THE THING (2011): It’s Probably Better Than You Remember

A maligned and largely forgotten prequel gets a Mill Creek Entertainment Blu-ray release

Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s 2011 prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing has had a rough go of it. Received poorly by critics and largely rejected by audiences, in under a decade the film has been more or less lost to time. It suffered the fate of many films that get a studio greenlight thanks to being part of an “IP”, but which then get shunned in large part precisely BECAUSE of the new film’s relation to the old.

I approached this 2011 film with much trepidation, myself, and didn’t have particularly fond memories of it upon seeing it in theaters. In reality I didn’t have many memories of it at all, which was part of my interest in revisiting and re-evaluating it upon the advent of its new Blu-ray release via Mill Creek Entertainment. John Carpenter’s The Thing is actually my favorite horror film of all time, as I’ve gone on record stating. So I find myself in that interesting position fans often find themselves in where there’s a thing they love passionately… do they want MORE of that thing in their life, or will more of that thing they love so vigorously simply dilute the purity of the first love?

As for myself, I’ve found much room in my heart to love anything in the orbit of John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s just that great of a film. For instance, I’ve tracked down the other films of special effects genius Rob Bottin thanks to discovering him through The Thing. I’ve even contemplated playing the recent board game Mondo put out in homage of The Thing (I’m not a board game guy). Most recently I finally took the opportunity to watch and review The Thing From Another World (the 1951 film that is itself an adaptation of a short story called Who Goes There? and upon which Carpenter based his own film) simply because if I claim to love Carpenter’s film as much as I do, I should learn more about where it came from. Someday I’ll likely read that short story just because of my fandom. And so it is that, upon this revisit of 2011’s The Thing, I’ve come to outright enjoy it as a love letter to Carpenter’s film and a thrilling companion piece to that unblemished masterpiece. As a reflection and homage and even as an entirely new chapter added to Carpenter’s work, it holds up even if it doesn’t even approach the same level of timeless all-time great status.

In terms of being a film in its own right and attempting to judge it on its own merits while somewhat divorcing oneself from Carpenter’s work, there are a lot of great components at play here. The cast is uniformly strong. Mary Elizabeth Winstead as paleontologist Dr. Kate Lloyd is a fantastic lead which allows the 2011 film to sidestep any kind of futile attempt to get a “Kurt Russell type” in the lead role… a task which would have been insurmountable. Winstead is simply one of this generation’s great actresses, easily able to be the smartest human in the room (nay continent) full of men, while simultaneously being able to convey vulnerability AND a take charge toughness. She’s wholly believable as a scientist pulled out of her element at the last moment to investigate the possible discovery of an extraterrestrial being buried in the Antarctic ice. Winstead’s presence is a huge boost to this film’s ultimate worthiness. Aussie great Joel Edgerton is our second lead, and he’s always fantastic. Lost’s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is similarly consistent in his greatness. Boldly, the filmmaking team filled the cast beyond this point largely with [unknown in the US] Norwegian actors to portray the doomed inhabitants of the Norwegian outpost which discovers the long-dormant UFO and its inhabitant. Most of this Norwegian cast remains unknown to this Westerner, but since 2011 one of those iconic Norwegians, Kristofer Hijvu, has gained international fame as Game Of Thrones’ Tormund Giantsbane. Great in everything from Force Majeure to Fate Of The Furious, Hijvu provides a dash of flavor to 2011’s The Thing which is perhaps retroactive due to his newfound fame, but is undeniably there nonetheless.

In terms of plot mechanics, 2011’s film does feel almost as much a remake as it does a prequel. Humans who have no idea what they’re dealing with allow an alien into their midst on a remote research facility, and discover that the alien is able to mimic its hosts on a cellular level, taking over human bodies flawlessly. It’s a virus with unimaginable consequences that must never be allowed to reach a dense population or mankind is all but doomed. Our characters are at first incredulous of the preposterous situation they find themselves in, and soon succumb to a deep distrust of one another. Anyone could be “the thing”. Humanity’s worst traits begin to emerge but Winstead’s Kate snaps the survivors into some form of shape and attempts to keep them all alive while the weight of humanity rests on their shoulders.

2011’s The Thing has some actual advantages over Carpenter’s film. As a prequel with a pre-ordained outcome, it does get to explore this fascinating filmic creature’s origins a bit more directly. Carpenter’s characters truly have no idea what they’ve encountered. But our characters need not be convinced of an alien origin because they themselves have discovered the ship. I’d always considered that the creature we see early in Carpenter’s film might not be the “original form” of this shape shifting monster. But a neat thought this film brought me was whether our creature was the pilot of the crashed UFO or if, in fact, it had simply taken over the ship in the same way it proceeds to do to 2 different research stations. 2011’s film even takes us inside the ship and brings a little more sci-fi flavor to the otherwise very horrific tone.

Mostly, though, the big point of contention discussed ad nauseum surrounding this film is its use of CGI to depict this iconic, all-time great screen creature which was originally brought to life using old school techniques from practical models and sculptures to stop motion animation. Look, I’m an enormous defender of practical effects and find them to be routinely superior, and more tactile, than computer renders. The Thing is great for a host of reasons, but a primary one is that the filmmaking team behind Rob Bottin simply created one of the greatest monsters in the history of the moving image. It’s that good. The greatest hurdle this remake had to overcome, then, for audiences (and even for me personally) was the creature design elements. And in this regard, no, 2011’s remake doesn’t really hold a candle to Carpenter’s film nor does it do much new to justify its existence. It’s a pale copy. But… it’s honestly nowhere near as bad as it’s routinely believed to be. And another narrative strength this film has is that some of the rules established in the Carpenter film haven’t yet been established in this one. For instance, in Carpenter’s film the creature is savvy — keeping its presence hidden at all costs until the balance of power tips in its favor or until it’s backed into a corner. It takes a lot in Carpenter’s film to flush out the creature. But it had to learn this behavior, and we’re watching it learn this behavior here in van Heijningen’s film. For audiences, that means the creature is a little dumber, and occasionally it reveals itself in various grotesque forms in situations that don’t always make sense. Believe it or not, this seems intentional on the part of writer Eric Heisserer, which increases my esteem of the final product. It also gives modern audiences more opportunities to see insane creature designs, which disqualified the movie for many Carpenter devotees.

To be honest, while I adore practical effects and lament the days of blood squibs and stop motion and all the glorious tactile effects work of yesteryear, I’m accepting the fact that those glory days simply can’t always live on. They were the ONLY available means to portray glorious cinematic fantasy in their time. But today “practical” is often impractical due to the time constraints involved, not to mention the physical limitations of the designs. I’m certainly not saying the CGI Thing is “better” in any way, shape, or form, but there’s little value in totally dismissing 2011’s The Thing for use of this technology. It’s the industry standard today, and it affords filmmakers far more flexibility and mobility of the creature. There’s a trade off involved, and while the newer film doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it’s a pretty effective mimic of Carpenter’s masterpiece.

The Package

While I’m not entirely certain what occasioned this Mill Creek Entertainment release, it’s an interesting one nonetheless. It appears Universal did release the film on Blu-ray before, and I don’t believe any of the special features here are new for this release. But as a largely forgotten film, I’m happy to have had this occasion to re-evaluate it.

Interestingly, the commentary featuring Director Matthijs van Heijningen and Producer Eric Newman was recorded after the film’s production and before its release theatrically. So it’s a pretty optimistic and perhaps naive commentary track to listen to today. It addresses none of the audience rejection and fan outrage over the CGI. But that allows the commentary to focus on their process and the ideas they did bring to the film free from the vortex of fan outrage. It’s an illuminating track that shows much care and thought went into the film. What’s most interesting is how faithfully the details shown in Carpenter’s film (which show the aftermath of the story we see play out here) were cared for and built into the movie. I’ve still never watched the films back to back as a double feature but someday I might, and I think it would be a rewarding experience.

This Blu-ray release isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind if they’re firmly anti-The Thing (2011). It took me from a vaguely on the fence forgetter of the film to an active defender of the final product. It’s perhaps questionable why the project was undertaken at all. But as it is, it’s a pretty cool love letter and companion piece to Carpenter’s far superior classic.

And I’m Out.

The Thing (2011) is now available on Blu-ray from Mill Creek Entertainment

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