Harbinger Down And The Unreleased Work Print of The Thing (2011)

Andrew discusses the abandoned visuals of The Thing (2011) and Amalgamated Dynamics' Harbinger Down.

Related Article:
The Many Faces of The Thing
Last October, The Movie Sleuth unveiled a unique series of reviews focused on horror films and science fiction thrillers entitled 31 Days of Hell.  Among the pieces released was an article I wrote called The Many Faces of THE THING, in which I covered everything from the 1951 Howard Hawks production, the now iconic 1982 John Carpenter film, the 2002 PC videogame and lastly the much maligned 2011 prequel to Carpenter’s film.  In it, I mentioned the film’s “serviceable CGI” which brought the 1982 creatures to life as opposed to older fashioned practical effects, a technical move which elicited the most criticism from both fans and film critics alike.  Unbeknownst to me, however, that wasn’t the original plan.  

According to a new online petition enacted by Aidan Cosky the Academy Award winning visual effects team behind Death Becomes Her, Amalgamated Dynamics conceived and shot The Thing as a practical effects sideshow on par with the 1982 film.  Days upon days of painstaking but spectacular visual effects props and prosthetic makeup effects were designed with the intention of making a Thing prequel which truly embodied the universe set forth by Carpenter’s film.  Unfortunately however, Universal Studios and CEO Ronald Meyer saw things differently. 

After a test screening made from a work in progress work print of the film, Universal Studios eliminated every special effects prop designed by Amalgamated Dynamics, saying they “felt too ‘80s”, and thus replaced every effect with newly rendered computer generated imagery.  That was a bad move that wound up not only costing the studio more money for reshoots and additional post-production effects, audiences hated the cartoonish looking CGI and the film fell almost $10 million short in ticket sales from recouping its losses.  Much like Kubrick’s rejection of Alex North’s score for 2001: A Space Odyssey, the visual effects team did not learn of the studio’s hasty retooling of their work until the film premiered.  Alongside Aidan Cosky’s petition for the original unaltered version of the 2011 The Thing prequel to see the light of day, Amalgamated Dynamics responded successfully by releasing behind-the-scenes footage of the makeup effects they had originally developed. In return they made a film of their own called Harbinger Down to show viewers what the 2011 The Thing might have looked like if their hard earned efforts were left as is. 

Harbinger Down
Reportedly not the first time a special effects crew saw their work go to waste, Amalgamated Dynamics' Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. repeatedly found their visuals excised in favor of bad CGI. In a move showing they weren’t about to go away quietly, Amalgamated Effects released several videos of their pre-production work on Spider-Man, I Am Legend and of course The Thing to an enormously positive response from fans.  Furthering the impetus that nothing in science fiction horror works better than old fashioned prosthesis, Gillis and Woodruff began a Kickstarter campaign for what would become the most successfully funded Kickstarter film in U.S. history: Harbinger Down.  Costing a meager but workable $384,181 and featuring B-movie icon Lance Henriksen in the lead role, the film set out to transpose Alien and The Thing to a fishing boat ala Deadliest Catch.  Promoting itself as a ‘practical effects film’, this is more or less a demo reel illustrating what The Thing could have been if  executive forces didn’t ruin the package. 

That said, Harbinger Down isn’t without its own share of CGI laden problems. Some might be deliberate to illustrate the point of shoddiness that digital effects can bring with it while others just feel like budgetary limitations that would otherwise relegate the film to the SyFy Channel.  An opening computer rendered sequence of a spaceship crash landing in an iceberg just looks flat out awful and begs the question which is worse, CGI or the models of buildings often used in Toho Godzilla pictures. Harbinger Down does not get off to a good start. But once the CG shots take a backseat to the real physical prosthetics, it lights up really quick in a good way.  As a standalone movie it doesn’t have a whole lot of originality to it, but that’s not the point here.  The point is to demonstrate how good traditional setups can be when photographed on film with an effect happening in front of the camera as opposed to digital doctoring.  It has an organic tangibility to it and will last far longer than any kind of Pixar cartoon will.  

"And they say size doesn't matter. I mean, look at that thing."

The story itself is a total rip off of The Thing. Knowing the reasons behind the film’s inception before going in, I didn’t mind the derivation all that much.  Not only are all the wide shots of the arctic base from Carpenter’s film present, but even the dipping birds from Alien prominently cameo here.  I was really surprised, more than anything, just how much the film owes itself visually to David Fincher’s Alien 3 with many, many shots designed and framed virtually verbatim.  The most noticeable similarity involves scientists gazing inside the crash landed space pod, looking more than curiously like Ripley’s ship being excavated by prisoners on Fiorina 161.  

In terms of acting,  Lance Henriksen is the only one here with ability even if he’s entering his Rutger Hauer phase.  Everyone else ranges from passable to flat out bad, but again, they’re secondary to the demo reel.  It’s worth noting the isn’t the first time a visual effects team wrote and directed a film, the most notable of which being Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm and of course Roland Emmerich’s oeuvre. 

As I had mentioned, the story is derivative, the acting is sub par and most aggravating of all is the film’s sound design.  While the creature sound effects and ambiance lend a rich atmosphere to the proceedings, every time I heard the exact same stock sound effect of a squeaky door opening for every single shot of a door opening and closing I was lifted right out of the film. Things like that stick out like a sore thumb and hurt whatever solidarity Amalgamated Dynamics was hoping to imbue Harbinger Down with.  Still, for an ultra low-budget look into the possibilities of their makeup effects work, which are still some of the strongest on the silver screen to this day, Harbinger Down is a prosthetic driven gore-hound’s dream with lots of loving nods to the team’s favorite science fiction thrillers.  

For all its problems and risking becoming another forgettable SyFy Channel romp, this is clearly a labor of love made by people who care deeply about their work and aren’t about to let corporatism bury their efforts never to be seen again.  Not a masterpiece, but recalling the vein of Roger Corman’s late '70s exploitation sci-fi flicks which got the likes of James Cameron their start in the film industry, it serves its purpose in reminding viewers CGI isn’t always the way to go.

-Andrew Kotwicki

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