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‘Swamp Thing’ is both excellent and unexpected

‘Have you ever seen an autopsy?’

I’ve made my love for Swamp Thing and his various media incarnations pretty apparent, but I can’t undersell how excited I’ve been for this show to arrive. Between months of anticipation and quite a bit of unclear behind-the-scenes drama, the hype for this show was at a fever pitch. The day has finally arrived and it’s time to dive into the swamp and see how this latest adaptation of the Avatar of the Green shakes out.

Well, before I go into spoiler territory, I’ll go ahead and say that this pilot episode is both excellent and absolutely not the show I expected. It manages this by balancing the expected story beats with moments of genuine shock. The script has a reverence for the source material, while still acting as something of a remix of the characters and settings fans know and love. Think of The Walking Dead pilot episode, which may still be the single best episode that series has produced. There’s a real importance placed on getting this right, while still providing misdirects and new ideas that inject the familiar story with life.

Aside from a few heightened sequences of insane violence (we’ll get to that in a moment), this episode unfolds at a much more leisurely pace than expected, introducing the cast and setting up their dynamics with one another. For anyone expecting full-on Swamp Thing right out of the gate, you may be disappointed. However, you can rest easy knowing that even though Swamp Thing isn’t running around the entire episode, there sure as hell is some thing in the swamp.

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Without fear of hyperbole, the effects work here is some of the best ever seen on television. The CGI is used sparingly and in the shadows for maximum effect, while the practical makeup and gore effects are simply jaw-dropping (literally, at one point). The scenes where plant life is growing out of control are rendered in a way that almost resembles stop-motion animation, which not only creeps the viewer out with its jerky movements, but makes the computer-generated effects feel oddly tangible. It’s often hard to tell where the live-action work ends and the animation begins, the integration of the two is so strong.

The real showstopper of the episode is the autopsy scene that has made up much of the show’s marketing, in which a corpse filled with sentient vines reanimates on the operating table and lashes out. The practical effects used in this scene bring to mind Rob Bottin’s superb work in John Carpenter’s The Thing, a move that is still terrifying after nearly forty years for its use of makeup and animatronics that feel so much more threatening and real than any CGI menace could muster.

However, there is one eerie difference between this creature and the alien in The Thing: the body itself isn’t alive, just the plants sprouting from it, which means it makes no sound during its attack and eventual death. It’s completely horrifying to watch this body being bifurcated by the flora inside of it, all the while staring into nothing. Even when it’s set ablaze — by the way, kudos to Mark Verheiden and Gary Dauberman for including a fiery fakeout in the script, considering Swamp Thing’s famous origin story — it is completely silent as it burns and falls apart. It’s the most upsetting visual of the episode and the remarkable restraint used in not making this creature a shrieking terror makes it all the more unsettling.

It’s also great to see a director like Len Wiseman, who is known for more CGI-heavy pieces like the Underworld flicks, playing around in a practical effect sandbox. His work here is measured in a way that you wouldn’t expect from his more run-and-gun feature work; slowly building suspense through the quieter sequences, which allows the crazier moments to hit even harder. Aiding in this is Brian Tylor’s exceptional score, which is equal parts eerie and bombastic, depending on what the scene calls for. The autopsy and investigation scenes have an almost True Detective feel to them, sounding more contemplative and rustic, while the horrific action scenes are more cacophonous and distressing (in the best possible way).

The set design and cinematography set the mood perfectly for this show, giving you an idea of exactly what Marais, Louisiana, is all about. The bayou is a foggy, foreboding place. Marais is a town that has been left behind by the world, but it just doesn’t know it yet. It feels absolutely real thanks to the script providing some small town truths that are heartbreakingly accurate. Take, for example, Liz Tremaine, the local reporter who has to work weekends at the local road house to make ends meet. It’s a town that fights against progress, even if the folks who live there don’t realize it.

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Speaking of the residents of Marais, let’s talk about some of the cast. The character with the most screen time is Abby Arcane, adapted here as a scientist working for the CDC and played wonderfully by Crystal Reed. Her early scenes establish exactly what Abby is about: she’s sincere and direct, but ultimately very caring, almost to a fault. She’s the kind of person who will risk contaminating herself with a disease to put a scared child at ease. It’d be so easy to see this as her “save the cat” moment, but as the episode goes on, you begin to understand that she likely takes these risks because she’s seeking atonement for mistakes she made in her youth. Crystal Reed carries this burden with her in every scene; even when she’s being flirtatious or joking, there’s a sadness behind her eyes that carries the character’s motivations at every moment. Regardless of the changes to her backstory, Reed’s take on Abigail is every bit the empath from the comics, and it’s a great choice to have her be the character we follow through much of the first episode.

Andy Bean’s Alec Holland is a trip. While I was at first taken back by his almost jittery delivery, it all began to make sense as we spent more time with him. This is a man on the edge of proving every theory he’s spent his life working toward and he could lose his position at any moment, so naturally he’s on edge at all times. He’s also charming, though, coming off as entirely unthreatening and making jokes about Columbo when investigating a crime scene. He wants to do what’s right, even if it means breaking the rules. He’s also not afraid to get his hands dirty, as seen in the sequence where he takes on the plant monster in the hospital. This courage in the face of danger will serve him well in the coming episodes. Bean’s delivery has an earnestness to it that makes Alec’s goofier moments endearing, rather than cloying. There’s a real conviction to his words, especially when he discusses his work.

We get brief moments with the rest of the supporting cast, the most notable of which would be Virginia Madsen as Maria Sunderland, one of the town’s bigwigs. She and Abby have a complicated past together, with one of the episode’s strongest scenes being a conversation the two of them have at the road house. Madsen is incredible in this scene, with Maria’s distaste for Abby clearly visible. However, Madsen’s nuanced performance keeps Maria from coming off as simply another naysayer. The tears welling up in her eyes and her clenched jaw show a fury that is barely being contained. Her motivations, like everyone’s in the show, are much more complex than you would expect from a genre show. She hates Abby, but she accepts that her town needs Abby’s expertise. Even without the dialogue explaining this, all of this comes across in Madsen’s acting. It’s an incredibly layered performance, given in such a short period of time.

Balancing out Maria is her husband, Avery Sunderland, played by Will Patton as a seemingly-sincere good ol’ boy. His one scene in the episode is played like it’s the ending of a movie where the hero gives a town hall speech and saves the local orphanage, or whatever. It’s a really interesting take on that character that I’m looking forward to seeing more of, as it’s oddly saccharine and not at all what I expected. It may be an act, knowing the Sunderland from the comics.

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The episode culminates in a horrific origin sequence for our titular hero, with the identity of his attacker likely poised to be one of this season’s many running mysteries. The transformation of Dr. Holland is pure body horror, as we watch him being invaded and changed from within by the very swamp he’s been studying.

The final moments, in which we finally get to see a bit of Derek Mears’ portrayal of Swamp Thing, are chilling. The whole sequence is smartly not played as a triumphant moment. This is not the rise of a hero, but the death of a man. The look on Mears’ face in the last shot of the episode is one of sheer confusion and horror. It’s incredible how emotive the eyes and brow of the character are, which sets my expectations even higher for the portrayal of the title character in the rest of the season.

This was an exceptional start for this show that should have viewers clamoring for the next episode. Even for longtime fans of the characters, there are plenty of mysteries left to unravel and new dangers to explore! Swamp Thing is back on television and better than ever.

Swamp Thing episode 1: "Pilot"
Is it good?
Mixing elements of science fiction and pure horror, this pilot is a triumph. It sets the stage for everything fans could hope for in a Swamp Thing series.
The cast is excellent across the board, providing each character with the necessary emotional through line for us to buy into their motivations and worry about them when they're in danger
The script remixes the source material in interesting ways while also remaining faithful in the places that really matter
The special effects are top-notch, making the most uncanny imagery feel absolutely real and tangible
10
Fantastic
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