Tuesday, October 13, 2015

HubrisWeen 2015, Day 8: Harbinger Down (2015)

There's a rather misguided belief that I've been guilty of buying into, which is that practical effects in movies are dying. Movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and even Furious 7 prove that there are actually some filmmakers who understand that you need to squeeze some real destruction in amongst the computer graphics, and even smaller films like WolfCop and Late Phases show that even low-budget productions are trending back towards practical effects instead of SyFy-level CGI.

However, it's certainly easy to believe that Hollywood is killing off practical effects when you look at a movie like Jurassic World, which is the latest entry a series that has always set the bar for understanding when you need CGI and when you need a practical effect--and totally failed to learn that lesson. Despite the director's insistence that he was using practical effects, we got 99% CGI and one dying Brontosaurus puppet. (No, fuck you, I'm not calling it Apatosaurus and you can't make me) It really makes you miss Stan Winston even more.

Then Rick Baker quit doing special effects because he was tired of competing with CGI, and I can only imagine that the way the studio decided to replace his efforts in The Wolfman with the worst CGI werewolf transformation effects since An American Werewolf In Paris had a lot to do with motivating that decision. Peter Jacksomn suddenly decided that orcs needed to be CGI in The Hobbit, despite having previously delivered an entire trilogy full of badass orcs that were stuntmen in make-up.

The worst offender by far, however, was 2011's The Thing. It was bad enough that somebody decided that they needed to do a prequel about what happened in that Norwegian base in John Carpenter's 1982 remake, but refused to believe audiences could care about a group composed entirely of non-Americans. The true insult came about, though, when the promo materials all claimed the film would be delivering practical gore effects like Rob Bottin had created, courtesy of a genre legend in his own right, Alec Gillis--and then the finished film replaced all but a few tentacles with passable CGI that didn't have anywhere near the impact of the gore effects from Carpenter's film.

If you've seen the behind-the-scenes footage of the effects that were replaced, you know this was a horrific injustice. Still, no one was more understandaly offended than Alec Gillis. Turning to Kickstarter, Gillis set up a fund to create his own take on a shape-shifting alien monster story. I missed the Kickstarter when it came out, so I have not a penny to my name in the film's creation. However, you can bet that I'm contributing whatever I can spare to the Shallow Water Kickstarter, since I love practical effects and I can't possibly resist a good fish-lizard-turtle-man creature.

So I was definitely excited for this film, even if I knew it was likely that it would not actually be good just because it was doing practical effects. I mean, hey, Leviathan has Stan Winston doing a version ob The Thing that turns people into fish monsters and it's "meh" at best. Hell, for all I knew it would be the worst kind of crushing disappointment. Still, I knew I had to pick it up when it hit DVD (forget Blu-ray, unless you were a donor) and at least give it a chance.

The film opens in 1982, in the Arctic Circle as a Soviet lunar lander crashes back down to Earth. Two things present themselves in this sequence: one, the effects are a charming mix of mediocre CGI and obvious miniatures for things like the clouds. Two, when I say "lunar lander" I literally mean that. Landing struts and all. The cosmonaut (Jason Speer) inside is clearly boned, of course. Not only is his craft burning up as it plunges into the atmosphere, but a container on the panel behind him is leaking some kind of space goo.

That's never a good sign.

Cut to the modern day, in Alaska. The film briefly decides to introduce our characters via horrible camcorder footage as college professor, Steven (Matt Winston, a real "that guy" actor) is loading stuff into a rental car while grad student, Sadie (Camille Balsamo) scrapes the ice off. Filming all this is Stephen's other grad student, Ronelle (Giovonnie Samuels), but we won't be introduced to her face-to-face for a little while yet. The trio's destination is the crab fishing vessel, Harbinger.

Why are they going on this vessel, exactly? To study the effects of global warming on beluga whales, of course. The trio get an introduction to the crew, a real rag-tag bunch: Russian ex-pat Svet (Milla Bjorn), righteously bearded Inuit Atka (Edwin H. Bravo), the aptly named Big G (Winston James Francis), obvious love interest Bowman (Reid Collums), and token black guy Dock (Michael Estime).

[There's also Roland (Kraig W. Sturtz), who seems to stay in the drive shaft area of the ship, but both the movie and the characters seem to forget he exists for much of the running time]

Dock gets a load of Ronelle and, as you would expect of a thinly sketched character, has to remark on his surprise at a "sistah" being on board. And I quickly realize I would like this movie so much better if Ronelle was the heroine. Not only is she gorgeous and cute, but it'd be a nice change of pace to have a woman of color be the survivor of a sci-fi horror movie. That the only recent example of that I can think of is Alien vs. Predator is severely disheartening.

Team Ronelle.
Nope, as you probably guessed, our heroine is Sadie, as cemented by the fact that the boat's skipper is her grandfather, Graff (Lance Henriksen!). The two have not seen each other in quite a while, and it's also apparently been a while since Sadie has been on a boat. Oh, she's got her sea legs just fine--unlike Stephen, who is turning green already--but she gets nervous when Graff invites her up to the wheelhouse. It seems her parents died in a boating accident and she's been way of boats ever since. Graff offers her a platitude about not letting fear get the better of her, but doesn't force the issue.

Sadie and Ronelle set up their gear, meanwhile. In addition to what appears to be a woefully inadequate whale tracker (the boat shows up as flashing boat,on a grid, the belugas they're tracking as flashing circles--with no frame of reference), they also have a genetic analyzer. Bowman, standing in for the audience, wonders what the heck they need one of those for if they're tracking whales. Ronelle explains it may be useful if they get a sample (?) from one of the whales.

Or you know, encounter an alien life form that they need to analyze.

That night, as the fishers are drawing up huge bundles of crabs, Sadie sees the pod of beluga on the screen right next to the ship. She is unable to wake her fellow scientists, so she goes topside and sticks the underwater camera over the side. She sees the beluga (which appear to be some barely adequate puppets), but more importantly sees that they are crowding around something lodged in the ice floe. Whatever it is has a blinking light on it, and it's in blue ice so it's been there a while.

After a brief discussion with Graff and Svet, during which the possibility of it being a Navy buoy is dismissed, the decision is made to extract the object from the ice and bring it aboard. Stephen and Ronelle finally wake up and come topside to see what all the fuss is abut, Stephen being briefly irritated that Sadie didn't wake him when she sighted the belugas. However, he quickly decides that the thing in the ice is way cooler. While Ronelle films, Atka, Svet, Dock, Bowman, and Big G chip away at the ice. One of them wonders if it might be a sea mine, but Svet points out that putting a big blinking light on a sea mine kind of defeats the purpose.

Upon uncovering more of the metal of the object, Graff realizes it's Soviet so whatever it is has been in the ice for over twenty years. And then they find the dead cosmonaut inside, whom they assume burned to death on re-entry. Graff votes they bring it back to port and report it to the Russian authorities. Stephen objects that it belonged to the Soviet Union, so since they no longer exist salvage law applies and it belongs to the university. Sadie backs up the salvage law part, but when Stephen tries to strong arm her into going along with his plan for it, Graff points out Sadie found it and they're on his boat so it's going back to port and they can decide who gets to claim in then.

The partially uncovered space capsule is lowered into the hold, next to the container of crabs they've caught. Graff tries to radio in that they've found wreckage with human remains, but the storm blowing in is garbling the radio so all he can successfully get through is "negative mayday." Dock, Atka, and Bowman go down into the hold to freeze the crabs with liquid nitrogen. Seeing that Dock is sticking his head into the capsule nervously, the other two blast the liquid nitrogen to scare him.

Sadie and Stephen, meanwhile, are at odds. Stephen doesn't want the capsule touched, but Sadie wants to examine it. Finally, she turns to Bowman for help. Bowman gets Big G to distract Stephen by...asking the marine biology professor for psychiatric advice. This somehow works (and the dialogue is fairly clever, so it may have been improvised) and Sadie sneaks down to the hold with Svet, so the Russian can translate the writing on the capsule. They discover that it is, in fact, a lunar lander (this being a movie like Apollo 18, in that it suggests the launch of a rocket for a moon landing could be kept secret).

"And this one here says 'Comrade Kilroy was here.'"
For some reason, Sadie decides to take off the cosmonaut's helmet and realizes he didn't die from burning. His body is riddled with what appear to be parasites beneath the skin. She carefuly extracts one and puts it in a sample tube. Satisfied, she turns to go and analyze the sample--but Svet stops her briefly to note that oozing sample canister from before, now empty. She can't figure out the exact English word on the label, but the closest she can figure is "water bear."

After Big G gives up the ruse, Stephen sees Sadie talking with Svet and Bowman and figures out she was behind it. He goes to investigate the capsule and sees it was disturbed, picking up the discarded helmet in his bare hands. Ronelle and Sadie analyze the sample while Bowman looks on. Sure enough, the sample indicates the parasites are mutated tardigrades ("water bears"). Naturally, they don't look like tardigrades, but just you never mind that. Based on the analysis from Ronelle's little machine, the tardigrades DNA matches a wide array of creatures--somehow, in the decades that they've been in the ice, the tardigrades have been absorbing the DNA that just floats freely in the ocean from virtually every creature in it. They've used this DNA cocktail to evolve into something completely new.

Unfortunately, they've also started to thaw. While Svet and Big G are flirtatiously trying to drink each other under the table, the film remembers that Roland exists. While lounging on his cot by the drive shaft, Roland hears something squeaking around and decides to look under his cot. He sees a mass of blue, pulsating flesh--and then the mass shoots out tentacles that bust his skull open. Svet and Big G are now inexplicably trying to beat the shit out of each other (!), but Svet ultimately wins and walks away. So, I guess that wasn't foreplay?

Svet then goes to see Ronelle, who comments that Big G obviously likes her--and then gives her make-up tips because Ronelle was previously studying to be a make-up artist before she settled on marine biology. She then notices a scar on the side of Svet's face. Svet dismisses it as a bad break up and a horrified Ronelle says she hopes they found the guy. "Most of him," Svet replies.

About this time, it's discovered that the body of the cosmonaut is missing. Stephen blames Sadie for this, claiming she threw the body overboard. When it's pointed out it'd be hard for Sadie to carry a body by herself, Stephen claims Bowman helped her. Graff throws Stephen against a column, having had just about enough of his crap. As everyone is arguing about what to do, Sadie notices Stephen is acting funny. She follows him as he suddenly runs out on deck and strips to the waist. He's screaming about being hot and inded his very skin seems to be steaming in the cold air. The crew helps Sadie get him back inside--but then, as he bends over a desk, his back breaks into a strange pattern of what look like keloid scars. (This is plainly a CGI effect, incidentally) And then several tentacles burst out of his back and spray an off-white liquid at the ceiling.

Some of the liquid splashes into Dock's mouth, and then they observe the liquid (via reverse filming) oozing into a drain under its own power. Another puddle on the desk forms into a wriggling mass of tentacles that leaps into the air and then dives into the drain as well. Sadie traps another bit of the liquid as it turns into a rolling polymer with a glass and a lid. They take it down to the hold so it can be frozen with liquid nitrogen. Sadie cuts off a piece to examine. Sure enough, it's more tardigrades and she discovers that, when thawed, she can cut them apart and not only will they reform but they can change from solid to liquid and back again at will.

The crew all meet and discuss what needs to happen. The simple fact of the matter is that they've all been exposed to a parasite ("Some more than others," Svet says with a glance at Dock) that can take over and destroy its host completely. It can also change from liquid to solid and is nigh impossible to kill. The only weapon they have on board is liquid nitrogen, but at least they already know that cold can stop the creatures...temporarily. They set up some portal spray tanks and pour some of the liquid nitrogen into buckets.

Graff and Atka go down to find Roland, having finally remembered the poor bastard. Well, they don't find him--aside from some blood--but they do find that the drive shaft has been bent out of shape. And then they find the cosmonaut, dangling from some translucent tentacles.The tentacles drop his body and they see that they belong to a creature that has attached itself to the wall with tentacles, but looks like a large blue insect. It lashes out with tentacles, but luckily for Graff they can't reach him. Unluckily for Atka, it's because he was in the way. Before Graff can do much of anything, Atka's arm has been torn off and he's being dragged to his death.

When Graff meets the others in a hallway and sees Bowman holding a small bucket of liquid nitrogen, he dryly quips, "We're gonna need a bigger bucket." This is legitimately the best line in the film, which is rather unfortunate.

Big G, Bowman, and Graff go back down to find that the creature has transformed into a dead ringer for the monster from Forbidden World and is currently chomping Atka's body in half. It begins spraying liquid from various pores as they approach--which has the amusing effect of making it look like the creature is doing that thing in cartoons where tears or sweat are rendered as huge spouts of water--but they thoroughly hose it down with liquid nitrogen. This really only allows them a moment's peace before they hear screams from the upper decks. On the deck of the boat, Svet has Dock trapped in a crab net with a Very pistol pointed at him. She is insisting he is infected because he is sweating, and a high temperaure has aleady been established as symptom.

The others try to reason with Svet, but then Dock slumps forward and translucent blue tentacles burst out of his back. Svet fires the flare gun and sets him ablaze. Something about this doesn't sit well with Sadie, though, and she confronts Svet inside the cabin by throwing Svet's duffel on the ground. Graff opens it and discovers it's filled with sophisticated radio equipment. Why does she have this? She's a Russian spy, of course.

"Come on, guys, I'm fine: this is a birthmark!"
You see, the Russians have been installing spies on fishing boats all over the Arctic in hopes of finding this capsule. Now that it's been found and the threat of the organism inside it has been discovered, she sets the countdown for the various explosives she's set all over the boat to go off in an hour. She'll be fine, however, because she's been inoculated (against what, water bears?!) and there's a Russian sub coming to get her. She then pulls a gun on the others. Graff decides to go for the old "you can't shoot all of us" gambit, and the group prepares to rush her--just as the goop that's been pouring out of the pipe behind her, in full view of the crew (and earshot of Svet) finally decides to strike at her after taking the form of a very familiar-looking webbed tentacle. And for the life of me, I have no idea if the lack of reaction was supposed to be intentional or poor blocking.

At any rate, Svet drops the gun and--in the stupidest death I've seen in a good while--Ronelle picks it up, but stands in place holding it out in her palm to the others, asking someone to take it from her until the tentacle grabs her by the head and yanks her into the pipe. Now, not only is this death stupid because Ronelle gets herself killed in the dumbest possible way, but this is not one of the gore set pieces. We do not see a single drop of blood as a grown human woman is forcibly yanked into a pipe she could not possibly fit into and vanishes, which implies she somehow fit perfectly. While the abilities of the monster are maddeningly inconsistent, it definitely could not have liquefied her that fast.

I knew that the token black woman wouldn't survive, but couldn't she at least have had a somewhat dignified death?

Svet tries to escape, but Big G grabs her by the arm and demands to know where the bombs are. She starts to tell him--and then sees a lower torso (I'm guessing Atka) standing down the hall. The intestines are tentacles now and before she can say anything more useful, the torso tackles her and she is dragged into a vent. Apparently being inoculated just means the creature has to take its time digesting her, as we'll see her occasionally being devoured for a little while.

Well, the remaining survivors decide it's time to find the explosives before they all die, and they figure out how many were in her bag. Big G, examining the busted drive shaft, figures out that he may be able to bend it back and then they can get back to port and go into quarantine--but there's not time for fixing the shaft until they find the bombs. Graff finds a few of the explosives, which are magnetized, and collect them. However, then Sadie figures out that Svet must have hidden the rest of the bombs in the bilge pump and she's the only one who can fit into the bilge to get them--and sure enough, she's right. As she's sticking all the bombs onto a crowbar, Big G and Bowman realize that the container full of a ton of crabs is now empty. All that mass had to go somewhere...

...like the bilge pump. And indeed, as Sadie drops the last bomb into the bilge water, she suddenly realizes that the water she's standing in is not water. The monster begins to solidify around her and the others pull her up just in time so she only loses her hip-waders instead of everything below her hips. The monster then bursts up out of the bilge pump and Sadie just leaves the crowbar covered with explosives by the the tanks of liquid nitrogen because apparently if you concentrate all the explosives in one area it will be fine.

Unfortunately, Graff gets splattered with tardigrade goo so he charges Bowman with keeping Sadie away from him while he dumps his wife's ashes as a last human act--oh, yeah, Sadie's grandmother has been dead for years and he just didn't bother to tell her. Big G goes to work bending the drive shaft back, but he gets ambushed by the film's one truly memorable monster: the re-purposed corpse of Svet that has mantis-like blade hands and a huge, toothy mouth coming out of the back of her head.

"Greetings, fellow hew-mon. I am also hew-mon woman, how are you?"
Big G just punches the Svet-Mantis out after stabbing it a few times, and goes back to to straightening the drive shaft. As you might expect, the creature waits until he has it fixed and then gets back up and impales him with its claw. Now that the movie has disposed of its last person of color, we cut back to the other three survivors. The bombs go off and...the explosion just blows a hole in the deck and temporarily freezes the big monster in the hold. Sadie has to face her fear and take control of the helm in the wheelhouse, while Graff begs for Bowman to freeze him.

Unfortunately, the monster has just re-awakened and has other plans. Its tentacles impale Bowman and then drag him out onto deck. Sadie gets to watch her love interest die, helpless to do anything about it. Graff then spots a huge iceberg ahead and tells Sadie to crash the boat into the ice as he tosses himself to the giant monster whose tentacles are now completely cocooning the boat. (And really this part just reminds me of the boss in Resident Evil 5: the attractive woman in a low-cut dress with exaggerated breast jiggle who suddenly turns into a giant tentacle monster on a barge) Sadie sets the course for the iceberg, jams the throttle and grabs a radio before diving out the window and onto the ice floe.

She watches as the giant, glowing creature rises from the boat, roaring to the heavens--and then slams into the iceberg. This is somehow considered final, even though we already know this creature is made up of nigh-inestructible tardigrades that can also turn into liquid so it is not even remotely dead. Her radio suddenly working now, Sadie radios in, "Harbinger Down," and collapses onto the ice as we hear the sound of a helicopter closing in on her. The End.

Yep, I still think she should have been the final girl,
The trouble with Harbinger Down, ultimately, is that it's a film whose very reason for existing is to be "different" from other films. Its use of practical effects was supposed to distinguish it, but in reality it did nothing of the sort.

There's several reasons for this. First of all, while everyone is used to the awful CGI in SyFy Channel Originals and Sharknado sequels flooding the bargain bin market, there's actually been a bit of a trend away from that in low budget fare. I already mentioned WolfCop and Late Phases, but they aren't the only examples. Hell, even the Asylum's Age of Dinosaurs featured some hand puppets in among the cheap CGI.

So just having practical effects is not enough to distinguish a movie, despite the seeming trend toward 100% CGI in Hollywood. Therefore, you need to deliver really good practical effects. This movie, sadly, does not. The effects (aside from some dubious miniatures and the beluga puppets) are certainly not bad, but there's nothing about them that stands out. Rather than trying to be their own thing, most of them are based on the principal of, "Hey, remember how cool the effects in John Carpenter's The Thing were?" Unfortunately, while that film gave us a mulitude of memorable creatures, this film gives us...tentacles, more tentacles, and tentacles that sometimes glow! When the monster does take on a form more recognizable than "mass of writing tentacles," it usually looks very generic. I've already mentioned the Svet-Monster, which is the only one really worth mentioning.

Oh, and that attitude I mentioned extends to the movie itself. It makes constant reference to The Thing: just off the top of my head, Dock calls something "voodoo bullshit" for no reason and in Roland's bunk there's a Chess Wizard computer lying on its side. Even the structure of the climax is basically the same as MacReady rapidly losing all his allies and barely fleeing a gigantic version of is shapeshifting nemesis prior to destroying it, only to probably freeze to death. Of course, this film just shows how necessary Childs showing up again was to the success of that film's ending.

Failing to be its own thing is really just a symptom of the film as a whole. The characters are thinly sketched stock roles, you can almost guess every one of the plot's beats, and the direction is rather like Anaconda in that it's largely stolid and lifeless, but then will attempt some form of stylish approach that doesn't eally fit. I can't help but snicker a bit at this quote from the film's Kickstarter page:
Visual Effects limitations back in the 80's meant that those sci-fi/horror filmmakers had to tell more psychologically engaging stories. They didn't have CGI to show expansive worlds, so they told stories that relied on well-developed characters in intense situations. It was those very limitations that made their films better.
Hilariously, this film shows that that statement is completely inaccurate. Movies in the 1980s didn't need CGI to have paper-thin characters and terrible writing. This film shows that that has not changed. As a screenwriter and director, Alec Gllis makes a fantastic special effects artist.

Ultimately, watching this film reminded me of nothing so much as a direct-to-video film from 1995 called Proteus. Like this film, Proteus is an "homage" to John Carpenter's film that takes place on the ocean: the story involves characters on an oil rig-based research station fighting for their lives against a shapeshifting mutant. The ending involves the mutant turning into an enormous sharktopus, and it is delightful. However, I missed Proteus on video. The reviews for it were terrible, and I probably would have disliked it back then, too.

Seeing Proteus on Netflix Instant, though, was a breath of fresh air. It was a largely crummy film, but it was mostly practical effects and charming ones at that (again, giant sharktopus) and that made it seem unique...in 2011. Harbinger Down was specifically produced to be unique, and it feels less unique than a direct-to-video rip-off (ostensibly based on the novel Slimer by Harry Adam Knight, of Carnosaur fame) that had no grander ambitions than stocking video store shelves.

I really wanted to like Harbinger Down, and I don't regret supporting the film by buying it on DVD, but sadly it just isn't very good. It's a passable time waster of the sort you might watch at the gym when it inevitably makes it to cable. If it ends up on Netflix Instant, I'd say it's worth a spin, but I just can't recommend actively seeking it out.

It's far from the worst movie I've watched for HubrisWeen, but that's damning it with the faintest of praise as you'll soon see.

Today's review, brought to you be the letter H! Hit the banner for the other Celluloid Zeroes' reviews for H!

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