When is a film an homage and when is it a blatant rip-off? This is a question most viewers will be pondering when viewing director/writer Alec Gillis and producer Tom Woodruff Jr.’s independently funded film Harbinger Down. Both men are masters in the art of practical effects; their animatronics, prosthetic makeup, stop motion and miniature effects have appeared in such films as Aliens, Tremors and Starship Troopers just to name a few, but it’s when their practical effects work for the 2011 The Thing prequel got replaced with CGI effects that they decided to take matters into their own hands. Part Kickstarter funded this movie was a thank you to fans who love this classic approach to monster making, but sadly it turns out that as a director/writer Alec Gillis is an exceptional effects man, with the end result being a blatant rip-off of John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing, and to add insult to injury it’s not even a very good rip-off either.
The movie opens with visuals of a Soviet moon lander crashing into the sea circa 1982 (a nod to the date Carpenter’s movie was released), and then we jump ahead to the current day where we meet Sadie (Camille Balsamo) a graduate student who has got her grandfather Graff (Lance Henriksen) to allow her and her fellow scientist to tag along on his latest crabbing mission, aboard the fishing trawler Harbinger, so that they can study what global warming has done to the migration and biology of whales. One night her tracking device notifies her that they are near a pod of whales but when she goes to investigate she is surprised to find the whales circling a chunk of ice that has something blinking inside it. She convinces her grandfather to haul the thing aboard and things begin to go badly after this point.
Of course, the ice is allowed to melt and the monstrous organism is let loose on the ship, but unlike in Carpenter’s The Thing we don’t have any characters to give a shit about. The script to this movie isn’t just guilty of being a blatant rip-off of Carpenter’s movie it’s also got some of the worst written dialog I’ve come across in quite some time, and it’s not helped by the fact that it’s delivered by a cast consisting of fairly terrible actors. I love Lance Henriksen but even he is not conveying any believable emotion throughout this film’s 82-minute running time. Gillis tries to excuse his film theft of ideas by constantly referencing Carpenter’s film; one character comments that this is “Voodoo shit” much as Kieth David did Carpenter’s film, and we also get a glimpse of the old Chess Master computer that Kurt Russell called a “Cheating bitch,” as if including these nods to that film excuses the theft of everything else.
Instead of using flamethrowers the “heroes” of this movie use liquid nitrogen, but as they never put the remains anywhere secure or cold it just makes one wonder, “Just how dumb are these guys?” Now, one character does take out an infected shipmate with a flare gun stating “Freeze melts, fire is forever,” but apparently no one was paying attention because they all continue to run around carrying buckets of liquid nitrogen like idiots. Sure, I doubt that commercial trawlers are known for stocking flamethrowers but anything has to be better than running around with a bucket, one that has contents that if slopped over on your hand would be less than pleasant.
The creature itself never veers from the look of its much better cousin; Rob Bottin’s practical effect work in The Thing is still superior to anything we see on screen here, and Carpenter’s film was made decades ago. I’m not saying the effects work by Gillis and Woodruff is terrible (though at times it’s not all that good) it’s just that the similarities are so flagrant that it just begs comparison, and it just doesn’t quite measure up. Adding a glowing element to the “Things” tentacles is not enough of a change to call your monster original. The lead character is more or less a carbon copy of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character from The Thing prequel and spoiler alert, she is the sole survivor. The only interesting thing in the script was the reveal that the organism isn’t extra-terrestrial but was a Soviet experiment to make their astronauts more resistant to cosmic radiation, but then I remembered that Soviet experiments creating a mutating monster were the plot of the 1989 sci-fi horror film Leviathan, which also a rip-off of Carpenter’s The Thing. So not only was Alec Gillis basically just remaking Carpenter’s movie but he was also ripping off a movie that had previously ripped off Carpenter. It’s wheels within wheels of bullshit here.
I really wanted to like this movie, I agree with Gillis and Woodruff that practical effects still have a place in movies today, but if this film was supposed to be some kind of demo reel to prove to Hollywood that CGI isn’t the only way to go, well they’ve probably caused more harm than good. This is a poorly written, amateurishly acted film, and the effects themselves are barely better than what you’d find in a SyFy Channel made-for-TV movie. So my advice to anyone out there who is curious about this film is to skip it and watch or re-watch Carpenter’s sci-fi classic.
Other obvious Comparisons to John Carpenter’s The Thing:
• Arctic setting, only on a boat instead of a weather station.
• Organism attacks people when they are alone.
• The creature’s blood scurries around on its own.
• Everyone is paranoid about who could be infected.
• One victim is grabbed by the head and lifted into the air by the creature.
• Explosives are set to destroy the creature.
Harbinger Down (2015)
No one wanted another remake of The Thing but that is exactly what Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff have given us here, there is not one ounce of originality in this movie, and it is not helped by the overall subpar acting we are forced to endure. Simply put, this Thing stinks.