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Thing, The Print E-mail
Friday, 12 December 2008
Image“The Thing,” aka “John Carpenter’s The Thing,” was released two weeks after “E.T.”, probably one reason it didn’t do as well as expected.  The reputation of the movie, John Carpenter’s first for a big studio, has gradually increased over the years, and now is generally regarded as a science fiction/horror classic.  Some even prefer it to Howard Hawks’ 1951 movie, of which this is a remake.  It’s well produced, convincingly set in Antarctica (using location work in Alaska and British Columbia), with special effects designed and engineered by the amazingly creative Rob Bottin.  This was well before computer graphic effects; what you see is what was actually in person, on the sets.  The effects are still astonishing and gleefully gruesome.

The story from which both films grew was the 1938 novella “Who Goes There,” by John W. Campbell, Jr. (writing as Don A. Stuart; it appeared in a magazine Campbell himself was editing).  As Carpenter himself points out in the interesting commentary track, it’s essentially a variation on Agatha Christie’s famous “And Then There Were None”/”Ten Little Indians.”  Basically, the idea is that an Antarctic research group unearths an alien body frozen in the ice; its ship, which crashed to Earth millennia ago, is found nearby.  When the body thaws out, it proves to be a carnivorous shape shifter; it ingests its victims, then can precisely duplicate them—with as many bodies as it needs.  Soon, the problem the team must face is just who among them has been replaced by the thing from space?  And how can they prevent it from spreading to the world outside?

Lancaster cleverly shifts the story a bit: here, a dog evading a helicopter takes refuge with our research group.  The desperate Norwegians in the helicopter don’t speak English, but keep trying to kill the dog even as it takes shelter among the American team—which looks like an attack, so the surviving Norwegian is gunned down.  Later, the Americans go to the now-lifeless Norwegian base and find a videotape telling of the discovery of the crashed ship and the alien that escaped.  They also find the block of ice in which the alien had been frozen for thousands of years.  But now the alien, as the escaping dog, is among them.  Put in a pen with the team’s regular dogs, it explodes into a ghastly, murderous shape, with tentacles, spider-like legs and as many heads—and jaws—as it needs.  The team blasts the reshaping monster—but they don’t kill it.  And anyway, we saw the dog enter the room of one of the team earlier.  The thing has already begun to duplicate the human beings.  But how can you tell who’s still human and who is an alien replacement?

In the commentary track, Carpenter admits that there were some questions he couldn’t answer—like if you were duplicated by the alien, would you even know it?  In Campbell’s original story, the answer was clear: if you were attacked by the alien, you would be dead.  The duplicate would have your memories, but the mind of the alien.  In Lancaster’s original draft, this was dealt with carefully, but in his rewrites, Carpenter smudged this idea—at least one of the duplicates doesn’t seem to be aware it is an alien.  Others do.  This is one of the central weaknesses of the movie.

Another is that Carpenter was unable to work out a satisfactory ending; the story simply stops with two survivors who’ll soon freeze to death—unless one or both of them is an alien duplicate.  We’re left hanging at the end.  This problem is exacerbated by the sheer horribleness of the basic premise: this is an extremely dangerous creature, and we have been put through the suspense wringer so much the story essentially demands a satisfactory conclusion with the Thing dead and people alive.  (That’s how the original novella ended.) 

The movie is extremely suspenseful and full of tension; it’s easily Carpenter’s best movie.  But the second half doesn’t give us any respite from the horror, which just keeps accumulating as people die and/or are exposed as alien duplicates.  The movie is so tense, so horrifying, that the audience should have been treated with more sympathy and understanding.  Yes, it’s very powerful, but you leave the theater (or turn off the DVD) without being offered any relief.

In the commentary track, Carpenter justifiably prides himself on taking the film very seriously; it’s not full of the irony and wisecracks which eventually distorted and disfigured SF/action movies in the years after 1982.  This is the real deal, and is remarkably low on any kind of humor—though there is that one line, “You’ve got to be f***ing kidding.”  (When you watch the movie a second time, pay attention to who delivers that line.)  The rest of the time, the movie is downright grim.

The image on this Blu-ray disc is superb.  The movie was shot by the often brilliant Dean Cundy, nearly as much a master of darkness as Gordon Willis.  Except for a few sun-filled exteriors at the beginning, most of “The Thing” takes place at night and/or in the dark corridors of the research base.  This is ideal for high definition; in standard definition, either the darkest or brightest parts of an image tend to blur together.  Here, the shots are crisp and detailed, even in the shadowiest part of the frame.  The movie simply looks great from beginning to end.

Unfortunately, the extras that were present on the laserdisc and standard DVD releases of “The Thing” are almost entirely gone.  The relaxed and informal commentary track by long-time friends Carpenter and Kurt Russell is here, but the various featurettes have all been abandoned in favor of a picture-in-picture “U-Control” feature.  When this is engaged, a U appears at the bottom right of the frame from beginning to end; occasionally, a clip—often, more than one—will grow out of the U into a smaller frame within the larger image.  These feature comments by people who worked on the film—Carpenter, producer David Foster, writer Lancaster, effects creators Rob Bottin, Albert Whitlock and others, production designer John Foster, and others.  These clips are interesting but intrusive; the disc would have been better served had they been included in a featurette, as they were in previous video releases.  (Several of this people have since died; Bill Lancaster, for instance, died in 1997.)

But the movie looks so good in high definition that if you’re interested in it at all, the disc is probably worth the purchase.

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