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harbinger-down-2015-08-07

If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, than special effects maven Alec Gillis’ writing/directorial debut, Harbinger Down (2015), just may go down as one of the sincerest films in recent memory. By taking a little Alien (1979), a little Blood Glacier (2013) and a whole lot of Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Gillis crafts another Arctic-set creature feature that stands tall thanks to its excellent effects work (both practical and CGI) but sinks a bit due to the overly familiar scenario, characters that rarely rise above the level of cinematic tropes and a tone that see-saws between atmospheric, portentous doom and bone-headed, B-movie actioneering.

After opening with a really dynamic bit involving a Russian spacecraft plummeting into the Arctic Circle in the early ’80s, Harbinger Down begins, proper, with an extremely tedious bit of stereotypical found-footage that momentarily gave me unease before it was abandoned for the more traditionally cinematic look that suits the material much better. We meet our erstwhile protagonist and college student, Sadie (Camille Balsamo), who has joined the crew of the crab boat Harbinger, along with classmate Ronelle (Giovonnie Samuels) and officious, shithead professor, Stephen (Matt Winston), in order to track and study a pod of Beluga whales.

The crew, as befits this type of film, is your usual Whitman’s sampler of stereotypes, cliches, tropes and characterizations: we get the gruff, tough-as-nails captain, who also happens to be Sadie’s beloved grandpa (Lance Henriksen, adding gravitas even if he seems largely disinterested); the noble, silent and superstitious local native (Edwin H. Bravo); the motor-mouthed, sarcastic and cynical wiseass (Michael Estime); the ridiculously tough Russian chick who expresses romantic interest in a guy by beating the crap out of him (Milla Bjorn); the enormous bruiser who’s revealed to be sweeter, smarter and nicer than he appears (Winston James Francis); the weird loner who works in the engine room and always seems filthy (Kraig W. Sturtz); and, of course, the obligatory blast-from-the-past/love interest (Reid Collums).

Once our merry misfits have all come together on the isolated, frigid and storm-tossed sea, the film wastes little time in setting up the main conflict. To whit: while whale watching, Sadie spies a mysterious, frozen mass and has the crew pluck it from the icy depths and deposit it upon the ship’s deck. Turns out the object is the Russian spacecraft from the beginning of the film, complete with long-dead cosmonaut still belted into the shuttle. Faster than you can say “Maybe you shouldn’t touch that,” they do, indeed, touch the rapidly thawing craft, releasing an icky pink substance from the dead spaceman that is explained away as “tardigrades,” yet really only needs one descriptor: “horrifying cosmic slop that eats organisms and causes violent mutation.”

From this point on, Harbinger Down hits all of the standard-issue creature feature tropes: the disparate group must band together, figure out what they’re faced with, figure out a way to destroy it and then pursue it (and be pursued by it, in turn) throughout the ship until we reach the appropriately effects-heavy final confrontation. Et voila: roll credits and wait for the inevitable sequel.

If this sounds rather similar to aforementioned films like Alien, Blood Glacier and The Thing, well, that’s because it is similar: very, very similar, to be frank. This isn’t, of course, automatically a crucial defect: many of the slashers that followed in Halloween’s original wake were highly derivative of Carpenter’s classic, yet still managed to bring something new (no matter how minuscule) to the table. There are only so many unique plots, after all: say “Arctic-set, sci-fi horror about mutations” and it’s all but impossible not to reference The Thing.

That being said, Gillis’ film often leans so heavily on what came before that it frequently loses its own sense of identity. By the time we get to the de rigueur “Are they or aren’t they infected?” scene, our minds have already filled in all the blanks from previous, similar films, giving much of Harbinger Down a “been there, done that” feel.

Despite the over familiarity, however, Gillis and cinematographer Benjamin L. Brown still manage to imbue the film with an oppressive, overbearing atmosphere: the various shots of the lonely Harbinger, a tiny island of light in the unbelievably immense vastness of the Arctic Ocean, are extremely powerful and handily set up the disparity between the tiny bit that humans know and the countless mysteries that we know nothing about whatsoever. As mentioned earlier, the creature effects are also top-notch, creating intensely odd, misshapen monstrosities that recall both The Thing and Blood Glacier without being overly slavish to either: there’s something determinedly alien and otherworldly about the mutations, an alien quality which goes a long way in selling the film’s horror.

A pity, then, that the chilling atmosphere is so often broken up by silly shenanigans like the scene where Big G and Rick try to fool Stephen, Big G and Svetlana’s dumb courtship/brawl or the intensely over-the-top bit where Sadie talks shit to the Russian crew: moments like these take us right out of the action and put our focus squarely on the characters which, as stated previously, often act as the loosest-possible plotline placeholders. These, unfortunately, are the moments that separate Harbinger Down from the truly classic creature features of the past several decades: attempts at creating “ass-kicking” action and suspense that serve only to unnecessarily dilute the film’s actual tension and horrific potential.

Despite how familiar it ended up being, however, I still thoroughly enjoyed Harbinger Down. Call me a sucker for this type of film but, like dystopic sci-fi or pretty much any underwater horror, I’ll watch just about any arctic-set horror that’s set before me. With a decent cast, great locations, a solid (if familiar) story and some top-notch effects, there’s a whole lot to like about Gillis’ Harbinger Down. If nothing else, the film stands as a good indication that the effects guru-turned filmmaker has a good head on his shoulders and firmly understands the mechanics behind B-grade monster movies and their ilk. As long as he keeps crafting solid, well-made films like this one, I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for his next project.

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