One of the new wave of films funded via Kickstarter, Harbinger Down was sold as a return to old school creature features with a wealth of practical effects and a minimum of CGI. Writer/director Alec Gillis is one of the best effects guys in the business, so the film had a lot of buzz and high expectations from the start. It also had no trouble getting its $350,000 dollar budget raised. And no, I did not leave a zero or two off the amount something that’s harder to believe once you see the movie. So, did Harbinger Down live up to expectations? Depends on what you were expecting…
The basic plot is straight forward enough, a group of college students rent an Alaskan crab boat to owned by one of their grandfather’s to study a pod of killer whales. Instead they find the ice encased remains of a Soviet space craft. And of course they have to investigate it, defrosting both the body of the unfortunate cosmonaut and the alien organisms infesting his body. Of course they need to find a new host and there’s a ship full of them just waiting.
Right away we can see one of the film’s problems, a derivative plot. The obvious source of inspiration of course is The Thing, which is probably intentional considering Alec and his company ADI had so much of their work on the 2011 version discarded and replaced with CGI. Other obvious sources of ideas would be the 1999 Jamie Lee Curtis/Donald Sutherland film Virus, The Thaw, Deep Rising and the early body horror films of David Cronenberg.
This is not always a bad thing depending on how the script uses it’s influences and to it’s credit Harbinger Down does craft a fast moving, high action script from those influences. People are taken over by the parasites, turn on their former friends and transform into grotesque creatures at a rapid pace. They sprout tentacles, shift shape and form and create all manner of bloody mayhem. The film can not be accused of being dull.
Unfortunately all of this happens at the expense of characterization and character development. The students and crew are all flat and fairly interchangeable. Nobody really stands out except of course for Lance Henriksen as Graff, the ship’s captain, as always he turns in great performance even with less than great material to work with. The rest of the cast give it their best, but between underdeveloped characters and some seriously stiff and on the nose dialogue they have the deck stacked against them. Thankfully once the mayhem starts the film rarely slows down enough for dialogue to matter and everybody is equally at risk of becoming a victim.
Indeed the last act of the film is absolutely frantic, with revelations of espionage, betrayal and explosive charges all over the ship. It starts to echo another film from Lance’s filmography, Alien, as the race is on to disarm the charges while avoiding the creature before time runs out.
Since the film was financed on the promise of practical effects it’s a disappointment that there’s any CGI at all in the film, but indeed most of the effects are makeup, animatronics and miniatures. And most of the shots done by computer would probably have been impossible to do otherwise on the film’s budget. Hopefully this will be a wake up call to other filmmakers that CGI is not the only option for lower budgeted films.
So in the end, Harbinger Down does live up to it’s promise to deliver a fun, practical effects based monster movie. Could it have been better? Hell yes, but it could also have been a lot worse. Most of the problems are typical of first tome directors, especially those who come from the effects field. To much attention to the sizzle and not enough to the steak. It’s certainly worth your time, especially if you’re a fan of practical effects. Just don’t expect a masterpiece. I’m hoping there’s more films in the director’s future, if he learns from his mistakes here, he could have a good career away from the effects shop.
Harbinger Down is showing on screens in a handful of cities and available on many VOD outlets. For more information…