I would like to preface this review by saying I donated to the Harbinger Down Kick Starter when it was in development. Passing judgment on something you contributed to can be difficult because you want to believe you got your money’s worth. At the same time, you are obligated to support it, even if it turns out bad, which is why I avoid those situations. That being said, my contribution to the film will not affect this critique.
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Practical effects are a lost art. Looking back at movies from years ago I find the craft in making them far out weigh CG of today. Practical effects not only look better, but are also cheap. Blood squibs and rubber puppets cost nothing compared to fake monsters made on a computer. Go back and watch Jurassic Park or The Thing if you think I am wrong. Harbinger Down (HD) bills itself as a practical effects monster film that wants to bring back the old days. Is it a good movie with great effects or is it a bad movie with great effects?
Judging the quality of a low budget film in regards to the mainstream is tantamount to overcompensation. It is like judging an indie videogame on the criteria of a triple-A title. To be unbiased is to remove all preconceived notions in forming an opinion and judge a given work on its own merits. HD has merit, if not a little flawed.
For a college science project, Sadie, played by Camille Balsamo, takes a trip on her grandfather’s crabbing boat to study whales in the Bering Sea. While trying to observe the animals, she comes across frozen wreckage in the ice and discovers it is a downed Soviet spacecraft with a terrible secret.
The quality of HD is reflective of a Sci-Fi channel original movie, but compared to something like this, it is an actual movie and not bad at all. It holds true to its promise to use practical effects with the creature, miniatures for larger shots, and sets that were filmed on a sound stage. Any CG present was obviously for what could not be done practical and looks better than anything on the Sci-fi channel.
HD is best described as a spiritual successor to Thing with similar shots and a familiar prop. The aesthetic is also reminiscent as it takes place at one location, surrounded by ice, with a grizzled crew, and features a monster that can change its shape. The difference is the creature cannot mimic other life forms, but can morph from a liquid to a solid and absorb DNA.
Like the alien from Thing, it takes on many forms related to sea life with a heavy Lovecraft influence. It looks great and is well choreographed, shot hidden in shadow like all movie monsters should be. The way it sounds is also visceral and gross. The imagination is there, but a part of me wishes the HD creature were more consistent than a mish-mash of tendrils and mouths. I remember the dogs, Palmer, and the spider from Thing because they had a defining feature that set each of them apart. HD has a couple different versions of the creature, but not enough to be memorable and unique. It feels like a lost opportunity because there are a lot of scary things in the ocean.
Compared to a similarly low budget movie like Sharknado, the actors in HD took the project seriously and did their best as relative newcomers. It was an admirable effort and I commend them, but Lance Henriksen as Graff carried the entire film. From start to finish he is right in his element and at his best.
The Thing and Jurassic Park are considered marvels of today where studios forgot the value of practical effects. In that regard, Harbinger Down is also a marvel, and a fine example that you can make a movie with real craft and creativity. If you like practical effects as much as I, support the film by renting it on iTunes for the price of a comic book.