Ginger Nuts of Horror
Harbinger Down is a sci-fi / horror movie written and directed by Alec Gillis, famed Practical FX creator and founder of Amalgamated Dynamics Studios. He has been part of the creature magic on every Alien movie but the first one as well as such projects as Odd Thomas, Death Becomes Her, X-Men and Ender’s Game and even some great creature feature oldies like Leviathan and Invaders from Mars. His Practical FX game is at the top of the heap and yet this movie, Harbinger Down, was made, essentially, to vindicate the continuing value of Practical FX compared to CGI only endeavors. Here’s basically why.
Alec and his company Amalgamated Dynamics Studios were the initial creature creators on the 2011 movie The Thing. However, after all their hard work and some truly incredible creations, top execs decided to replace their work with CGI, which actually became the biggest complaint horror fans had for the movie, bad CGI FX. In response to this Alec decided to come up with a movie idea and crowd fund most of it through a Kickstarter, which ended up getting an amazing response. His studio fronted the rest of the funds for the FX, which are ALL practical and no CGI other than simply removing wires and the like from view.
Harbinger Down follows Stephen, a college professor, and his two students, Sadie and Ronelle, doing research on a pod of Beluga Whales to see how global climate change and melting ice is affecting their migration patterns and biology. To do so they go aboard the crabbing vessel Harbinger out of Dutch Harbor Alaska and run by Captain Graff, played by Lance Henriksen. Sadie, played by Camille Balsamo, is the captain’s granddaughter and thus has the inside line to cheap passage for their university funded project. The plot is simple. Once at sea, a piece of frozen wreckage is located by chance and hauled aboard the ship for inspection. Everything goes downhill from here, from clashing egos and personal agendas to creature havoc of grand proportions, particularly the tentacle portions. Every man and woman are now stuck on board with a voracious mutating monster growing bigger by leaps and bounds and their chances of survival are dropping exponentially.
Sadie and Captain Graff are the stars of the show. Lance Henriksen is brilliant and authentic as usual. And the older he gets the greater weight his presence on screen seems to carry. Camille Balsamo does a good job with the role she was given, though I would have liked to have seen more emotion in some places, but to be fair, sometimes things rushed ahead without giving time for the actors to actually fully show the character’s experience and emote fully. I do think Sadie’s character, in particular, could have been written to have much more depth and been developed further especially since she was the main character.
The supporting cast, mostly, were well written, had a specific role and fulfilled it well. Some of them definitely warrant particular note in my opinion though. Stephen the professor was one of the most convincing performances I’ve seen in a while. I REALLY hated him for the arrogant, self-inflated, under handed and entitled prick that he was. A passionate hate, I might add, that yearned for his death. Big G was a great addition to the story. Played by Winston Francis, he is truly a huge man but instead of being just a tough guy he had a soft and humorous side as well which added a nice dimension to the film. Svet, the Russian lady, played by Milla Bjorn, was the true tough guy on board. I liked her character and for this being her first significant acting role I thought she was quite believable.
The FX have some really incredible moments, and LOTS of tentacles! The “creature” is highly adaptable and can take on any basic form, going from solid to liquid and back to solid again. It is also capable of feeding on other life forms to fuel its rapid growth. This allowed Mr. Gillis to create multiple looking freaky designs throughout the movie. It is also infectious on contact. All of this lead to a crazy mix of creaturely manifestations, including the evolution of the original host plus the transformation of those crew members who were exposed. One death early on is quite shocking and extraordinarily done. One thing is for sure. There is no one form and no one way to die. There is much variety to be had and most of the creature gore is quite glorious and unique.
Overall, the movie is well done. Not great, but commendable. When I first watched it I was fairly rough on it. There were several parts of the dialogue that annoyed me, there were some design features on the creature in a couple of places that I thought could have been better and I thought they could have added a few minutes to the movie to make some of the transitions smoother and develop some of the characters more. But then I watched it again and some of the things that bugged me to begin with didn’t stand out as much. It occurred to me that having heard the comparisons to John Carpenter’s The Thing (the greatest movie ever) that perhaps I had set my expectation bar a bit too high. There’s no way it could have lived up to that level of greatness. So, I decided to reassess it on a more reasonable basis and determined that even with some of the things that I didn’t like the first time, they were small for the most part. The Practical FX were fantastic even if in one or two places I would have designed things slightly different. The dialogue was good in a lot of places even if it failed some in others. The writing could have fleshed out scenes and created more depth of emotion and character at times but overall it was acceptable. It was a good creature movie with killer FX, some really great moments and I cared about most of the characters. Bottom line, even if it isn’t The Thing, I enjoyed the ride.
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