There is a comfort to doing what you know best, especially with the reassurance of a pre-existing and supportive audience. Funded to the tune of $384,181 via a Kickstarter campaign, special effects team Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr, who have worked on dozens of projects from Tremors to Ender’s Game by way of Mars Attacks!, Starship Troopers and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem to name but a handful, their promise was of practical effects, makeup and prosthetics rather than the prevalent digital alternatives.
Written and directed by Gillis with Woodruff producing, there is no attempt to deny the key influence on their crowdfunded project with the pre-title sequence taking place on June 25th 1982, the release date of John Carpenter’s The Thing, repeating the equivalent moments as an object falls from orbit towards the polar ice, though here it is man made rather than alien and crashes down in the northern hemisphere.
Decades later, the trawler Harbinger is in the Bering Sea as part of a project investigating changes in the migratory pattern of whales due to global warming. What they find frozen in the ice is a Soviet capsule, inside the long dead Cosmonaut whom they initially believe died during re-entry, but examination of the body with their handy-dandy portable molecular analyser, the science being deep in wishful thinking land, indicates he was carrying an infection.
With a dispute over the salvage rights between student Sadie (Murder in the First‘s Camille Balsamo) who actually made the discovery and her overbearing-to-the-point-of-unstable (or possibly just a terrible ham actor) professor Stephen (Scrubs‘ Matt Winston), accusations fly when the body vanishes but it quickly becomes evident that the infection is active and they may all have been exposed.
Making no bones about the resentment they understandably felt when their practical effects work on the 2011 remake of The Thing was replaced with digital effects, that is possibly the reason Gillis and Woodruff elected to create their own version of the same scenario, a shapeshifting organism in an isolated icy environment where a small group of characters become increasingly paranoid, but the lack of originality undermines the meagre but genuine achievements of the production.
Following the plot of John Carpenter’s The Thing almost exactly (itself already largely copied by Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr in his remake regardless of the studio’s defiant insistence that it was a prequel), the threat presented by mutated tardigrades, hardy but microscopic water dwelling organisms, is somewhat less impressive than that of an alien lifeform leaving the film to stand or fall on the script and the performances.
As Graff, the skipper of the Harbinger and Sadie’s grandfather, genre stalwart Lance Henrikson relaxes into his role while the rest of the crew gurn and grunt, trying to establish their dominance in scenes where he is assured and effortless in his authority both as the captain and the head of the cast.
With special mention for Milla Bjorn and Winston James Francis as Svet and Big G, a beauty and the beast double act with each intimidating in completely different ways, the kindest that can be said is that all perform to the best of their ability considering the situations and dialogue they are encumbered with.
An unashamed excuse for animatronics and prosthetics over storytelling, while the darkness may hide any limitations it also makes it impossible to see what’s going on for much of the film and despite the intention to use only limited digital enhancement those shots announce themselves to prominently – the pod of belugas, apprehended seamen whisked down gangways in defiance of the laws of physics – it’s almost as if they are purposely inept to emphasise the importance of the practical contributions.
With Christopher Drake’s soundtrack borrowing liberally from James Horner’s score for Aliens, in the same way American International Picture’s creature features of the fifties only used mutations or aliens as an excuse to have people terrorised by giant stompy things or creepy slimy things, Harbinger Down is a monster movie, not science fiction or horror, and not a very good one even by those low standards.
Harbinger Down is available on DVD now, released (inexplicably) under the title Inanimate in the UK