The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Harbinger Down

Even if you can't place the name Alec Gillis, it probably rings a bell. That's because he's one of the top make-up/special effects guys in the business. His name has been prominently credited in films such as Alien vs. Predator, Starship Troopers, and Tremors, among many others. After several decades working in that capacity, Gillis moves into the director's chair with Harbinger Down, a self-professed throwback to '80s horror movies that features a ton of practical effects. Despite having worked with dozens of other directors, though, Gillis has trouble with everything outside his field of specialty.

Camille Balsamo plays Sadie, part of a team of graduate students studying the effects of global warming on Orcas. They book passage on a fishing trawler called the Harbinger that's making its way through the Arctic. The ship's captain is her grandfather, Graff (Lance Henriksen). In the process of the study, Sadie discovers something strange frozen in the ice. The object is brought onto the boat and thawed out. Caked inside is a former Russian astronaut who crashed decades before. Also in there is some strange kind of alien bacteria that mutates into creatures who can change from liquid to solid and back. Once unleashed, they begin to feed on Graff's crew and Sadie's fellow students.

Harbinger Down is clearly going for a vibe like Alien and The Thing, where people are trapped in a confined space at a remote location with a deadly creature, but Gillis (who also wrote the screenplay) has no clue how to create the necessary sense of dread or suspense. There's not a single character here with a personality; everyone has one solitary trait to define them. A few have none. They are little more than scenery, which means that there's no reason to care whether they get devoured or not. Hammy acting and unconvincing sets compound the problem, as does choppy editing that detracts from the slow-burn pace that made this film's well-known inspirations so terrifying.

Stiff writing does Harbinger Down no favors, either. Virtually every line of dialogue is some form of exposition. At times, it's borderline funny how characters say awkward things simply so the audience will understand what's going on. Other elements just feel false. Someone on the boat turns out to be a villain, and this person conveniently provides everyone else with a ticking countdown clock so that the camera can flash to it periodically to let us know that Time Is Running Out!

Gillis clearly had some ideas for practical effects he wanted to create; the plot is just an excuse to do them. There doesn't appear to be much sincere interest in telling a story. For this reason, Harbinger Down plays like the world's longest demo reel. That said, there's a reason why Gillis is one of the top specialists in his field. The creatures are brought to life through some undeniably magnificent practical effects. They are based on tartigrades, eight-legged micro-animals that can reduce themselves to a point where they consist of less than 3% water, then rehydrate. Gillis turns them massive, and they take their victims in suitably gruesome ways.

When I was a kid, Fangoria magazine was in its heyday. The basic appeal for many readers was to study pictures of gross effects, professionally executed. Harbinger Down is the movie equivalent of that. If all you care about is seeing some classic-style makeup and practical creature work, it may capture your interest to a degree. But that's really the only noteworthy thing about the film.

( out of four)

Harbinger Down is rated R for language and creature violence. The running time is 1 hour and 21 minutes.

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