Harbinger Down Review- Practical Effects Keep This Ship Afloat
Back in May of 2013 director Alec Gillis launched a Kickstarter for a film that had one simple promise: to create a good practical effects heavy movie. To accomplish this goal Gillis assembled talented artists like Academy Award nominated VFX Supervisor Pat McClung, miniature expert Robert Skotak, and Oscar winner Dennis Skotak. It’s an impressive list of talent to be sure, but is “Harbinger Down” simply a visual treat or is there more to this nautical tale?
“Harbinger Down” is a hodgepodge of several creature features. The film combines elements of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and the 1988 “Blob” remake to create a story that provides the perfect environment to display grotesque creature effects. The film starts with the classic 80’s set-up of a spacecraft falling to Earth containing some sort of parasitic organism. Fast forward a few decades later and we meet Sadie (Camille Balsamo) and her fellow scientists as they board a crab fishing boat called the “Harbinger.”
The boat is owned by Sadie’s grandfather Graff (Lance Henriksen) and is operated by a crew of miscreants that fit the bill for almost every type of character you expect to find on a boat. There’s the mysterious and dangerous Russian woman, the comic relief, the big muscle guy, the stoic love interest, and so on. During their science expedition they discover the downed spacecraft and unleash the organism hiding with in.
As I said, the story leans heavily into the plot of “The Thing”, but does provide a few changes to spice things up a bit. For one, the creature doesn’t become anyone, it simply transforms people into hideous mutations. There’s also the part about it taking place entirely on a boat. And the creature also hates the cold. So, see? It’s not at all the same.
To be completely honest, the plot is pretty thin and serves mostly as a canvas for the creature effects to be displayed upon. It’s a mostly straightforward story that takes one particularly absurd turn when it reveals that one of the crew members just happens to be a government spy who is part of a ring of spies acting as crab fisherman. Yes, spies have infiltrated our crab ships. Nothing is sacred! That being said I actually enjoyed the story for what it had to offer. It felt like a throwback to 80’s cinema. It was like cinematic comfort food in its most basic form.
Unfortunately the one element that really hurts the film is the acting. Most of the cast ranges from ok to good, with Lance Henriksen being the strongest cast member. However, I have to give a special nod to Winston James Francis who played the typical big lovable lummox Big G. Like most of the characters in this film, he plays a cookie cutter type that could pop up in any other film, but he has a unique charm that makes the character feel more alive than you would expect. In a film filled with forgettable characters, he stands out with a memorable performance. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for our heroine Sadie who comes off as wooden and stiff. Her character seemed completely disinterested and disconnected from what was going on around her. It was a performance that kept taking me out of the film.
Now what about the true star of this show? The thing that helped get this whole shebang funded: practical effects. The film delivers on the promise of showcasing old school effects without using too much CGI. Yes, there is still some CGI, but it’s used in reasonable areas like the spacecrafting falling from orbit or in underwater shots showing animals. It’s noticeable when it pops up, but that’s to be expected from a film with this kind of budget. The key thing is that they use it sparingly.
The practical effects themselves are mostly fantastic with some being on par with films like “The Thing.” Unfortunately, a few of the effects also highlight the film’s small budget. There are a few scenes that don’t quite hold up to scrutiny, so the film hides those particular shots by utilizing shaky camera tricks or bad lighting. For the most part, though, I found the effects to be a welcome sight for my CGI bludgeoned eyes.
“Harbinger Down” is a film with many good intentions, but a few shortcomings keep it from fully realizing its potential. Regardless, it’s still a fun throwback to 80’s horror films that’ll tickle your nostalgia bone. If you want a reprieve from CGI I definitely recommend giving this one a rent, just do so knowing that the film carries quite a few caveats with it.