What’s it About?
A Crab Boat Crew giving Marine Biology Grad Students passage to study Whales in the Bering Sea, come across a frozen Soviet Spacecraft from the 1980’s, harboring a dangerous secret.
Written and Directed by Alec Gillis
The Thing’s Dealiest Catch…
“Is that a man in there…or something?”
In another movie universe, “Harbinger Down,” from creature FX guru Alec Gillis (AVP, Pumpkinhead, Predator), would have been a moderately decent prequel to John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” But in THIS
timeline, “Harbinger Down” is a creepy yet pleasing adoration piece that has no qualms being completely self aware as a homage to 2 of the best sci fi horror films ever made: The aforementioned “The Thing” and Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (with a little bit of Stephen Sommers’ “Deep Rising” thrown for good measure). It’s not a bad thing at all since in this vein, the movie quite easily rips scenes (and plot devices, no less) from both movies with a goofy and schlocky aplomb.
Gillis, who successfully showcases his practical creature FX chops, virtually transplants scenarios, exchanges and even props (look out for an abandoned “Chess Wizard” computer used by Kurt Russell in “The Thing”) from other like minded films. What works about that, is that it is not only handled in a tongue in cheek manner, but it has a charming reverence. Make no mistake, with a small budget that mostly goes to practical creature and model FX (along with miniatures), the movie tries to be lofty and sometimes high concept. Gillis shows off his “Kickstarter” funded FX brilliantly and with no CGI beasties anywhere, the homage and adulation to “The Thing” becomes more grounded and relevant. Something to be quite proud of and would make Rob Bottin very happy.
The film even begins in 1982, the same year that Carpenter’s seminal film was released and subsequently bombed at the box office. Using some so so but capable visual FX, Gillis reveals a Russian Spacecraft hurtling into the Earth’s atmosphere. The ship, with one panicked Cosmonaut in the cockpit, eventually begins to burn up then passes thru the atmosphere only to disappear into thick cloud cover and comes into rest somewhere in the Arctic Circle.
HB continues with a bit of a psych-out. Some travellers consisiting of 2 marine biology grads and their Professor, are packing up gear for a trip to rendezvous with a Crab boat at Dutch Harbor, Alaska, appropriately named “Harbinger.” Gladly, the found footage vignette is fleeting and the film is solidly told in a linear narrative leaving the over-used gimmick and device out in the cold. Once the group arrives to the “Harbinger,” we get the typical array of stock sci fi horror characters that run the fishing boat as they welcome (some not so happily) the group for a ride into the Bering Sea to study Beluga Whales and their migration patterns.
Sci Fi mainstay Lance Henriksen (Aliens, Pumpkinhead, AVP, Damien: Omen II), plays the Captain of the boat, named Graff. Henriksen is the stoic, grounded, and paternal Captain figure. Henriksen becomes truly entrenched in the character dishing out a deep and gruffy voice with a steady “Don’t fuck with me or my Boat” vibe that is a bit cliched but welcoming in this effort. We come to discover that student Sadie (Camille Balsamo of NCIS), of the University group, is actually Graff’s grand-daughter (or “Pop Pop”) and she hopes to re-connect with him on the trip shortly after some family losses.
Everyone settles in and Gillis pushes out the smart ass, tough, witty banter between the boat crew and the University group. One late evening, while the crew is crabbing, Sadie picks up a pod of whales under some ice and tries to rouse the research team. She convinces Graff to stop long enough to check out a ping that she is picking up on. It appears the whales are somehow attracted to it. Graff orders the crew to stop what they are doing and to hoist a large chunk of blue ice from the water. They come across a spacecraft with Russian markings (after they debate other things that it could be) in the net, buried within the ice chunk. The passengers argue and debate salvage rights and Sadie loses to Stephen (Matt Winston), the School Professor. Stephen, who looks after Sadie and her assistant, the nerdy and sometimes sassy Ronelle (Giovannie Samuels), winds up being the heavy of the story as he yanks the rights from her by threatening Captain Graff.
Then we are off to the races with the film. With admirable dedication, Gillis and crew continue to pattern “Harbinger Down” after Carpenter’s opus with some fun and chilling results. Most of which provoke a nostaligic trip down memory lane to those keen creature features we adore like “Deep Star Six” and “Leviathan” with Peter Weller (Longmire, Star Trek: Into Darkness). The crew stores the craft, with the occupant cosmonaut inside, below decks where it starts to thaw. Don’t they know thawing is bad? Sadie and a bad ass Russian chick look into the remains of the Cosmonaut and discover tiny alien parasites that, concurrent with the thaw, are beginning to come back to life in order to infect the human hosts. I was even waiting for someone to suggest a “blood test’ ala “The Thing.” But at a brisk 112 minutes of running time, Gillis moves the film at an accelerated pace once the Cosmonaut is resuscitated and begins to infect the crew.
You can pretty much follow the movie unfold if you are educated and well versed in the machinations and manipulations of this genre. Distrust, paranoia, suspicion all boil to the surface as Gillis ratches up the alien / monster mayehm. And what mayhem it is! The pratical FX by Gillis, Robert Skotak (Aliens) and Tom Woodruff, Jr. (Alien 3) are incredible. The alien / human creature hybrids are designed to not only disgust and scare, but to make sure that they provoke alarming and shuddersome reactions. There are slimy appendages, orifaces with long and sharp teeth and even stringy tentacles that spread and whip out to catch it’s prey. It’s all here, gang. But it’s all really charming and never feels like it minds that you’ve seen this all before in better movies.
What I enjoyed was the way Gillis uses the more quieter scenes to full effect. He focuses on the clastrophobic environment and the wind riddled sound field to build an un-nerving microcosm on the “Harbinger.”
Gillis races to the conclusion with character deceit, emotion, action and even familial fixtures of forgiveness and loss. The conclusion is quite predictable, which I didn’t mind as long as Gillis continued to move forward confidently, while showcasing the cool alien monster FX.
“Harbinger Down” is a simple monster mash send up that works hard, is obviously a ultra homage and contains a cheesy, if not always coherent, sci fi fable. Predecessors like “The Thing” and “Alien” have provided the spring board for these films that try to at least achieve some originality by being self conscious but solid in it’s storytelling, execution, style and FX. Much like “Deep Rising” before it, “Harbinger Down” is a huge nod but winds up having it’s own identity and is a fun quick blast if you’re looking for a “one and done” monster movie to pass the time on a Saturday afternoon loafing around on the sofa. Check it out as a double bill with “The Thing” one late night…if you dare! Recommended.
is currently available on Netflix HD Streaming. Enjoy!