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June 23, 2017

Harbinger Down

by Franz Patrick


Harbinger Down (2015)
★ / ★★★★

“Harbinger Down,” written and directed by Alec Gillis, comes across as a lame and cheap imitation of its inspiration, John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi horror classic “The Thing.” An argument can be made that just about every element that could have gone wrong with Carpenter’s picture are shown here. To begin with, it lacks an identity of its own. Just about every major turn of event begs to be compared to its superior template.

For a story that unfolds aboard a fishing trawler, it never establishes a convincing sense of place. It is astounding because the ship is not that big and yet we do not get a complete mental map of the place. And so when characters attempt to escape from the extraterrestrial they released from frozen sea ice, the situation is most unconvincing; it gives the impression the characters are merely in a cramped, unclean apartment. If the filmmakers really did understand what made “The Thing” such a horrifyingly great experience, they would have put it in more effort into making the setting as plausible as possible.

The lead character named Sadie (Camille Balsamo) is a boring protagonist and therefore an unworthy final girl. Although Balsamo is not a performer with the greatest range, the script is at fault for the most part. Sadie’s backstory is forced, her exchanges with other characters—especially with her grandfather (Lance Henriksen), the captain of the the boat—do not sound natural, and we never get a chance to measure or sense her level of intelligence, especially since she is supposed to be a graduate student studying effects of global warming on whales. Her characterization relies solely on egregious dialogue. I suppose we should be thankful we were spared from flashbacks.

The monster’s appearance is uninspiring for the most part. Although I admired the decision to use CGI only sparingly, the special and visual effects fail to create a terrifying creature, one that deserves to be remembered. Filmmakers should note that tentacles on their own are not scary. You can have a hundred of them wriggling at once, coming out of an orifice, but they are still not scary. They may look gross or disgusting, especially with the aid of slurping sound effects, but they do not elicit horror without us eventually receiving a clear, well-lit, and compelling picture of its entire form. The idea that since the creature has the ability to alter its genetic makeup and so there is no point in showing its whole figure up close is absolutely not an excuse.

It fails to capture a sense of isolation and an increasing sense of hopelessness. So, when the final scenes come around and we expect the picture to end soon, we feel a sense of relief—even excitement—that the torment of sub-mediocrity is almost over. Watching sci-fi horror should never feel this way. The greats of the genre may make us feel anxious, disgusted, and downright horrified—but we want to keep watching and we wish for it to keep going nonetheless even though the story is complete, most characters are dead, and the final irony has been delivered.

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