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Thing (2011), The

Universal // R // January 31, 2012
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted January 26, 2012 | E-mail the Author
A fireaxe lodged in a door. A corpse perched in front of a radio, still clutching a straight razor in his frozen hand with streaming icicles of blood emerging from his slit throat and wrists. A gigantic, half-shattered block of ice. The charred corpse of some sort of...thing with two distorted faces halfway fused together. R.J. MacReady and company had made the dangerous trek out to the Norwegians' camp in search
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of answers, and instead, they found...well, that. Anyone who's watched John Carpenter's The Thing likely had the same reaction as MacReady: what the hell happened here? With the last of the Norwegians smoldering in the ruins of a crashed helicopter, no one was left to tell the tale, and it wouldn't be long before the Americans were a little too busy to reconstruct what went on at that other camp. Part of the brilliance of this revisiting of The Thing is that it works as both a prequel and a remake. The Thing approaches the onslaught from the perspective of the Norwegians, but otherwise, the story's much the same: a group of researchers and support staff in a hopelessly isolated Antarctic camp are overcome by a shapeshifting alien creature. It takes the place of crew members one-by-one and ravages the group from within, be it from fear and mistrust or by tearing them apart into bloody chunks. There's no hope of escape. No one can be fully trusted. A research facility isn't exactly geared up for a battle with a virulent, otherworldly force. And...well, since you've already seen what happened to the Norwegian camp in Carpenter's film, you know this won't exactly end well.

I'm sure pretty much anyone reading this review feels the same way, but I'll say it anyway: John Carpenter's The Thing is arguably the greatest genre film of the past thirty years. It still holds up brilliantly all these decades later, so enduring and so perfect that The Thing has no need whatsoever for a remake. ...and, yeah, I kind of went into this remakeprequel with my arms crossed and a scowl on my face, but that almost immediately faded away. The Thing knows what it's getting into. It gets that a straightahead remake is doomed for failure. It recognizes what works so spectacularly well in Carpenter's film and doesn't try to fix any of it with bleeding-edge cinematic gloss. From a frothing-at-the-mouth fanboy perspective, I love seeing how all of those gruesome details from the Norwegian camp in the 1982 film came to pass. If you've never experienced Carpenter's The Thing, then...well, you should probably take care of that, but this prequel is so self-contained that it works well completely on its own too. Ignore the fact that it doesn't reach the same dizzying heights of Carpenter's film and take this prequel for what it is, and I think you'll be surprised by how effective this movie can really be,
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flaws and all.

Look, there's only one Kurt Russell, and he set the bar pretty damned high as R.J. MacReady. If this prequel had tried to cast some other Rugged Male Action Hero Type in the lead, that'd open the door to all sorts of comparisons, and...yeah, it wouldn't be pretty. Instead of trotting out some sort of second-rate MacReady, The Thing veers off in a completely different direction, and it works beautifully. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is about as inspired a casting choice as this movie could possibly have made. I know all sorts of eyes were rolling when the news broke that Winstead would be playing an American paleontologist investigating the Norwegians' otherworldly discovery, but this is hardly like Denise Richards being cast as a nuclear physicist in that one James Bond flick. For one, Winstead just radiates an unmistakeable intelligence, strength, and confidence. Lesser movies have a bad habit of shoehorning in the Tough Chick scene to clumsily show that their female leads can stand toe-to-toe with any comers; The Thing doesn't need to bother spelling all of that out since Winstead quietly and convincingly projects everything her character's made of from word one. The movie doesn't need to sell viewers on that because it's all right there in Winstead's performance. When she begins to take charge, it feels wholly earned. Kate isn't a love interest. She's really not sexualized in any way. She's not some cartoonishly tough-as-nails cariacture, and she sure as hell isn't a damsel in distress. It's a delicate and critically important balance that Winstead has to strike, and she executes it flawlessly. It's hard to imagine this prequel being anywhere near as effective as it is with anyone else in the lead.

The Thing also has a brilliantly timeless quality about it, with director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. approaching this prequel as if it had been shot alongside Carpenter's film thirty years ago. The anamorphic 35mm photography doesn't feel tethered to any decade in particular. Its score is propelled by orchestral strings, casting aside the electronic droning and chugging guitars that are part and parcel of horror soundtracks anymore. Other modern crutches such as frantically shaky camerawork, ramping the camera speed, or drenching every square inch of the screen in a sickly blue tint are nowhere to be found. Even the steadier, more deliberate rhythm to the editing feels largely in-step with the 1982 film. Despite being made decades apart, you really could watch both movies back-to-back and feel as if they're speaking the same cinematic language. The craftsmanship on so many levels is precisely what The Thing ought to be, down the meticulous recreation of the most minute details of the Norwegian camp.

The prequel's earliest press took care to note that this
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extended to the effects work as well, honoring Rob Bottin's legendary creatures in the Carpenter film by relying predominantly on animatronics and practical makeup effects. The plan was to augment some of the effects in the digital realm, but otherwise, CGI would be used sparingly to bring this predatory alien force to life. The extras on this Blu-ray disc are teeming with footage of the elaborate animatronic rigs used on the set, and interviews floating around online delve into the months of work that went into one particularly destructive sequence...including a flailing tentacle bursting out of a stomach that I never would've believed was a practical effect if it weren't thrashing around right in front of me. It's some pretty thoroughly spectacular work. It's a crushing disappointment that those animatronics were abandoned somewhere along the line during post-production. The majority of the creature effects have been painted over with CGI, and it's wildly uneven. Some of it's disturbing and effective; far more, disappointingly, is plasticky and distractingly unconvincing. I wouldn't even want to count how many time I've seen Carpenter's The Thing over the years, and effects like the upturned head sprouting spider legs still gets an unnerved "oh, shit...!" out of me. As inspired as the creature designs here often are, none of them have that kind of impact on me. The prequel is also so enthralled with what CG can do that practical effects can't -- the creature's violent, sinewy explosions -- that they ultimately leave less of an impact. The most laughably amateurish effect comes close to the end, attempting to mirror the original film's head-on-a-distended-stick. Even with however many hundreds of thousands of VFX dollars were thrown at that iteration of the creature in the prequel, it can't hold a candle to what Bottin and his team accomplished thirty years ago. Any distractingly digital effects in a film with the title of The Thing will invariably leave a lot of seasoned genre fans wincing, but to be saddled with CG this shoddy is just rubbing salt in the wound. Fingers crossed that one day a director's cut might roll around with the practical effects work fully restored.

Studio meddling is likely to blame for the practical effects work being largely tossed aside, and that sort of interference can also be felt somewhat throughout The Thing's first half hour. I'm not going to argue that Carpenter's film is lush with characterization, exactly, but I still think it skillfully establishes who these men are at their core and what the dynamics are between them. In this prequel, that sort of thing gets a lot more muddled. The cast is talented and charismatic enough to buoy the truncated material, but it does feel as if a lot of character beats were trimmed out to get to the splattery creature effects more quickly. As much as I love the Norwegian crew in this -- and they're played by honest to God Norwegian actors, even! -- just about all of them run together in my mind. Sure, there are The Haughty Lead Scientist, The One That Doesn't Speak English, and The One with the Wicked Beard, but by and large, I couldn't really tell them apart. Getting to know these
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men even just a little more would've made their torment and suffering so much more impactful rather than just a gruesome visual effects spectacle.

...and then there are the flaws that are all this prequel's own. Comparisons to Alien would've been almost unavoidable anyway -- goes with the territory with a strong female lead squaring off against an infectious, otherworldly menace -- but that really comes to a head during The Thing's climax. I'm sure the idea is to better distinguish this prequel from Carpenter's film, but the tone, the pace, the atmosphere, its approach to all just feels like something out of a completely different movie altogether. Obviously I can't say too much more than that to keep clear of spoilers, but it just doesn't feel like the finalé that The Thing wants. The standout sequence in Carpenter's film is the blood test. To really hammer it home that this is a prequel rather than a straight-up remake, The Thing has a scene that serves the same purpose -- trying to figure out who's of this world and who's not -- but in a very different way. There's just something so inherently visceral about blood -- flesh being cut, blood dripping out, the tactile connection between those little pools of crimson and a heated wire -- and shining a flashlight in someone's mouth just doesn't pack nearly that much of a punch. Conceptually, this dental test is inspired, and I like the idea of it not being a definitive answer...something that can and does spark fear and mistrust...but it doesn't come together as well as I would've liked. This prequel does a terrific job establishing how desolate and hopelessly isolated this camp is from the world at large; it was, after all, largely shot in the same glacial stretch of British Columbia as the Carpenter film. However, it doesn't capture the same sense of looming, inescapable dread that defines the earlier movie. There isn't that lingering, haunting resonance after each attack. This prequel is a blast as a creature flick -- part thriller, part horror, part sci-fi, and even a little procedural in there to boot -- but it's not the paranoid thriller that Carpenter's film is.

I get the sense that director Matthijs van Heijningen made a considerably stronger movie than what eventually found its way into theaters. Still, even in this compromised form, I was completely caught off-guard by how much I enjoyed The Thing. Benefitting from a strong cast, more of a timeless approach to its cinematography and editing, and some really solid jolts, this prequel easily ranks among my favorite genre films from the class of 2011. Obviously not in the same league as John Carpenter's The Thing -- not much of anything is -- but very well-made and wildly entertaining in its own right. It took a while for Carpenter's film to be appreciated, and maybe the same will be said for this prequel one of these days. Flawed, yes, but underrated and very much Recommended.

Part of what I find so intriguing about the cinematography behind The Thing is that it doesn't look like a movie fresh out of theaters. It doesn't have that digital gloss...that sort of gleaming clarity and detail. That's entirely intentional too. Some movies you can watch on Blu-ray and just about immediately pin down what year it was shot, give or take. The Thing has more of a timeless look to it, and its visual eye really wouldn't seem out of step as the first half of a double feature with the thirty-year-old Carpenter film. The anamorphic 35mm cinematography is on the fuzzy side but still showcases quite a bit of definition and detail. I mean, there's never any doubt that I'm watching a movie on Blu-ray, even if at times The Thing more closely resembles a very nice remaster of a horror flick from a couple decades back. The filmic texture and those wonderful anamorphic lens flares really set it apart from just about every genre title coming down the pike these days. As expected from a Blu-ray disc culled from a digital intermediate, there's no sign of wear, damage, or excessive filtering, and the high bitrate encode staves off any compression artifacting. The one complaint I have is that black levels are fairly lackluster. Other than that...? Terrific work, although again, viewers should go in realizing that this isn't going to be the usual sort of high definition eye candy.

The VC-1 encode for The Thing spans both layers of this BD-50 disc. The image is letterboxed to preserve its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1.

I can't get over how spectacular the sound design is throughout this six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio track. The Thing makes a substantial sonic impression from its very earliest moments: the haunting,
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howling wind filling the surrounds, the thunderous bass as a rover plummets through a precarious sheet of ice, the metallic snarls and tumbling icy shards that follow... The lossless audio is similarly aggressive throughout the slew of other action-oriented sequences throughout The Thing, with a keen ear for directionality. The way an unseen creature will skitter across every channel in particular is wildly effective, making for a film that demands to be experienced on a proper home theater rig.

This Blu-ray disc also features a descriptive video service track as well as lossy DTS 5.1 dubs in French and Spanish. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), French, and Spanish, and The Thing also supports D-Box bass shaker rigs.

  • Fire and Ice (5 min.; HD): The first of The Thing's featurettes focuses on the pyrotechnics: all of the logistics and safety measures behind lighting stuntmen on fire. Seeing as how flamethrowers are the weapon of choice in The Thing, some of the animatronic creatures had to be torched too, and the intermingling of real fire, practical creature effects, and digital wizardry is also briefly explored.

  • The Thing Evolves (14 min.; HD): The best -- and, in a way, most disappointing -- thing about this making-of featurette is that it lavishes so much attention on the elaborate animatronic effects that wound up being largely discarded. It's even mentioned repeatedly how they wanted to honor Rob Bottin's legendary work on the 1982 film by keeping the effects practical wherever possible and how CG would be used to enhance...not more-or-less replace it all. It's also interesting to hear about the filmmakers' approach to the prequel, acknowledging just how much they have to live up to. They delve into the reverse-engineering that went into its screenplay, performing an autopsy of sorts in trying to recreate the destruction that was uncovered at the Norwegian camp in Carpenter's film.

  • Deleted and Extended Scenes (9 min.; HD): I love it when deleted scene reels are as diverse as this. The first few clips better establish the tone and offer some appreciated character beats, and these are followed by three grisly, effects-heavy scenes. One of them helps explain one of the more memorably gruesome discoveries MacReady and company would go on to make at the Norwegian camp. An extended ending showcases some additional gearing up for an ill-fated chase, although nothing fundamental is really changed with that one. There are seven pieces of footage in all, and they can be viewed individually or played all at once.

  • Audio Commentary: As much as I've enjoyed all of the extras up to this point, The Thing's commentary track easily ranks as the best of the bonus features. Director Matthijs van Heijningen is joined by producer Eric Newman (and producer Mark Abraham, kind of), and...well, they just get it. The emphasis is far more heavily placed on the construction of the story and why certain key decisions were made. For instance, they address
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    the controversy in casting a gorgeous twentysomething woman as a scientist and even diplomatically explain why so many of the practical effects were replaced in post-production with CGI. Newman and van Heijningen are both exceptionally engaging and personable speakers, and their energy never lets up. What I love about this commentary more than anything is how the two of them discuss changes made from earlier drafts of the screenplay, including MacReady's brother being mulled over as the lead, and...yeah, they laugh at that idea too. It's an essential listen for anyone picking up this Blu-ray disc: clever, funny, thoughtful, and impressively thorough, Newman and van Heijningen know exactly what listeners want to hear.

  • U-Control: The frustrating thing about this picture-in-picture feature is that while there's some really great material in here, there's not nearly enough of it. I wasn't watching The Thing with a stopwatch or anything, but if I had to guess, it feels as if there are maybe 20 or 25 minutes of material to support a 103 minute film: very short clips separated by gaping chasms of nothing. Among the highlights are detailed casting notes, looks at the creature and spacecraft designs, a brief peek at the other aliens that didn't make it into the final cut, comparing and contrasting this prequel with Carpenter's film, and quite a bit with the discarded animatronic effects. This mix of interviews, behind the scenes footage, storyboards, and conceptual art would be well-worth a look if they'd been presented on their own, but there's just not nearly enough material to warrant the picture-in-picture treatment.

The second disc in the set is an anamorphic widescreen DVD. The Thing comes packaged in an embossed slipcase, and a code for an UltraViolet digital copy is tucked inside.

The Final Word
It's really not hard to argue that John Carpenter's The Thing is the most masterfully crafted genre film of the past thirty years. More than just a lifelong favorite, this a movie that means something to me. As ridiculous as this might sound, it was legitimately a struggle to even put this newly-minted prequel in my Blu-ray deck. Having slogged through so much bad press and hundreds of scathing posts on the usual message boards, I braced myself for the worst, and...well, I wound up really, really digging The Thing anyway.

Of course the prequel doesn't outclass what Carpenter did thirty years ago, but that's kind of unavoidable seeing as how his film is perfect and all. Just because it doesn't reach those same dizzying heights doesn't mean that the 2011 prequel-slash-remake isn't a damned good movie in its own right. It's a creature flick rather than a paranoid thriller, but The Thing happens to be a really good creature flick, so I'm not complaining. It's the handiwork of a cast and crew that clearly have tremendous respect for Carpenter's film, and its more timeless approach to cinematography and editing set The Thing apart from just about everything else coming down the pike these days. The prequel certainly suffers from its share of flaws, but I suspect director Matthijs van Heijningen made a better movie than what was ultimately released. Maybe we'll get a chance to see that version at some point down the road, but even with the compromises and unwelcome CGI here, I can't get over how much of a blast I had with The Thing. Very underrated and very much Recommended.
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