of thousands of years. Picking up in the winter of 1982, Carpenter’s film goes on to assume someone else (the Norwegian scientists) have discovered the ship and alien life form inside of it, but then the events concentrate on the American outpost team that are overtaken by the organism one by one after it spreads from the infected dog from the Norwegian camp. As a Thing fan, I was always left wondering exactly what went on at that Norwegian outpost before the U.S. team was infected.
And you know something? The filmmakers for this one got it kinda right – from the exact location sets such as the wooden shack and stairs that the block of ice with the alien in it is sitting in (seen in Carpenter’s version when Russell and the doctor arrive to haul the thing back) to the end sequence in which the last of the Norwegians are shooting at the dog trying to stop it from getting to the U.S outpost, setting up, perfectly, the beginning of Carpenter’s film. I was very impressed at the level of detail and thought that went into trying to make the two films connect and flow, as many prequels and spinoffs simply don’t do.
But, alas – as much as there was positive here, there was also negative. First of all, we have a no-name cast playing the Norwegian scientists, which is fine, but in the lead “American” role is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, portraying an American scientist called to the Norwegian camp to view the alien specimen they found in the ice; this just didn’t fit to me. Why does there always have to be a chick in these modern horror films or thriller pics? Carpenter’s version had a group of men in an isolated location in the barren Antarctic, and the sense of claustrophobia and paranoia amongst them just worked as-is…bringing a rogue female element into the mix for the sake of “appealing to modern audiences” or keeping in the vain of modern remakes and prequels is plain idiotic in my opinion. That lent to the second big problem of 2011’s The Thing – the film’s plot takes place in the same time period as Carpenter’s film, circa 1982, and we are to assume the alien has absorbed the dog at the Norwegian camp, making its way to the American outpost in a frame of a few hours perhaps. But the problem is, this film didn’t feel like anything remotely suggesting it was the 1980’s. I hate when filmmakers and studios do this. They’re so desperate to run a film into production and into theaters, they glaze over obvious points like this regardless of the fact that many will take notice – thus taking such viewers completely out of the experience. For 1982, the clothing is just wrong, the dialogue is wrong and the overall look and feel of the sets is off – you can see a complete attempt to copy Carpenter’s style of his film and the sets, such as the pans of the long hallways in the Norwegian camp, and we even have a variation of the spine-tingling heartbeat synth score which accompanied the 1982 version…but in general, I didn’t necessarily believe this was 1982 in the prequel.
Of course, we have the prerequisite “hot guy” with scraggly hair and facial growth, looking and dressing like no one from the 1980’s, and we have the kinda sexy Winstead in “modern” looking jeans and tops, speaking in a decidingly non-1980’s dialect, and the whole thing took me out of the story a few times. That isn’t to say the whole thing was terrible – to the contrary, many of the sequences smacked of Carpenter’s mood and environment created in his film, and in that way the two films definitely connected.
We also get a glimpse, in this prequel, of the alien craft up close and even of its interior – something not even attempted in Carpenter’s version. We always wanted to know what the ship looked like up close and inside, and we get a chance to do so here – there’s even a cool sequence involving the pulsating blue neon lights surrounding the craft (seen as its plummeting towards Earth in the title sequence of Carpenter’s version) as they turn on and circle the ship. The problem comes when the filmmakers took this “inside the ship” angle too far, making the film begin to feel like Alien or any number of those sci fi spinoffs, and we’re suddenly left with this slimy alien organism chasing people aboard its crashed ship…something that felt totally out of place compared to Carpenter’s original premise. The concept was that this being hides inside a human host, absorbing him or her until it can copy it bit-for-bit; this idea was what made Carpenter’s version so downright unsettling, as the alien would break out of its human shell when feeling threatened, so we never really knew who was human until it was too shockingly late.
Which brings me to the scientific aspect of the prequel – The Thing, in this case, goes into a bit more about the genetic mapping and absorption process of the alien organism as compared to Carpenter’s film (which did a respectable job in that regard, not giving too much away and leaving the scientists and men feeling like they didn’t know what they were up against exactly). The prequel attempts to tell the story of how a Norwegian science expedition team camped out in Antarctica stumble upon a gigantic alien spaceship buried deep under the ice, as the opening sequence portrays a team of them riding over the surface of the ice with a snow tractor of some kind, tracing the source of a distress signal being sent out by the alien ship. Obviously, this suggests the alien/human absorption began when the Thing “called out” for help and the Norwegians arrived, only to fall through the ice and upon the massive craft. Eventually, the men at the outpost pull the organism out of a block of ice and drag it back to their camp, where it begins to thaw out, and unbeknownst to them, its cells are still active and alive.
When Winstead’s character arrives at the camp, things go from strange to terrifying, as the creature ends up escaping from its icy confine (also seen in Carpenter’s film, when Russell and Doc Copper find the empty ice block at the Norwegian camp – another good example of how this prequel flowed correctly with a lot of the narrative) and explodes through the roof to the horror of the African-American American helicopter pilot that witnesses it (the African actor that portrayed “Adebesi” in HBO’s OZ). From there, we get a smattering of special effects mimicking from Carpenter’s film, as the filmmakers here render their own take on the slimy alien as it tears through people and absorbs them, turning them into bizarre, twisted, grotesque creatures. For the most part, the special effects work, if not as shocking, even all these years later, as Rob Bottin’s makeup and puppetry work in the 1982 film – some of the basic elements seen in Carpenter’s film with regard to the alien’s characteristics are seen in nearly all incarnations of the creature in this prequel, including long tentacles that grab and throw people around, horrific sharp jaws jutting out of human body parts and grotesque digestive tract-like shapes and textures designed to completely gross us out. As I said, for the most part, it works – still, it wasn’t as effective nor downright shocking and creepy as the body transformation scenes witnessed in Carpenter’s The Thing.
A sequence involving a Norwegian team member that was “absorbed” by the alien and eventually “stuck” in its “digestive system” as the creature was burned and couldn’t complete replicating him was particularly effective, as we see the guy still in this weird embryotic sac of some kind, in the midst of being imitated by the alien creature – creepy. But it allowed an opportunity to explain more of the science behind the alien’s functions and its intentions with humans, as Winstead’s character explains to the men that this guy was being replicated by the creature, cell for cell, and bit-for-bit as they look on in absolute shock and horror. Surprisingly, there weren’t that many body transformation sequences in the prequel depicting humans turning into the Thing, but I suppose that can be an asset rather than a negative as how much of the gross stuff can we, for lack of a better term, absorb?
There were a couple of copycat sequences paralleled with Carpenter’s film which I didn’t care for as it suggested to me a lack of originality, such as the “blood serum test” as seen in Carpenter’s film, in which the theory is the alien will attack any blood it feels is being “threatened” therefore helping them figure out who is human and who is alien; of course, like in Carpenter’s film, the first attempt at this goes wrong, and Winstead is forced to use another method to test the Norwegian camp members. She discovers that this alien organism cannot copy or absorb any non-organic matter – so she finds people’s teeth fillings and metal rods from within their bodies around the camp, hinting at the fact that anything non-biological within the human host can’t be replicated. Using this, she examines the mouth of each of the men, looking for fillings in their teeth, the premise being if they have fillings present and intact, they couldn’t be a Thing. This of course mimics Carpenter’s version in which Russell dips the hot needle into each blood sample, hoping to create a reaction with any of the men in his team who were Things.
The end sequence, refreshingly wasn’t wildly disappointing – although it ends abruptly before going into the effective connection during the end credits sequence between this prequel and the very beginning of Carpenter’s The Thing. The whole Winstead character aspect at the end didn’t wrap anything up, as she’s seen just sitting watching the camp burn up from behind a snow tractor’s wheel as the screen fades out – but as the end credits roll, we see “Hans” and another Norwegian survivor jump into a helicopter and take off after the Alaskan Husky that escapes from the camp, obviously infected with the alien organism, thus accurately setting up the beginning of Carpenter’s film. But we still have questions here: What happened to Winstead’s character? Was she rescued? Why is there no mention of her when Russell and the U.S. team make it up to their camp? Where is she at that point? The time table suggests the events taking place at the Norwegian camp flow right into the time the U.S team from Carpenter’s film are infiltrated by the infected dog – so this isn’t months or years later…what happened to Winstead’s character then?
Additionally, there are other interesting connections to Carpenter’s film here, including the Norwegian radio operator (I believe) who is found frozen in his chair with the razor in his hand, apparently attempting to slash himself with it as his blood is frozen along with him (seen in Carpenter’s film when they visit the Norwegian camp) – as well as the shocking transformation of one of the Norwegians as the Thing attempts to copy him, stretching his face into the melted wax-like creature seen frozen in Carpenter’s film. These were commendable attempts by the prequel to connect the events of the two films together.
Outside of that, really, the ending was a complete success, tying up the events of this prequel and those that occur at the very beginning of Carpenter’s 1982 film. The question though, essentially, about this 2011 prequel of The Thing becomes…was this ultimately necessary? I realize this can be asked about any prequel project, but in this case, I am torn about the merits this brings to the Thing story…on one hand, I applaud the efforts for creating a narrative that describes the alien organism a bit more thoroughly and what exactly went on at that Norwegian camp. On the other, I wonder if, at the end of the day, it was ultimately necessary to budget for this type of project, and if they should have instead stuck to the mystique inspired by Carpenter’s 1982 shock fest. The questions unanswered by that film – was MacReady or Childs a Thing at the very end? Who was the first to be absorbed by the organism inside the dog? – kind of gives it a mystery of its own, and there are even fan sites dedicated to the plot twists of The Thing, where all these elements are discussed.
At any rate, this was an entertaining rental, and I was totally expecting a flop, given how quickly this prequel went from theaters to home video – to say nothing of the horrendous reviews it received. If you’re a fan of Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing, you will definitely appreciate all the connections this prequel story made to a lot of the images and plotlines in that film. The look and feel of the sets were awkward and it didn’t seem like 1982 to me, what with the characters’ dialogue and clothing, not to mention Winstead’s kind of out-of-place role and performance as a lead scientist investigating the alien infestation, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting going into it.
I can definitely recommend a rental spin; as for a purchase, the jury’s still out on that one for me at least.
VIDEO QUALITY ANALYSIS:
I wasn’t able to obtain, unfortunately, a Blu-ray copy of 2011’s The Thing to review, as my editor already gave those copies to other reviewers on the staff prior to me being assigned the title on DVD, but for what it was worth, the DVD looked clean enough given the subject material. There was a purposeful softness and haze to the image that coincided with the stark, cold conditions in the Antarctic, and there was no pop to speak of anywhere throughout. Even if your display is set to a “warm” color temperature, the transfer of this film will appear cool, cold, steely and bluish.
AUDIO QUALITY ANALYSIS:
The standard English Dolby Digital 5.1 mix was usual fare from Universal, meaning it was effective where it needed to be and included the prerequisite stinger cues and enveloping soundstage. I did note a distinct lack of bass – actually, LFE was virtually non-existent on my system – and there were no real standout moments on the track; when humans suddenly transformed into alien beings , the sequences were accompanied by startling, explosive audio cues and creepy support in the surround channels where you could easily make out the scurrying of alien claws or crab-like legs. However, nothing was really “reference grade” here, even for legacy DVD. Perhaps the lossless track on the Blu-ray version fared better; I am uncertain as of now.
Let’s discuss the 2011 prequel of The Thing!
Well Peter, glad i read your review. I find it to be more honest then most. I bought this as a blind buy ,and haven't watched it yet. When i do i'll let you know. But based on your review, i think i'll like this film. Thanks Bud Tom
Thanks for the feedback, and glad you enjoyed the review! I'm happy it was helpful; indeed, if you're a fan of the 1982 remake by Carpenter, you should at the very least appreciate this one. Are you a fan of the '82 film?
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