The minor gem ‘Harbinger Down’ is a terrific homage to John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’

December 20, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 20, 2017

Harbinger Down is a beautifully executed homage to John Carpenter’s classic movie The Thing that’s short on originality but long on scares.

This 2015 feature was written and directed by Alec Gillis, a special-effects and makeup veteran on productions going back to ’80s action classics like AliensTremors and Starship Troopers. The plot leans heavily on Carpenter’s 1982 tour de force but is executed well enough to entertain genre fans.

The story gets under way when a professor and two graduate students book passage on the Harbinger, a dilapidated Alaskan crabbing vessel, in order to track how the migratory patterns of beluga whales are being affected by climate change. When Sadie (Camille Balsamo of the 2014–16 crime drama Murder in the First) notices that the whales are attracted to a flashing beacon set in a chunk of ice, she persuades Captain Graff (Lance Henriksen) to haul this mechanical object onto the ship.

The ice turns out to contain a badly charred lunar lander marked with Soviet-era symbols. Within the crew compartment is a sealed spacesuit. Graff orders the entire find stowed in the ship’s hold and bars his crew and the scientists from any further investigation.

Unfortunately, the weather is closing in, and Graff’s attempts to inform the authorities that he’s found human remains are thwarted. Even more unfortunately, the spacesuit’s contents are not entirely human…

Gillis’s direction moves things along briskly, although the movie could have used another shot or two to establish the Harbinger’s size for the audience.

Appropriately, given his expertise, Gillis uses practical effects — produced during filming, not digitally created and inserted after the fact — to glorious effect. The most shocking sequence may be the shape-shifting monster’s first manifestation amongst Harbinger’s travelers, but Gillis and his crew produce plenty of other scary and gross spectacles.

The cast is uniformly strong, although the only recognizable face is Henriksen, an actor in Aliens and the lead in the late 1990s TV series Millennium. He has a particularly strong outing, as do Matt Winston as the supercilious professor, Winston James Francis as a hulking but easy-going crewman, Edwin H. Bravo as a superstitious Inuit commercial fisherman and especially Milla Bjorn as a highly self-assured Russian member of the trawler’s crew. Unfortunately, Balsamo comes off as a little flat.

The script, much like the direction, is functional. The characters aren’t particularly deep, but they’ve got a bit more nuance and dimension than typical horror-movie fodder. The writing takes a few false steps, such as when the story introduces a character with ulterior motives in a subplot lifted from Alien.

There are also a few questionable character beats between the ship captain and Sadie, who turns out to be his granddaughter. It stretches credulity that Sadie and her colleagues could have boarded the ship unbeknownst to the hard-driving captain, or that he thought the research crew was supposed to be coming next month. It’s also hard to believe that Graff wouldn’t have told Sadie that his wife had pancreatic cancer, let alone not mentioning that Sadie’s grandmother actually died a few months ago.

But let’s be honest: I’m picking nits in a movie about a shape-shifting monster. If you’re interesting in watching Harbinger Down, you’re not likely to be overly bothered by the above-mentioned flaws. Although the movie doesn’t break new ground, it’s a fun entry in the science fiction horror subgenre, and it’s a glorious demonstration of just how effective practical effects can be.

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