For One Practical Purpose: Harbinger Down

Harbinger Down (2015)
Dir: Alec Gillis
TC4P Rating: 5/9

You would be forgiven if you thought from the rating that I gave to Harbinger Down, a new monster picture release from the Oscar-winning special effects team of Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr., that I didn't like it. My "5" rating is what I use for an number of things: outright product with no real soul or purpose apart from crass monetary gain, the most rote or trite of projects that probably bored me to tears with their unoriginality, and anything middle of the road that didn't really strike me as good or bad either way so I have no place else to put it.

I liked Harbinger Down. I just didn't like Harbinger Down as much as the makers of Harbinger Down would like me to like it.

Harbinger Down has purpose, so it definitely does not belong in the category in which I placed it for that reason alone. And its purpose is one that is close to my heart: bringing back the use of (mostly) practical special effects to the monster picture. This gets the film as close to soulful as it can get for me. 

I am not going to launch into a diatribe against the ever increasing use of CGI effects, because that territory has been far too well trod by fanboys and geeks of all stripes for eons. It has become a cliche in its own rite to rail against CGI, and I do not disdain their use as another tool in the filmmakers' bag of tricks. I have the same gripes as many a grumpy old man about how everything feels dark and muddy onscreen these days, but computers are used in so many different areas these days that it just becomes downright quixotic to tilt against the subject anymore. Like any other area of expertise, I feel that when the proper talent and attention are applied in that area, the results can be truly astounding. Of course, this often means the proper amount of money as well, and that is where things get sticky. In this age of the Sharknado, where you can sell the audience on a fake-looking tornado teaming up with an even more fake-looking shark to do ridiculous things that sharks and weather would never do together as long as you have a graphics guy who wants to make a few bucks and is not concerned about artistic reputation, it has become really hard to knock a success that turned out exactly the way that its creators intended. They won't make them if you guys don't keep coming to them. (And I will admit that I watch the really crappy stuff just as much as I watch the primo stuff, so I am at fault as well. But how you can not want to watch something called Sharknado, Sharktopus, or Mega Shark vs. Mecha Shark?)

Gillis and Woodruff want to, as much as possible, return us to the not actually bygone days of practical effects. After their elaborate effects work for the 2011 remake of John Carpenter's 1982 version of The Thing was rejected and replaced with mostly CGI work (and the film landed with a thud), they launched a Kickstarter campaign to create their own practical effects film. They wanted us to take a trip back to the late '80s, when computers hadn't chiefly taken over the monster game (or even our lives in such a total way), and when puppeteers, makeup experts, and live effects teams still held sway in making incredible visions come to life on the movie screen. A large cross-section of fannies ranting about CGI now probably weren't alive when a half-assed effect attempt back then would get kicked around just as much as today, but of course, we didn't have online boards on which people could overly obsess about these things back then. The backlash wasn't as immediate, was far more localized in its impact, and sometimes took months to travel around.

In 1989, there were a spate of underwater-themed action/sci-fi flicks released (generally with monsters), and I saw three of those in the movie theatre: DeepStar Six, Leviathan, and The Abyss. The last one, of course, is the classic and we responded to it appropriately. It was yet another film that my friends and I saw a zillion times but the film was reported to be disappointing at the box office. (Apparently, money and tickets gathered in Alaskan theatres is not counted the same.) But we saw DeepStar Six first, and then the Peter Weller-starring Leviathan

Back then, I had an Apple IIe, and while the internet, in an extremely embryonic form, was just getting started, I wouldn't have access to the WWW for a few more years. The planet was just on the verge of bursting fully flowered into a magical new age of information access, but at that moment, trying to learn something was still mostly based in practicality. Seeing it for yourself or using resources at hand to find the information you needed. Did you have the time to look it up and read through it? You may have to write everything down so be sure to have a notebook at hand. If I wanted immediate information on those then-current underwater films, I had to rely on whatever newspapers might have been laying around or saved in the house, and a few months later, microfiche at the library to look at -- you got it -- more newspapers. We relied on movie credits and what we remembered from them, and then books in the library or bookstore about cinema to fit info together. (And it was fine... and we liked it!)

And as each succeeding underwater flick came out in 1989, if you wanted to discuss how much more cheesy the monster in DeepStar Six looked in comparison with the creature you saw in Leviathan when it came out a few months later, you went afterwards with your pals to a Denny's and stayed up until three a.m. while you shoved down a chili size cheeseburger with fries and a Dr. Pepper, and pretty much left it at that. And once in a while, I might go home and sit at my Apple IIe and pound out a couple thousand words about the movie I just watched. Then maybe I might have printed it up slowly on my dot matrix printer. Maybe I would show what I wrote to my brother or a friend. That was the extent of it, until the next film came out, and the cycle began again. Your friends would share their responses to a film, friends of friends and family members might be influenced by these opinions, but that would be largely it. The majority of the world didn't hear it, didn't see it, and certainly, our responses were never gauged or collected online by studios or filmmakers to tell them immediately of our displeasure in or our fangirl squees over their efforts.

So, now it is just a handful of hours since I have watched Harbinger Down -- online, of course, and streaming -- but it's now 26 years later from the caveman days. I am ready to use several modern forms of popular social media to tell the world -- or at least my meager slice of that audience -- how I felt about a relatively simple monster effects movie that would have garnered not much more than a few minutes of discussion at that old Denny's table while we shot our soda straw wrappers across the table at one another. But we have websites now where I can swiftly gather any technical detail I wish about the making of Harbinger Down, where I might have to wait years for it to be published before. I can find full bios and filmographies of every person involved in creating the film, and I can also find scores of fellow reviewers giving their varied opinions on the film's success or otherwise. I can know so much more information in seconds about the film than I ever could before at any point in time. Immediacy is everything. But the ultimate question at the end of all the gathering and collating and searching remains the same as when one would leave a theatre, bundle up for the cold weather outside, pile into your buddy's car, and drive to that still appealing after-film gab session at a popular dining establishment.

Did you like the movie?

I am the precise audience for whom Gillis and Woodruff created Harbinger Down. I am a monster movie fanatic, and yes, the purveyor of fine, fanged fiends is certainly targeted by this film. And while I said that I won't use this as a forum to rail against CGI, I will admit without reservation that I feel a special kind of glee when someone even attempts practical and/or live effects in a film these days. So, mark me down for #2. And then there is the intangible third, which I have not mentioned thus far: Harbinger Down takes place in Alaska, off Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, to be precise. While I have never gotten even within a thousand miles of that outpost from old apartment in Alaska's biggest city, the fact that it takes place in my home state pretty much ensured that I would see it eventually (even if I am fairly certain that little if any of it was actually filmed there). And finally a fourth point: Lance Henriksen. As I said, I am the audience... precisely.

First, a brief synopsis. The film opens on June 25, 1982, the date Carpenter's version of The Thing was released, which is not coincidental, but whether such an in-joke pays off depends on how the film delivers. A Soviet space capsule comes hurtling to earth, while a cosmonaut is desperately trying to fend off some form of attack by a dripping liquid... something. Cut to the present, in Dutch Harbor, where a college professor and a pair of female students are driving a rented vehicle to the docks to take a boat out into the Bering Sea to study beluga whale activity. Up until the title of the film appears, the action is being captured on a camera by one of the students, though this conceit goes away completely (and thankfully) after the title. Captain Graff of the fishing ship Harbinger is played by Lance Henriksen, and it turns out one of the college students is his granddaughter, Sadie. We meet the crew, there is some bickering as happens between a lot of people in small quarters, but all seems fine.

When Sadie goes to collect data on belugas, she locates a faint signal, and notices a flashing light inside some ice. She convinces the captain to pull the ice chunk out of the water, and pulls the remains of the capsule onto the deck. The ice melts, the alien evil drippy thing is released, and the games begin. The creature will take over the first body, make a lot of mess, shock the population of the craft, and then run amok for the remainder of the picture. Nearly everyone will be wary of everyone else, and everyone will be a suspect. Who is the creature now? What forms will it take? Why has everyone stopped worrying about fishing or beluga whales? The film will continue to build in gore and violence on the route to its inevitable, foreshadowed conclusion. (The goddamned ship is named Harbinger and we are told in the title it is "down".)

And I just sort of liked it. The pace is fairly brisk, and Harbinger Down doesn't get bogged down in anything too philosophical or in strained, personal dramas. There is enough mystery planted about a couple of characters to paint them as possible wild cards later in the action, and the truly annoying characters that you can't wait to see killed (mainly because they yell at everyone else, sometimes for no reason whatsoever) are set up pretty quickly so that you can enjoy it when their fate is ultimately revealed. For his part, Henriksen is far more committed here than he often is when he signs up for these quickie sci-fi roles, where he usually plays a sheriff, a farmer, or a corporate baddie. He shows enough fire here to remind me (not that I needed it) as to why I fell in love with him onscreen in the first place. The film is efficient enough where I felt it probably could have used another ten minutes to flesh out some details, but damn if it doesn't just keep moving solidly to its destination.

And that destination -- in fact, its stated purpose, and the reason I showed up as well -- is those effects. And for the most part, they play pretty well, even if some of the editing lets them down in places. The first transformation scene is held a little too long and there is a shot or two that not only reminds you too much of the puppetry at work, but also that Carpenter's team did it so much better. After that, we get several scenes of flashing lights and briefer glimpses at the creature that, for me, were too brief as I really wanted a chance to take it in longer. (I know that I have just wished for the thing that didn't work right in the first creature scene, but so be it.) I really enjoyed the way the creature would still be wearing (really, dangling) the skinned face of its previous host from its ever-growing body while it attacked the crew. It was a solidly gruesome touch. The finale is the best part of the film, and where I feel the creature effects really shine. But I don't want to say anything more about that lest I spoil the result.

If anything, the film serves as a metaphor for the perils of constructing a non-direct remake out of references to another film or films. Stan Winston, who created the dog creature in the 1982 The Thing (though Rob Bottin and his team did the bulk of the effects), was the mentor for both Gillis and Woodruff, and they have built Harbinger Down from the top down with echoes from that earlier film (and also from the original film, 1951's The Thing from Another World). Apart from the aforementioned date in-joke, there is the way the crew stands in a circle staring in awe around the found object. There are the transformation scenes that do nothing but directly recall Carpenter's superior effort. There is the paranoia that runs rampant among the crew as they try to determine in any others or all of them have been taking over by the creature. There is the isolation of the icy locale of the film (above the Arctic Circle in the 1951 film; Antarctica in the 1982). If anything, the fact there are even more than a couple of references to another specific film pinpoints Harbinger Down as not just an homage to a better work, but also creates so much weight on its shoulders that it cannot possibly ever lift itself up. 

Which brings me to why I could not like this film any more that I did, which is just below my calling it a good film. Were it mere homage to The Thing, and then went off wildly in a new direction, I might be more willing to drop to my knees and begin servicing the film without pause. But Harbinger Down, despite its good intentions to bring monster and effects fans something for which they have been clamoring greatly over the past couple of decades (though we have had other films), is entirely too slavish to the concept of being a new example of The Thing. I will stop short of calling it a parasite upon the host body of Carpenter's film, sucking out its essence and replacing it with a carbon copy, because Harbinger Down has just enough of its own nerve to make things interesting. But I will say that Gillis and Woodruff could have used the opportunity to do something more original with the money they raised and then married their wonderful effects knowledge to that.

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