Remember when we were all super-stoked on those guys from the Stan Winston effects studio making a practical effects-heavy creature feature called Harbinger Down. And they asked us super-stoked dudes and… (shit – dudettes sounds stupid, but i don’t know what female dudes are. just know, you’re included too, ladies) to pay for it? And we were like, “HELL YES WE’LL PAY FOR IT! WE LOVE PRACTICAL EFFECTS!”? And then we paid for it? And then we promptly forgot about it? Oh, what heady days. Well, you don’t have to live the rest of your life not knowing if the finished product (yes, they finished it) was any good or not because I’m reviewing it!
Sadie is a grad student tagging along with her “pop-pop” (Lance Henriksen) on his crab fishing boat in order to track beluga whales. She, another grad student, and her professor are doing some research that may have something to do with global climate change (it was a little unclear). Her professor is a huge asshole. Her grandpa is a grizzled sea captain with “seawater in his veins” and the crew is made up of a big guy, a Russian woman, a sexual tension guy, an Inuit, a funny black guy, and a greasy engine room guy with no lines. The motley crew finds a downed Soviet spacecraft from 1982 with a dormant organism on board that can be a solid and/or a liquid and can mess people up pretty bad. After that first reel, the rest of the film is an overt rip off of/homage to The Thing and Alien.
Harbinger Down is sci-fi horror in the loosest sense of the word “sci”. (that’s short for science, FYI) There is some very unsound science thrown around to explain the monstrous organism. And that’s okay. It’s not the first film to fudge the science. But it’s especially irksome that it seems clear where the idea came from – how weird microscopic organisms look under powerful magnification. I imagine the creators looking at a Wikipedia photo while high and freaking themselves out over how crazy that shit looks. (it really does look fucking terrifying) So, they go with that. But then their cool creature effects don’t really conform to that weird looking micro-organism, so they just throw in a “it can change DNA” catch-all science blanket and forge ahead. Again – that’s fine in the grand scheme of things. It was just a little distracting. And it’s just one example of the lazy writing that plagues Harbinger Down. “We didn’t come here for a great story, we came here for great practical effects!”, you say. Fair enough. So, how are the effects? The digital ones sucked. Like, SyFy level suck. The practical effects are mostly pretty good. There are a few that are downright awesome. (when the shirtless guy comes in from the cold) They’re gross and slimy and wiggly and creepy. Too bad they’re so often hard to get a good look at. Most of the effects set pieces were shot with extremely shaky camera in low light. And too many of them were so The Thing inspired that it drew direct comparisons – something the film could have done without. The filmmakers did quite a few things right. The use of handheld cameras really created that sense of constant movement you would experience on a boat. And Lance Henriksen puts in a great performance as the take-no-shit captain. But they also got some things wrong. EVERY door on the ship has the exact same sound effect when opening and closing. (the same metal door/gate sound effect that is used in ~70% of films and TV shows. free sound effect?) Much of the film feels rushed. Conflicts are resolved as soon as they’re introduced. Overall, the film is a decent effects reel strung together with a weak story and (mostly) bad acting.
The Final Cut: Harbinger Down is a mildly entertaining B-movie rip off of the greatest sci-fi horror classics with a few decent practical creature effects. Henriksen is perfect as the grizzled old sea captain.